Ancient Companion Planting: The Three Sisters

Squash, beans, and corn have a long history of being planted together to benefit each other, the soil, and the nutritional needs of the people who grew them.


| Winter 2017-2018



Squash Maize Beans

Squash, maize, and beans have complementary growth styles and nutrients.

Photo by Flickr/Perry Quan

This article is Part 4 of Nan Fischer’s four-part series about the Three Sisters crops.

Part 1, Ancient Beans for Modern Gardeners, was featured in our Spring 2017 issue.
Part 2, A-Maize-ing Maize: The History of Corn, appeared in our Summer 2017 issue.
Part 3, Squash on the Scene: The Evolution of Cucurbits, was printed in our Fall 2017 issue. 


Before humans began practicing agriculture about 12,000 years ago, beans, squash, and teosinte grew together in the wild near Oaxaca, Mexico. As indigenous people transitioned from a hunter-gatherer culture to an agricultural one — during a span of about 5,000 years — they slowly abandoned their nomadic lifestyle and domesticated these wild plants for a more stable food supply.

Squash (Cucurbita spp.) was the first of the trio to be domesticated, about 10,000 years ago. It was originally grown for its hard rind — which was used for bowls and utensils — and then for its nutritious seeds. The flesh was bitter, but indigenous people eventually bred squash for better flavor and texture.

Teosinte is the likely wild progenitor of maize (Zea mays). About 9,000 years ago, the Mayan people turned this grass — with its impenetrable 12-kernel seed head — into an edible and adaptable crop. Since then, maize has been bred into dozens of varieties with more genetic diversity than many other plants.

The common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) is native to Mesoamerica and the Peruvian Andes. Originally a vine with twisted seedpods and small seeds, it’s been selected and bred for larger seeds and bush growth for nearly 7,000 years.





elderberry, echinacea, bee hive

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