Squash – eldest of the ‘Three Sisters’

Indigenous Plants

Midwest SOARRING’s goal is to widen the knowledge of native plants and their uses. We seek to form a trade of seeds and plants among different Tribes, while also working toward building a re-created working village where members, as well as family, friends and visitors can enjoy a sampling of our rich heritage.

Midwest SOARRING Foundation maintains an indigenous plant garden in Westchester, IL and preserves the knowledge of these plants and their uses on the land in southern Illinois. Our wish is to replicate an even larger, educational garden near Churchill Woods.

For all native peoples the three most important indigenous plants are sage, tobacco, and sweetgrass. Yet, there are many others like the three sisters  corn, beans, and squash – which have sustained our ancestors for thousands of years.

Good Medicine

From The Circle of Life by Ivan Dozier, Head Conservationist for Illinois NCRS*

The Eldest Sister

The sisters watched the sunrise from the top of their small hill. Through a break in the trees they noted the sun’s position in that special place in the horizon. They knew at that this point marked the time the days would actually grow shorter. It is time to start preparing for harvest. They took comfort in knowing they’d done their job for another year and there would be plenty of food for the people this winter.

The eldest sister had witnessed the mark of time for many, many years. Even in her younger days when she was wild and not so close to the people she watched the passing of the seasons. Now she was older and had a very special relationship with the people. It was the people that nurtured her and brought her even closer to her two younger sisters. In return she helped ensure that they had healthy food throughout the year. For more than 9,000 years this relationship has endured.


Of course these are not people I’m referring to but rather our three sisters of corn, beans, and squash.

The eldest sister is squash and she along with corn and beans, are among the most revered cultivated crops of American Indian people. I call squash the eldest sister because evidence suggests it was the first of three crops to be cultivated by our ancestors.

Although the name “squash” appears to have originated from the East-Coast Algonquin word askutasquash (which means eaten raw), most experts agree that squash, like corn and beans, originated in the Mexico/Central and South American region. Wild squash with virtually inedible fruits still grows in the American Southwest and Central plains. Those thousands of years of seed selection by our ancestors have created a tremendous diversity in the varieties of squash.

All varieties of squash are in the Cucurbita genus. Yellow summer squash, Zucchini, Crook-Neck squash, Acorn squash, Spaghetti squash, and even Pumpkins are in the same genus (gourds are also closely related but we usually don’t eat them, so for now I’ll focus on the edible varieties.)

Just think how many different colors, textures, shapes, and sizes are represented by these types of squash. Squash varieties can produce anywhere from relatively small, tennis ball sized fruits all the way up to the giant pumpkins that can weigh more than 12000 pounds.! Because they are closely related, they will also cross-pollinate. If you save the seed from a squash that was planted close to another type of squash, you could get some pretty interesting looking fruit the next year.

There is also variety in the way squash can be used. As the name implies, summer squashes like yellow and Zucchini mature early. They don’t store well and should be eaten within a few days. These squashes have a delicate flavor and can be eaten raw but they are typically steamed, stewed, grilled, batter-fried, or blended into moist breads. The winter squashes, including pumpkins, have heavier flesh and can be stored for longer periods of time. Typical preparation for these types of squash would be baking, drying, boiling, or blended into cakes, pies, and breads.

The squash blossom is even considered sacred in some Native societies where it figures prominently in certain religious ceremonies. Squash blossoms are also sometimes eaten. Although it seems like it would be a bad idea to remove a flower that might produce fruit, it can actually help produce larger fruits by focusing the plant’s energies. Squash blossoms can be eaten raw in salads, stewed in soups, or deep-fried.

I have just provided a very brief outline of the incredible diversity of one of our special cultivated foods. Squash continues to provide nutrition and variety in our diets to this day. During our harvest ceremonies we always acknowledge the importance of the three sisters to our people. As we walk a path of good medicine it is important that we learn to appreciate what has been given to us. I hope this story helps provide a greater understanding of one of the many gifts the Creator has provided.

*Previously published in MSF newsletter “Wings”.