Tag Archives: Native American

Heirlooms of the Americas

In all the history that it’s jammed into a school education very little of it involves plants. You get the big names quickly glanced over as you go through the history of the United States. The Native Americans cultivated corn, beans, and squash and shared them with the Pilgrims. There may even be a mention of the “three sisters garden.” Tobacco and cotton will also be mentioned but on a whole the role of plants in history is largely understated.

Though it may be poorly recorded there is more to American history than conquests, battles, and political upheaval. There’s all the everyday folks and the plants that sustained them and they’re important too. Knowing where crops came from can better connect us with the land, history, and culture. These are some of the plants that evolved in the Americas along side its people and will continue to grow and evolve to face the changing world if we continue to protect them.

Sunflowers

The sunflower is one of the many crops that was first cultivated by Native Americans. Evidence suggests that it may have been grown in what’s now Arizona and New Mexico as early as 3000 BC. In our edible flowers post we discuss its versatility as a food crop.

Amaranth

Golden Amaranth

Like tomatoes, amaranth is in fact an ancient Aztec grain. It was so important it is estimated that it made up about 80% of the Aztec’s diet at the time the Spanish arrived.

Potatoes

If you’re anything like me it can be tough to imagine a world without French fries but like many American crops, potatoes didn’t make their way into the European diet until the 16th century even though it is estimated that they were cultivated for over 10,000 years. Potatoes are actually indigenous to the Andes and were being grown in what’s now southern Peru and northwestern Bolivia when the Spanish were first introduced to them. 

Butterfly Weed

It may not be an important food crop for humans but butterfly weed plays an important role for pollinators as the name suggests. It’s native to North America and adding some to your garden can help attract butterflies. 

Tomatillos

Today in the United States tomatillos are largely overlooked except for the occasional salsa verde. However historians believe that they were probably a major part of both the Mayan and Aztec diets for at least 1000 years prior to Spanish colonization.

Sweet Potatoes

Carolina Ruby Sweet Potato

Today sweet potatoes seem to be a bit underrated in the United States. They’re mostly reserved for thanksgiving meals and we can find just a couple varieties on the supermarket shelves. However sweet potatoes have a long history. We know that they were cultivated in South America and the Caribbean by 2500 BC and that members of the Columbus expedition were the first Europeans to taste sweet potatoes in 1492. Interestingly, scientists were able to radiocarbon-date sweet potatoes to the Cook Islands (part of Polynesia) as early as 1000 AD. The working theory is that the Polynesians who have a maritime culture probably traveled to South America and brought sweet potatoes back with them. 

Peppers

Peppers actually have a rather blurry history. Though we know that they were first encountered by Europeans during the Columbus expedition when they were domesticated and by whom is still unknown. On a broad scale peppers have long been cultivated in South America however it seems as though peppers were domesticated at different times by different groups.

Tomatoes

If you ask someone to guess where the tomato comes from they might guess Italy and because almost every dish you purchase in any Italian restaurant in the United States comes slathered in tomato sauce that really is a fair guess. However it’ completely incorrect. The tomato is actually native to South America and wasn’t brought to Europe until the 16th century! Though its history is relatively unknown it’s believed that it was being cultivated by the Aztecs in what’s now southern Mexico as early as 500 BC.

Bergamot

Also called monarda or bee balm, bergamot was grown and used medicinally by many Native American tribes. It’s also a favorite of hummingbirds and butterflies.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of American varieties. There’s the aforementioned squash, beans, and corn as well as a host of other crops like blueberries, papas, avocados, cacao, chia, and quinoa. These are just a few varieties whose history is often overlooked that can easily be incorporated into a family garden. Growing, eating, and saving seed from these plants can help keep history and culture alive.

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The Three Sisters Garden Guide

The Three Sisters Garden has gained some popularity in recent years and for good reason. Unlike conventional agriculture The Three Sisters Garden works with nature to provide for the crops needs, keep maintanence low, and keep soil fertility up without the addition of chemical fertilizers. It’s was perfect for the Native Americans and is perfect modern organic gardener.

Before the advent of large agricultural equipment these features weren’t just nice and environmentally friendly they were necessary. Imagine gardening without metal tools, sprinklers or hoses, or commercial garden additives nevermind tractors and cultivators. The traditional Three Sisters Garden was easy to grow and provided the basic staples of the Native American diet. Together corn, beans, and squash provided balanced nutrition.

