Native American Gardening: The Three Sisters and More

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Very rare Nanticoke summer squash was a "maycock" variety, meaning it was served at its green stage.
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This 'Puhwem' Native American corn variety is one of the tallest, reaching heights of about 18 feet.
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‘Cherokee Trail of Tears’ will make a delicious batch of refried beans.
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The ‘Amish Nuttle’ bean is often dried for storage, and makes good soups and stews.
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Many Native American corns make great bean poles, allowing beans to spiral up their stalks.
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'Tutelo Strawberry' is a rare Native American corn variety that retains a pink color in cornmeal.
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‘Carl's Glass Gems’ corn is aptly named for its translucent kernels.
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'Cherokee' multicolored popcorn.
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Oscar H. Will and Co. seed catalog.
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Oscar H. Will and Co. seed catalog.
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Oscar H. Will and Co. seed catalog.
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Oscar H. Will and Co. seed catalog.

Considering how corn, beans, squash, and other New World foods have changed the course of human culture, the time is ripe to take a fresh look at Native American gardening. Here, within easy reach, is one of the greatest horticultural treasures — a system of gardening that is, by definition, an icon of biodiversity. Offering a rich array of unusual tastes and textures, the Native American garden is part and parcel of what I consider the “soul” of American food. And yet the full story is not exactly a happy one.

Years ago I had the pleasure of chatting with the late Gladys Tantaquidgeon (1899-2005), a Mohegan anthropologist with whom I discussed some of the pressing issues facing Native American gardening. She expressed frustration about Mohegan garden seeds not being preserved during the 19th century, and how this loss is reflected by what Mohegans — tribespeople from upstate New York and later Connecticut — grow in their gardens today.

Chief James “Lone Bear” Revey (1924-1998) of the N.J. Sand Hill Band of the Delaware Nation also devoted many hours to passionate discussion with me on the seed losses taking place among his people. The causes have been many — inroads of changing lifestyles, poverty, government programs forcing native peoples into a mainstream mold, the loss of foodways and native religions — and the results have at times been devastating.

But much has survived. There are perhaps two distinct Native American gardens: the one many of us envision, consisting of the “Three Sisters” (corn, beans, and squash), and a more complex one that served not only as a source of food for native peoples, but was also an extension of their religions. For many tribes, each plant was assigned a specific spiritual role, and each part of the plant (the roots, stems, leaves, and flowers, as well as the fruits) was imbued with deep meaning and a role in native healing practices.

Reproducing a Native American garden isn’t easy, which is why I’d like to make this a clarion call to find a way to preserve this heritage. This imperative is especially urgent given the spread of genetically modified corn and the radical manner in which it has transformed corn from the nurturing “mother” of Native American culture into a largely inedible, industrial material. The innate spirituality of this graceful plant has been grossly denatured. Planting a Native American garden is a rewarding way to recapture this connection with the Earth.

The Three Sisters

The concept of companion planting, in which one plant helps the other, is the basic idea behind the Three Sisters, but focusing on this alone glosses over many of the nuances in native garden traditions. Growing plants to work together symbiotically — using hills of corn to serve as poles for beans, and interplanting this with squash to keep down invasive weeds — is as much about compatibility and harnessing nature to do part of the work as it is a study in what we take from nature and what we give back. Modern agribusiness is based on yields extracted from the land as though strip mining. The Native American garden, which was actually a form of small-scale farming, made the land richer — one reason why early settlers were eager to seize Native American fields.

Some of the earliest illustrations that have survived of Native American fields — depictions of patches of corn and squash from the 1580s — show no evidence of Three Sisters gardening. They do show a clear understanding of the separation of corn varieties so they tassel at different times and thus do not cross-pollinate. Some native peoples farmed with other mixes of plants. The Hopi introduced a fragrant wildflower into their gardens to attract pollinators. Other peoples intermingled their corn and beans with sunflowers, which make wonderful “poles” for beans that grow too tall to climb up cornstalks.

Native American gardens were fine-tuned to their local micro-climate, and this is a feature often overlooked by gardeners today. One seed does not fit all gardens. Native peoples maintained a wide selection of plants because they often moved around, so what may have worked well in North Carolina among the Cherokee may not have been successful on the Great Plains. The Pawnee of the Midwest, for example, maintained four sacred corn varieties, of which their white-flour corn, called “Mother Corn,” was the most highly venerated. If one failed, they had others they could rely on.

Native American corn

Native corns are heartier and generally more drought-resistant and adaptable than modern-day industrial varieties. Choosing the right corn to grow in your region is important, especially because the corn more or less serves as the “framework” for a Native American garden. If you plan to save seed for next year, choose one variety of corn to grow at a time in a given area to prevent cross-pollination.

Pure strains of native corns are difficult to distinguish unless they’ve been carefully grown in isolation, such as those sold by Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit headquartered in Tucson, Arizona. Some Native American cultural museums sell seeds connected with their cultures, and Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, has many members who offer seeds believed to have come from Native American sources in its annual yearbook.

