Three Sisters: ancient sustainable agriculture

Three Sisters: ancient sustainable agriculture

Check this out. It’s pretty cool: “The Three Sisters,” they’re referred to and they reach far back into past agrarian systems.

Winter squash, corn (maize) and beans: they have an autumnal quality to them, and a lot of history too. The “three sisters” formed the basis for the agriculture of North America’s first peoples. And that includes Canada, of course. The hearty and nutritious crops wended their way north to the Canadian portion of the continent from Central America at various and different times thousands of years ago, but they were quickly embedded into Canada’s First Nations agrarian and culinary culture — and that holds for us today too.

The plants themselves became a common triadic agricultural system in which one relied on and thrived because of the others. According to biologist Dr. Jane Mt. Pleasant, First Nations “agronomists” in the middle of the 14th-century created mounds of earth in which they planted the three sisters.

One of the three sisters (Photo: WREats).

Examples of one of the three sisters (Photo: WREats).

Mt. Pleasant refers to these as “the three sisters mound system,” and they were ingenious constructions. In the mound was first planted corn. The stalk, as it grew, provided the structure for the beans to climb and thrive. The squash, a plant that humankind has cultivated as long ago as 10,000 years, grew along the ground and provided shade and an impediment for weeds at the same time it was a source of enriching mulch.

A late summer treat (Photo: WREats).

A late summer treat (Photo: WREats).

Together, the trio formed a tiny micro-climate with cooler air circulating below and an exchange of nitrogen and other elements necessary for plant growth as well as natural organic fertilizers. It was a compact sustainable system.

So, give to the three sisters the respect they deserve. The next time you look at squash, corn and beans as humble and ordinary – and the next time you eat them – take a moment to reflect on the fact that entire civilizations and cultures were built on these foods.

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