The Three Sisters
Our garden is divided into two parts, one vegetables and the
other herbs. The vegetable half consists of corn. Several rows of
corn are from seeds donated by Merlin Red Cloud Jr. of the Ho Chunk Nation,
these seeds have been passed down in his family. This corn will produce various
cob colors, ranging from blue to red. During the summer of 2002 heirloom corn
was planted including Pod
corn and Tom Thumb popcorn. The cornrows have beans planted along the edge of
each row. Three types of beans were planted: Cherokee Trail of Tears, Hidatsa
Shield, and True Red Cranberry. These beans will grown along with the corn,
helping to maintain a good root system and preventing the rows from rain
washout. Squash seeds donated from Merlin Red Cloud Jr. were planted in separate
hills. These seeds have also been in his family for years. The squash is
expected to grow shoots of at least eight feet in length. Sunflowers grow around the edge of
the garden creating a natural fence.
As one of the traditional Native American "Three
Sisters," corn grows well with beans and squash. The corn stalks
support the bean plant as it grows. It is uncertain exactly when corn
made its way from Mesoamerica to the Southwest, but it was a staple of
Native American diet by the time 1 AD and reached Wisconsin about 900 AD. The gift of corn was initially
scorned by the Old World, but it has greatly impacted the European diet.
Today corn can be enjoyed in several ways; it can be popped, dried,
frozen, boiled and eaten fresh off the cob. Following are
descriptions of the varieties of corn we grew in our garden and how they
Click here if
you would like to hear Merlin Red Cloud Jr. talk about growing corn.
Click here for
a transcript. You will need a player to listen to the MP3
here if you want to download a free version of RealPlayer.
Merlin's Indian Corn
Merlin Red Cloud Jr.'s heirloom corn seeds have been passed down in his
family for generations. His grandmother's corn is edible but ornamental in
appearance. The Indian corn can be picked and eaten like sweet corn or the cobs
can stay on the stalk to dry and then be harvested. The corn kernels will turn
colors of red, blue, and purple.
Every kernel of corn will be covered with a tiny husk. The color of the husks
on each ear can be white, red, cream, brown or purple. The ears range in size
from 5-12" long. This corn takes 100-110 days to mature. Since Pod Corn
will have its own husk, it is very similar to teosinte. Teosinte is a wild
indigenous grass from which corn or maize originated. A few differences between
corn and teosinte are:
- Corn has developed a non-scattering rachis (seeds do not disperse when
contacted), teosinte seeds will scatter.
- Teosinte's outer glumes are hard, while maize is soft.
- In teosinte the glume covers the seed, while in maize the seed is exposed.
- The maize grain is borne in shallow cupules, while teosinte is embedded in
deep cupules in the rachis.
- Maize can produce small or large seeds, while teosinte is usually small.
Domesticated plants typically produce larger seeds.
Tom Thumb Popcorn
Dwarf 3 ½' plants produce 1-2 ears that are 3-4" long. This is an
heirloom variety created by the late Professor Ellyn Meader at the University of
New Hampshire. It takes 85-90 days to mature from seed.
The smut gall is
composed of a great mass of black, greasy or powdery spores enclosed by a smooth
white covering of corn tissue. The corn plant may be infected at any time in the early stages of growth, but
becomes less susceptible after the formation of the ear. Aboveground parts may
be infected, but it is more common to see the smut galls on the ears, tassels,
and nodes than on the leaves, internodes, and brace roots. In Mexico, immature smut galls are consumed as an
edible delicacy known as cuitlacoche (wheat-lah-KOH-chay), and sweet corn smut
galls have become a high value crop for some growers in the northeastern United
States who sell them to Mexican restaurants.
Corn is consumed is several ways, it can be popped, boiled, dried, or
ground up into flour. It only makes sense that corn is processed
in several ways. Braiding corn enables the user to store a lot of
food in a small area. Corn cobs can be broken off and used at the
user's discretion. To begin braiding the cobs must be organized.
The husks need to be peeled back. Braid the husk of the first cob
half way and then add another cob, continue this until the desired
amount is added. Buffalo Bird Woman's family often braided strings
of fifty-six or fifty-seven ears (Wilson,
Gilbert 1987). When the string was completely braided, the
braider holds either end in his/her hand and places a foot against the
middle of the string, pulling tight. This stretches and tightens
the string. It can now be hung up to dry.
Close up of the braid beginning.
Wendy braiding nine ears of corn.
Liz demonstrates removing parched corn kernels from the
cob with a spoon. The kernels were then left to dry and put in a
jar for future use. Merlin Red Cloud Jr.'s family has used this
method for generations.
Removing the kernels from the cob is done by simply
rubbing two cobs over each other. The dry kernels pop off
easily. The kernels can be scooped up and kept in a jar for future
here if you would like to hear Merlin Red Cloud Jr. talk about
drying corn. Click
here for a transcript. You will need a player to listen to the
MP3 files. Click
here if you want to download a free version of RealPlayer.
