Centennial Museum gecko logo

Desert Diary
Culture/Three Sisters


This page was designed with CSS, and looks best in a CSS-aware browser—which, unfortunately, yours is not. However, the document should still be readable, though not presented in the most sophisticated manner.

What do corn, beans, and squash have in common? Other than being objectionable to many children, they are very different plants. But sometimes, things complement each other—and species are ideal partners. Native dwellers of the Chihuahuan Desert realized, long ago, that these three "sisters" help each other.

Corn grows tall and straight, providing a sturdy ladder for the climbing beans. Squash covers the ground, holding in precious moisture and keeping the soil temperature cooler. And beans have the ability to "fix" nitrogen, taking it from the air and putting it into the nitrogen-deficient soil, benefiting both corn and squash.

We never should underestimate the sophistication of earlier peoples. Almost every region of the world produced crop combinations that complemented one-another in growth or in nutrition. Perhaps we should pay more attention to the knowledge of those that came before. It's amazing what we can learn from our elders!
pen and ink

Listen to the Audio (mp3 format) as recorded by KTEP, Public Radio for the Southwest.


Contributor: Dann Brow, Professor of Botany, Eastern New Mexico University.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.

image of maize, beans, and squash

The three sisters: maize (corn), beans, and squash.



Ford, R. I. 1994. Corn Is Our Mother. Pp. 513-525 in Corn and Culture in the Prehistoric New World. S. Johannessen and C. Hastorf (eds). Westview Press, Boulder.

Sauer, C. O. 1969. Agricultural Origins and Dispersals. The Domestication of Animals and Foodstuffs. 2nd ed. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, Cambridge.

Web Resources

America the Bountiful.