Centennial Museum gecko logo

Desert Diary
Plants/New World Foods


Much has been written about damage to the environment by introductions of noxious plants and animals. We sometimes don't appreciate, however, how much our diets have been enlivened by widespread exchanges of food items between geographic areas. The New World has been prolific in adding to the food diversity of the world. We generally recognize that maize—what we in the United States call corn—originated in North America. But how many of us know that—among many others—avocados, peanuts, pineapples, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes originated in our Western Hemisphere? And this doesn't even mention the various kinds of beans, squashes, and chili peppers. Other native foods seldom used today, but once important, are seeds of pigweeds and barnyard grass.

Despite the boom in food diversity, much of the world uses historic introductions as additions rather than replacements. Until recently, and perhaps still, many of the inhabitants of our Chihuahuan Desert have had their diets firmly established on the same staples as were prevalent hundreds of years ago—the three sisters: corn, beans, and squash.
pen and ink


Contributor: Arthur H. Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

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

maize, squash, and beans

The Three Sisters: Maize, squash, and beans. Scanned by A. H. Harris.



Cohen, M. N. 1977. The food crisis in prehistory. Overpopulation and the origins of agriculture. Yale University Press, New Haven. 341 pp.

Hill, A. F. 1952. Economic botany: a textbook of useful plants and plant products. 2nd ed., McGraw-Hill Book Co., Inc., New York. 560 pp.

Web Resources

Domesticated and Wild plants of American origin.