The Three Sisters: A Case Study of Food Synergy

Understanding why we eat what we eat benefits both you and your parrot.

Sweet Corn


Understanding how food works as well as a working knowledge of food history gives you a better idea of why we eat the way we do and why we feed our parrots the way we feed them. I always ask a lot of questions beginning with the word Why, and I suppose I’ll continue to do so.

I tripped over this subject when I was looking up the synergy of foods: how eating two foods together is sometimes better than either one eaten alone. It’s an intriguing story.

The Three Sisters.?Sounds like a dress shop. Or a bakery. But it’s not, it’s an old Iroquois legend about corn, beans and squash. The Iroquois were not just hunter-gatherers. They planted crops to help feed their families.

This ancient legend talks of the tradition of planting these three crops together. And you will see the logic behind this ancient tradition right away. It is a perfect example of synergy. And I found an actual term for this practice. It’s called symbiotic agriculture.

Many Native Americans used this technique of planting these crops, but it was the Iroquois that created the legend. And it is believed that the the early European settlers would not have had a chance of survival had it not been for the knowledge the Native Americans had about planting these crops. They celebrated these crops with not only the legend, but with a festival when the first green corn ears developed on the plants.

Corn, beans and squash were considered inseparable sisters that were gifts to the tribe from the Spirits. The Iroquois planted them together so they could help support and sustain each other. And it all makes sense.

The corn gave the beans a natural pole for the vines to climb up.

The beans returned the favor by offering nitrogen to the corn’s roots, which increased the fertility of the plot. The vines the beans grew on stabilized the corn stalks so they were far less likely to be damaged in heavy winds. And below them grew the squash. The squash plant is a shallow-rooted plant and it spreads out, so it becomes a live mulch that keeps the soil from drying out. It also shaded weeds that might sprout which inhibited their chance to survive from lack of sunshine. And the spines of the squash plants that surrounded the floor around the corn and beans discouraged any predators from attacking any of them. It was a perfect system.

And did they have any other gifts by being with each other? Decidedly so! It had to do with the way they balanced in the diet of the tribe.

Corn is high in carbohydrates, something these hard-working people needed in order to have the energy to survive. It’s a pretty efficient crop. Corn produces three to six times more food to on any sized piece of land than any other type of planted and harvested crop.

The dried beans are loaded with protein, which provide necessary amino acids not found in foundation food for humans. Corn doesn’t contain lysine and tryptophan, two essential amino acids, nor does it have riboflavin or niacin. These are supplied by beans. Carbohydrate-rich squashes are a great source of vitamin A.

Finally, squash offers vitamins from the squash vegetable itself and a healthy oil from the seeds within the squash. So you can see how well these tribes were eating just on these three basic foods.


These three crops were among the first to be planted by the Mesoamerican people. How they figured this out without any scientific knowledge of vitamins and minerals is a mystery, but it sustained generation after generation of people.

This is an intriguing story of three foods working together to create an agricultural and dietary synergy. Very much like combining Brussels sprouts with a grain to form a perfect protein, the synergy of the way the three work together in the garden and in your system by providing something the other does not, makes the combination of these foods far better than each one is singularly.

I’m sure there are other foods that work together synergistically to make the nutrition of the combination more than each food alone would be. I intend to get to work doing the research for another article about food synergy and how it might help feed our flocks better.

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