I have been growing native corns for many years and recently began large-scale grow-outs at Mill Hollow Farm near Edgemont, Pennsylvania. Two corns in particular — ‘Tutelo Strawberry’ (a short-eared flint) and ‘Delaware Indian Puhwem’ (flour corn) — have done extremely well,  and seeds are available directly from the farm. In the future, I plan to offer some Seneca corns, particularly ‘Ha-Go-Wa’ (hominy corn) and ‘Blue Bear Dance,’ as well as ‘Tuscarora’ flour corn.

Native American squash and beans

Locating authentic Native American squash for your garden will prove extra challenging, because many of the squash varieties have been “improved” over the years by plant breeders looking for characteristics that appeal to present-day cooks. ‘Early White Scallop’ and ‘Yellow Summer Crookneck’ are examples of this kind of improved plant stock. While both can be documented to the 18th century and earlier, they are somewhat different from the Native American originals. The old-style plants were vining rather than bush in habit, for example.

Aside from pattypan squash, finger squash, and a few others, not many varieties of squash and pumpkins have survived from early Native American gardens, especially in the eastern part of the United States. I have been involved in a project in my own garden to recover Nanticoke “maycocks,” an old native name for summer squash eaten green. These squash probably represent a range of what native peoples were looking for in squash, as some are good for cooking fresh, some for drying, some for seed oil, and others for long-term storage.

There are a great many Native American beans, but few of them are preserved under their original Native American names. After quite a bit of research and some luck, I discovered that the meaty ‘Ohio Pole Bean’ — a favorite of mine — was actually an old variety grown by the Delaware, Potawatomi, Shawnee, and Miami living in the vicinity of Ft. Wayne, Indiana, in the 1790s. The ‘Amish Nuttle’ bean is another Native American variety that has come down to us under several non-native names. The chart on Page 54 lists many more recommended varieties.

Planting techniques

Planting your Native American garden is relatively easy after you have chosen a plot of ground and prepared it. The Native American garden was not like a European kitchen garden, but rather a small field, so if possible, you should think in terms of perhaps a quarter-acre. You’ll need that kind of space to produce enough corn for food and next year’s seed, because your corn should be planted in hills about 3 feet in diameter and spaced 4 feet apart in all directions. With four to six corn plants per hill, 30 or 40 hills will take up a lot of space, but you’ll also be able to plant several varieties of pole beans around the corn after the corn is about a foot tall. The beans’ role is to fix nitrogen in the soil, which is vital for successful corn production. You can grow several bean varieties without worrying about crosses as long as you plant one variety per hill of corn.

The best bean varieties for short corn (corn that grows about 6 feet tall), such as ‘Tutelo Strawberry,’ are the semi-pole or Native American bush beans that develop long runners — ‘Amish Nuttle’ or ‘Wild Pigeon’ are good examples. Taller corn can support beans with longer vines, but some pole beans are simply too aggressive for corn. Sunflowers are a good alternative here, and they can be planted at the cross section of the spaces between the corn hills. Squash with small leaves can be planted in between. Large, vigorous pumpkins were generally planted off by themselves, as they also like to climb and could pull down the corn. Around the edge of your little field is an ideal place to put Jerusalem artichokes — another Native American favorite. Other plants such as goosefoot and amaranth were allowed to come up among the squash, and these could be harvested both for greens and for seeds. As we keep adding biodiversity to the mix and begin valuing marginal plants as food rather than weeds, a new horticultural balance unfolds.

Native American gardens may be part of history, but the building blocks remain to bring this heritage into modern gardens in the form of flavorful, well-adapted varieties and growing techniques that reflect an understanding of each plant’s important role in the system as a whole.  

Preserving Native American seed heritage

There have been many collectors of rare native corns through the
years, such as Carl Barnes, a Cherokee farmer from Turpin, Oklahoma.
Many of the Cherokee corns in circulation, including ‘Cherokee’ popcorn,
trace to Carl Barnes. He developed a stunning new variety called
‘Carl’s Glass Gems’, which will be available through Native
Seeds/SEARCH. You can learn more about Barnes’ life here.

The highest kudos for collecting, however, go to George F. Will,
anthropologist son of Oscar Will, the Bismarck, North Dakota, seedsman
who promoted Native American varieties in his catalogs. George F. Will
co-authored Corn Among the Indians of the Upper Missouri in 1917, and
this book remains one of the best sources on traditional Great Plains
corn. Will collected and grew more than 100 corn varieties, which the
catalogs describe in great detail. Sadly, many of those varieties are no
longer available. (We’re proud to have Oscar H. Will’s great-grandson, Oscar H. Will
III, as a colleague. “Hank” is a Grit Contributing Editor,
Editor-in-Chief of our sister publication, Mother Earth News, and
Editorial Director of Ogden Publications.)

