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The Three Sisters

05/14/05 12:00AM By Ron Krupp
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(HOST) Stories and traditions tend to thrive in the garden, right along with the vegetables, and commentator Ron Krupp recalls one of his favorites.


(KRUPP) As we enter the green growing season, let us remember the great agricultural heritage of the Native Americans. The Three Sisters - corn, beans and squash - are grown throughout the Americas. The tradition of calling these crops the "Three Sisters" originated with the Haudenosaunee, the "People of the Longhouse", also known as the Iroquois.

Chief Louis Farmer, an Onandaga, once said, "As long as the Three Sisters are with us we know we will never starve. The creator sends them each year. We thank Him for the gifts."

Corn, beans and squash are a form of companion planting. Beans are a legume - a member of the pea family. They have certain bacteria that live in nodules on their roots. These bacteria absorb nitrogen from the air and change it into nitrates that plants use in order to grow. In this way, beans fertilize the soil for corn and squash.

In the Native American "Bean Woman" story, beans get the support they need by winding around the corn stalks. The squash plants serve as a ground cover between the corn and beans. The squash leaves lessen erosion, prevent weeds from growing and increase the amount of rain that soaks into the earth. The vines and leaves also act as a barrier to woodchucks and raccoons.

Besides the Three Sisters, there are many other agricultural crops of the Americas, such as tomatoes and potatoes, cotton, peppers and garlic, peanuts and pecans, blueberries, cranberries and straw- berries, wild rice and chocolate. Did I forget to mention maple syrup?

Native communities of the early 1600s, such as the Wampanoag and Massachusett, shared their agricultural gifts with the newly arrived Europeans. The same was true some years later with the Abenaki in Vermont.

Over the course of many generations, by carefully selecting and planting seeds from preferred plants, Native Americans chose certain varieties for their gardens. They also created hybrids by making sure that pollen taken from the flowers of one desirable plant fertilized the flowers of another chosen plant. The new hybrid shared the desirable characteristics of both parent plants. In these ways, many varieties of Native corn were developed for size, sweetness, arid conditions and short growing seasons. The Tohono O'odham people developed a corn that grows close to the ground and conserves water by having a small amount of leaf and stalk.

The gifts of the Native Americans have forever changed the world. We need to be thankful, not just on Thanksgiving, but at the start of the green growing season.

This is Ron Krupp, the northern gardener.

Ron Krupp is a gardener and author who lives near Lake Champlain on Shelburne Bay.
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