Merlin Red Cloud Jr. provided a recipe for
processing corn that involved several interesting treatments of
corn. Of most significance was the addition of wood ash when
boiling shelled corn, creating hominy. Research into the chemical
processes involves here indicates that the addition of wood ash or lime
serves to change the nutritional composition of the corn to make niacin
in the corn more readily available to the body. This enhancement
of the corn will prevent development of pellagra, a serious disease
caused by a shortfall of niacin in the diet. Although pellagra is
typically found in populations that depend on corn for subsistence, such
as the southern U.S. populations in the 1920's and 1930's, no Native
American populations, either modern or archaeological, show signs of the
disease. This traditional treatment of corn may provide the
explanation. Although anthropologists knew that Mexicans prepare
their corn in this way, we did not fully appreciate its use in
traditional Wisconsin gardening practices before this research.
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Beans are one of the traditional "Three Sisters" triad that were
planted together in a mutually beneficial group, and were mainstays of
the Native American diet after about 1300 AD. The protein food sources of the Old World
improved when Native American beans were introduced, and Europeans eagerly
adopted kidney beans, string beans, snap beans, butter beans, lima beans, navy
beans, pole beans, etc. Today, the dry field varieties of beans are a very
important source of protein for vegetarians, those wishing to cut down on
cholesterol intake, and in countries where meat consumption is low.
Following are descriptions of the beans we grew in our garden
and how they were processed.
True Red Cranberry
|True Red Cranberry beans look exactly like a ripe
cranberry when mature. They are great as dry beans with excellent
flavor. These beans come from Maine and were used historically by
woodsmen and the Abnaki Indians.
Hidatsa Shield Figure
The Hidatsa of North Dakota in the Missouri River Valley
grew Hidatsa Shield Figure beans. This is climbing bean
traditionally planted with corn, to which the bean then clings.
Cherokee Trail of Tear
||The Cherokee carried Cherokee Trail of Tear beans
over the infamous Trail of Tears, the winter death march in 1838 from the
Smoky Mountains to Oklahoma. These beans are good for snaps and as dry
Pods were left on the vine until
they were thoroughly dry. (To compare the moisture content of beans in a
green pod to a dried bean in a dry pod see the image toward the end of
this page.) Once the pods were picked the beans were cracked open by
hand and the beans were shucked out with a finger or thumb. The beans
were finally separated according to type and put into jars. The beans
were processed by hand due to a small amount grown in our garden. In the
case of a larger amount try threshing. Buffalo Bird Woman would pull the
whole vine out and make a pile to dry for three days. Next she moved the
vines to a clear area, heaped the vines into a pile and covered it,
because the beans would fly up and fall away. She would trample the
pile, now and then standing on one foot, while shuffling and scraping
the other over the dry vines. This loosened the beans from the pods.
Sometimes a stick was used to beat the pile further. The beans were then
winnowed and left to dry one more day. The beans were now ready for
storage (Wilson, Gilbert
|Laura picking dry bean pods off the
||Close up of opening a bean pod with
fallen beans around it.
|True Red Cranberry beans
look extremely different due to contrasting levels of moisture.
Look at the size difference between the green pod and the dry
yellow pod. The sizes of the individual bean differs greatly. In
the green pod the beans are about an 1" in length and plump.
Compared to a dry bean it is almost half the size. Waiting until
the pods are completely dry saves time and space during harvest.
If green pods are picked, then the beans need to be laid out to
dry for several days.
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|Many varieties of squash, another member of the "Three
Sisters," were grown by Native Americans, including
acorn, zucchini, pumpkins and gourds. Gourds have been cultivated for
about 4,500 years. They were used long before the development of pottery
as containers. Native Americans ate squash fresh and dried and stored it.
Squash seeds donated by Merlin Red Cloud Jr. were planted
in this garden.
|Young squash plant.
|Maturing squash plant with flowers.
|Squash with flower dying and new fruit beginning.
|Young squash fruit, green.
|Picked squash, the fruit turned bright orange.
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|The sunflower plant gets its name
from following the sun. The flowers literally keep their face
toward the sun from morning till night. It is tall, often
branching, it has large heart-shaped leaves with yellow flowers
and brownish black to red centers. Besides its beautiful
ornamental qualities, the sunflower made up part of Native
Americans diet; the sunflower was an important resource. The
flower heads were boiled to extract oil. The seeds were crushed
and sifted or the shells were roasted. Sunflower seeds could be
eaten alone, made into bread, or combined with other foods.
Besides consuming this plant, other uses were employed. The
Navajo used a sunflower infusion for prenatal infections and
removal of warts. A traditional skin wash was made, with the
claim of anti-oxidant and anti-aging properties. This was patted
on the face twice daily with reputed youth-preserving effects.
Herbalists use this plant for treating coughs, bronchitis, sore
throats, and kidney problems.
||Mass of sunflowers
To harvest sunflowers the heads were cut from the stalk when the back
of the head turned from green to yellow. This change in color meant
the seeds were maturing and the head was drying out. The sunflower
heads were dried face downward. When the heads had dried about a
week the heads were shaken or tapped on a surface. The seeds came
out easily. Another way to process seeds is by following Buffalo
Bird Woman's technique (Wilson, Gilbert
1987). After the heads had dried about four days,
the seeds were threshed. Threshing was accomplished by laying out a
skin on the ground and placing the sunflower heads on top with the face
downward. A stick was used to beat the backs of the heads and the
seed was easily gathered on the skin.
||Close up of sunflower head
||Sunflower heads shaken to acquire seeds.
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