All three originated from the southern Mexico or MesoAmerican area. Squash is named after the Massachuset Indian word askutasquash, meaning "not cooked". Anthropologists think squash may be a major factor in the transition of native people from hunter/gatherers to growers. "The fruits of wild squash were easy to find and offered flesh, nutritious seed, edible flowers and even containersmade from a hard-shell squash known as gourd" (Gilmer, 1). Summer squash is known as Curcurbita pepo, winter squash and pumpkins are C. maxima or C. moschata. All three species are native to the Western Hemisphere.
Beans are another of the oldest foods grown in North America and one of the oldest known to man. They have played a significant part in the diet of people for thousands of years. Beans were domesticated about 7000 years ago in both Peru and southern Mexico. Peru developed beans with bright colors and large seeds, while Mexico developed white and black beans with variations of patterns that were small seeded. The tribes in Mexico and Peru traveled across the continent spreading the beans and their techniques for growing these plants. As the New World was being discovered, many varieties of beans were already being successfully grown by the native people.
Corn dates back to it's origin as a grass on the Mexican plateau 80,000 years ago. The grass was called teosinte and is believed to have been developed by the native population. The teosinte looked very different from today's corn with small kernels not fused into a husk on an ear like early maize and modern corn. Over time, Native Americans created maize through specialized cultivation. Grass grows in segments and the ears of maize were produced at the joints of the segments. Encouraging the growth of ears on the lower joints and only replanting kernels from those successful plants eventually adapted the crop to a shorter growing season and increased the yield. As the genetics of the plant were changed, its value as a food source increased.
Native Americans discovered that maize could be grown, harvested, and dried, then ground into flour. "Surplus maize would be stored in underground storage pits, ingeniously constructed and lined with grasses" (Prindle 2), and used over the winter. Eventually the growing of maize along with beans and squash was adopted into the southwestern and southeastern regions of North America.
Native people planted household gardens and larger fields next to their villages. The fields were made of small mounds of tilled earth about one foot high and 20 across, spaced about 4 feet apart and placed in rows or at random. Their method is to plant five to six kernels of corn in a small circle in the middle of the mound. As the corn grew, they would plant seven or eight pole beans in a circle about six inches away from the corn kernels. Several days later they planted seven or eight squash or pumpkin seeds.
When the plants began to grow, they would thin out the weak and leave the strongest plants. Author, Tara Prindle wrote, "The corn stalk serves as a pole for the beans, the beans help to add the nitrogen to the soil that the corn needs, and the squash provides a ground cover of shade that helps the soil retain moisture" (2). This is how the Three Sisters work together