Three Sisters

Our garden was divided into two parts, one vegetables and the other herbs. The vegetable half consists of corn. Several rows of corn were from seeds donated by Merlin Red Cloud Jr. of the Ho Chunk Nation, these seeds have been passed down in his family. This corn produced 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 grew 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 were also in his family for years. The squash grew shoots of at least eight feet in length. Sunflowers grow around the edge of the garden creating a natural fence.


Corn 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 were processed.



Corn Varieties

Merlin Red Cloud Jr. talks about Growing Corn (transcript)

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Corn Corn 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.


Pod Corn Pod Corn

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 Corn Tom Thumb Corn 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.




Corn Smut Corn Smut

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. Above ground 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 Processing

Circle Braid of Corn 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 use.










Merlin Red Cloud talks about Drying Corn (transcript)

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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.



Bean Beans

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 were greatly 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.

Bean Varieties

Beans True Red Cranberry 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 Beans Harvest Hidatsa Bean Pods Hidatsa Shield Beans 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 Harvest Cherokee Trail of Tear Cherokee Trail of Tear 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 beans.

Bean Processing

Laura picking dry bean pods off the vine.Close up of opening a bean pod with fallen beans around it.

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 1987).

True Red Cranberry Beans 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.





Squash Blossom 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 MVAC’s garden.



Young squash plant.

Maturing squash plant with flowers.

Squash with flower dying and new fruit beginning.






Young squash fruit, green.

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.

Sibley, Table Queen, and Butternut Squashes






Squash Processing

Dorothy Decorah talks about Drying Squash (transcript)

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Merlin Red Cloud Jr. talks about Drying Squash (transcript)

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The first cut reveals moisture.

The Table Queen squash was processed by cutting from the flower end to the vine end. The rind was left on. This techniques was employed by the Hidatsa (Wilson, Gilbert 1987).

The rind is being cut off the Sibley squash. Merlin Red Cloud Jr. recommends cutting the rind off before cutting up the squash. It was then cut into doughnut slices, halved and quartered. Each slice should be about 1/4″ thick.














Seeds were separated from the meat of the squash.The sliced squash was laid out to dry in the sunshine for a few days.

Compare the dry squash to the freshly cut squash. The dry squash is ready to store and be used in soups or stews.






Helianthus annuus

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.

Sunflower Processing

Close up of sunflower head

Sunflower heads shaken to acquire seeds.

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.