Native Wild Rice, Zizania palustris

Ojibwe woman harvesting wild rice

What is Wild Rice?

Wild rice is one of the only grains native to North America, and definitely its most misunderstood. It is not directly related to Asian rice. Wild Rice is not really rice, but an aquatic grass. What’s more, the black rice you see in countless Thanksgiving stuffing recipes every fall is an imposter. In northern Minnesota, at the center of the genetic reserve of wild-rice seed stock, where it grows naturally in lakes and creeks and is called by the Ojibwe by its proper name Manoomin which means 'good berry.'

In the 1960s, the University of Minnesota began domesticating wild rice. They planted it in rows in flooded paddies, which they drained to harvest by combine like any other field crop. Ironically, paddy-grown rice isn’t wild at all.

Wild rice is one of the only grains native to North America. Where it grows naturally in lakes and creeks, the Objibwe call that black stuff by its proper name Manoomin which means 'good berry.'

Real wild rice varies in shape and color from lake to lake, but once cooked, it is always some shade of luminescent milky brown—the color of tea spilled onto a saucer. It curls into loose ringlets that pop delicately between your teeth. It tastes the way a morning campfire smells: of smoldering wood coals and lake fog at dawn.

Ojibwe Cultural Importance

According to their oral tradition, prophecies directed the Lake Superior Ojibwe to migrate from their historic homeland on the Atlantic coast and travel west until they found the “place where food grows on the water.” They were instructed to stop when they found this place, as it would be their new home.

Today, manoomin remains a staple of Ojibwe diets. It is culturally and spiritually important to the Ojibwe people and a necessary item to be served at important community feasts and ceremonies. High in protein, yet low in fat and calories, wild rice has a very high nutritional value. It can be stored for a very long time which is an added advantage when other sources of food are scarce. Manoomin is also an important food source for waterfowl, and it provides food as well as habitat for other species.

  Wild rice is sacred to the Ojibwe people who still live in the Great Lakes region.  

History

Wild rice plant The harvesting of Northern Wild Rice goes back hundreds of years. Its main importance is noted as a food source to Native American tribes from the tribes around the Great Lakes region to the Seminole in Florida. To the most famous users, the Ojibwe people, wild rice was a staple grain to their diet as well as a valuable trading resource. It did, however, have a negative stigma attached to it and many immigrants never harvested the grain themselves

The Ojibwe name for wild rice is manoomin which translates to 'good berry.' It continues to be traditionally harvested with birch bark canoes and two long sticks. Two people per canoe go out during late September and use the sticks to knock the grains into the canoe. After bringing the still-wet rice to the local mills, it is first toasted in large batches over fire. Upon cooling, the rice is then removed from the hulls and sorted by size to be sold. Before such mills, the Native American people did all this by hand

On native American reservations where unemployment rates are high, the traditional harvesting of wild rice is still a necessity. Every autum they harvest about 50,000 pounds of rice to then sell to local mills.

Botanical Name: Zizania palustris
Life cycle: Annual
Mature Size: 3 to 9 feet
Sun Exposure: Full Sun
Soil Type: Wetland
Fruiting Season: July to October
Flower Color: Straw-colored to Purple
Hardiness Zones 2, 3, 4
Native Area: US and Canada

Wild Rice Estasblishment

Wild rice is found in lakes, borders of streams, ponds, and inland and coastal fresh marshes. Like common or cultivated rice, wild rice grows in flooded soils where the water is shallow, usually from 6 inches to 5 feet in depth.

Wild rice is a tall, annual aquatic grass 3 to 9 feet high with a plume-like top baring slender rod-like seeds. Leaves are elongated, ribbon-like and with rough edges. Flower clusters are up to 2 feet long, their lower branches with dangling short-lived male spikelets, their upper branches with upright one-flowered female spikelets.

The grain or seed is surrounded by a hull, like oats, and usually has a terminal awn or beard at the end of the hull. The hull is removed when the grain is processed. Structurally, wild rice differs from most other grasses in having six stamens in each male flower instead of three. The stem is hollow, but is partitioned with cross-walls at the nodes and at various intervals in the internodes.

Once planted, comfrey can be very difficult to dig out because any small section of root left behind can sprout a new plant. Planting in large containers may help restrain its spread.

Growth

Wild rice grain, or seed, sprouts under water in late April or early May, producing a single root and submerged thin ribbon-like leaves. In June, leaves that float on the surface of the water are produced. During this time, adventitious roots sprout near the first few nodes of the stem, and in early July leaves appear above the water. The heads appear by the end of July with female flowers at the top and male flowers at the bottom. Female flowers usually are pollinated by another plant.

Further Reading:

 Native Bee House Care
 How To Provide Nesting Materials For Birds
 North American Native Turkey
 Lake Michigan Is Warming: Climate Threats