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The Three Sisters of Mesoamerica

17 May 24 - by Terry Evans

After the eclipse in Mexico, one of our group went to the Yucatan peninsula to visit a number of Mayan sites which have largely been restored to something like they would have been in their prime. These site invariably showed how familiar the Mayans were with the seasons of the year and when to plant and harvest their crops.

Unlike northern Mexico and its arid conditions, the Yucatan is lush and would have been mainly covered in jungle. The Mayans, and other indigenous peoples, would have cleared parts of the jungle and planted small gardens. These were often walled and, more often than not, used a companion planting system based on the “three sisters” – Maize, Beans and Squash.

The maize stalk serves as a trellis for climbing beans, the beans fix nitrogen in their root nodules and stabilize the maize in high winds, and the wide leaves of the squash plant shade the ground, keeping the soil moist and helping prevent the establishment of weeds. This would allow the garden to remain fertile for a number of years.

The system is still used in the Yucatan and one of these fields is called a milpa. Other crops and trees are often mixed in with the three sisters including avocado and chilli. Typical cultivation is intensive for 2 years but is followed by 8 years fallow.

Here’s a photo of one field planted with the three sisters (photo taken from a bus window) situated between Palenque and San Christobal.