Seeds traced to Native American tribes

Variety and Source
(see key to sources below)

Appearance and History Culinary Uses and Flavor Notes
‘Arikara Dry Yellow’ (7) Bushy, drought-resistant; small, yellow beans; a primary food crop for the Arikara and Mandan
A bean at its best dry; has a smooth consistency if puréed, so is ideal for soups and stews; subtle flavor goes well with poultry

‘Cherokee Trail of Tears’ (1, 2)

Drought-resistant black beans; heavy producer; taken with Cherokee during forced migration
Works well for refried beans or paired with cornbread; has a heavy bean flavor that can be controlled with a little bit of red wine vinegar
‘Genuine Cornfield’ or ‘Scotia’ (1) A true corn hill bean; grown by the Iroquois Can be used like any Mexican pinto bean; turns creamy as a baked bean; good with duck
‘Indian Hannah’ (1) Tan seed with brown markings; a Delaware/Lenape variety of “wampum bean” Young, tender pods make good snap or shelly beans, can replace pinto beans as a dry bean; mild flavor; makes excellent bean flour
‘Mayflower’ or ‘Amish Nuttle’ (2) A semi-pole variety; small, speckled beans; grown among the Iroquois Used as a dry bean; good in soups, stews and mixed with wild rice; flavor is similar to that of cowpeas
‘Ohio Pole Bean’ (1) Prolific, robust vines about 8 feet tall; 8-inch pods; best grown on tall corn varieties or sunflowers
This large, fat dry bean is good for baking; has a meaty flavor, so it goes well with game or red meats
‘True Red Cranberry’ (1)
Unique, round red beans; a New England variety A classic for baked beans; used either as a shelling bean or as a dry bean; texture is dense and meaty; works well with smoked meats
‘Wild Pigeon’ (1) A semi-pole, cut-short variety; best grown on short corn; tiny beans grown by the Iroquois Good for soups, stews or stuffings; nutty flavor; pairs well with morels and other wild mushrooms
‘Cherokee’ (6) Multicolored popcorn; grown by the Cherokee Small kernels of popcorn with big corn flavor; good in pies, cookies and stuffings
‘Dakota Black’ popcorn (6) Maroon-black kernels on 4 1/2-inch ears; one ear per stalk; 6-foot-tall plants Yields larger puffs of popped corn than the ‘Cherokee’ variety does, but has a similar nutty flavor
‘Hopi Sweet’ or ‘Tawaktchi’ (4) Small ears with white kernels

Tender, sweet corn that’s commonly dry-roasted and then stored for later use; used in savory pies, or stewed with poultry

‘Mountain Pima’ (4) Small ears with yellow kernels and, on occasion, red kernels
A Southwestern sweet corn that can be used like ‘Hopi Sweet’; good for creamed corn and corn soup
‘Puhwem’ (3) White kernels on extremely long ears; reaches 16 to 18 feet, with raccoon-proof ears; from the Delaware
One of the best flour corns; great for dumplings, and can be adapted to cake and bread recipes; a rich nuttiness comes through even in grits made from this corn
‘Shawnee Flour Corn’ (1) White, 8- to 10-inch ears; plants reach about 10 feet in height; grown by the Shawnee

Somewhat grittier than ‘Puhwem’ flour corn, but the flavor is about the same; good for hominy

‘Tutelo Strawberry’ (3) Five to 6 feet tall,  with one or two cobs low on the stalks; ideal for Three Sisters if planted with short pole or semi-pole beans Used for grits, mush and hominy; deep rose color preserved in meal and grits, and turns out a wonderfully pink polenta; slightly sweet taste works well in desserts
‘Virginia White Gourdseed’ (6) Known among the Iroquois as “tooth corn”; one of several truly ancient Native American corns surviving from the Eastern Woodlands Kernels look like large, flat seeds; makes excellent hominy and grits; hint of almond or walnut flavor

‘Arikara’ (5)

Oblong; off-white with faint stripes or speckles; a North Dakota squash Good for winter storage; generally used for soup, as it makes a nice, thick purée; valued for its squash blossoms, used fresh or dried

‘Mandan’ (5)

Early, insect-tolerant variety; small, round and cream-colored with green stripes Best if eaten young and soft, at which point it has a slight nutty flavor; can also be stored for fall and winter use

Key to Seed Sources

1. Appalachian Heirloom Plant Farm: Winchester, Ohio

2. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds: Mansfield, Missouri

3. Mill Hollow Farm: To order,
send check payable to Mill Hollow Farm; P.O. Box 501, Edgemont,
Pennsylvania 19028; $14 per pack (includes postage)

4. Native Seeds/SEARCH: Tucson, Arizona

5. Sand Hill Preservation Center: Calamus, Iowa

6. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange: Mineral, Virginia

7. Vermont Bean Seed Company: Randolph, Wisconsin

Related: When planning your garden plot this spring, check out our companion planting chart.

Food historian William Woys Weaver is the author of Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: A Master Gardener’s Guide to Planting, Seed Saving and Cultural History.

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