To plant a Three Sisters Garden the traditional way you should prepare a fairly large space. Corn needs plenty of plants in one area as it’s wind pollinated. In some cultures the space was circular to help with pollination. The corn is planted in hills about 5 inches high, 18 inches across and 5 feet apart. The tops should be flat to prevent rain water run off. These hills allow the soil to warm more quickly in the spring and allow for better drainage. Traditionally it was common to add some fertility to each hill like fish or fish scraps before planting. Unless you fish a lot, compost or manure will do for the modern garden. If using manure mix it with the soil or bury slightly so it doesn’t burn the plants. Plant 4 corns seeds in a six inch square in each hill.

Pungo Creek Butcher Dent Corn

Three Sisters gardening often works best with flint, dent, or flour corn varieties as they are harvested at the end of the season. If you choose sweet corn you’ll have to carefully make your way through sprawling squash plants to reap your harvest. Alternatively you can plant sunflowers in place of corn which was also done by some native cultures.

You can find Southern Exposure’s flour, flint, and dent corn varieties here. Native American varieties include Hickory Cane Dent Corn and Cherokee White Flour though other varieties work well too.

Once the corn is 4 inches tall it’s time to plant the beans. This is also a good time to give your patch a good weeding before the plants get large. Then you can plant 4 beans in each hill placing them 3 inches away from the corn plants completing your original square. They’ll use the corn plants as living trellis and provide them with nitrogen throughout the growing season. Corn is a very heavy feeder so sustained nitrogen is essential to a good crop. In choosing bean varieties make sure you purchase pole beans not bush beans. It’s also a good idea to choose native or heirloom varieties unless your using sunflowers in place of corn. Some modern bean varieties have such big vines they can be too heavy for corn plants.

Genuine Cornfield Pole Snap Beans

You’ll also want to consider whether you want green beans or drying beans. Some varieties are dual purpose. Most Native Americans planted and harvested their beans as drying beans so that they could be harvest in the fall and stored for winter use.

You can check out Southern Exposure’s pole beans here.

Once the beans have sprouted it’s time to weed again and then plant the squash. Planting squash too early can shade out beans before they have a chance to start climbing. The squash should be planted in the in new mounds identical to those that were for the corn and beans. Plant three seeds and thin to just two per hill. The squash vines ramble throughout the garden shading our weeds and keeping soil moist. This is particularly advantageous in areas prone to drought because corn also requires good moisture for good harvests. When the squash shows its first true leaves it’s probably time to weed again.

Choosing squash can be difficult because of the variety of options. Any vining plant (not bush) in the cucurbit family will do though most native american grew winter squash varieties and harvested all there crops in the fall for storage throughout the winter. At Southern Exposure our favorites tend to be moschata squash plants. These varieties are more resistant to the squash vine borer and can be harvested early and used in summer squash recipes or left to mature and harvested as winter squash for storage. Some people have also used cucumbers, watermelons, and gourds with great success. Just keep in mind with cucumbers and melons you’ll need to carefully make your way through your patch to harvest while the other plants are still growing.

Tan Cheese Pumpkin

You can find Southern Exposure’s winter squash here. Once again the moschata cultivars can be eaten early as summer squash or eaten as winter squash. These include varieties like Seminole Pumpkin, Tahitian Melon Winter Squash, Thai Kang Kob Pumpkin, and more.

While they are called Three Sisters Gardens many Native Americans included more than just three crops. For instance the Wampanoag people planted sunflowers on the North side of the garden so they wouldn’t shade the other crops but would help attract pollinators. Some cultures also incorporated pollinator plants like bee balm or other crops like tobacco or amaranth which is grown for its edible leaves and seeds.

Growing a three sisters garden can be an easy fun project for the organic gardener. It’s low maintenance and beautiful. Though most people don’t have to grow corns, beans, and squash as staples anymore it can be a great way to keep organic gardening techniques, cultural traditions, and seed saving alive and well.

If you’re having a hard time choosing plant varieties consider Southern Exposure’s Three Sisters Garden Package which includes Bloody Butcher Corn, Genuine Cornfield Beans, and Seminole Pumpkin Squash seeds plus a planting guide.