Wisconsin Native Wild Rice, Zizania palustris
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
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.
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
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.
Native Wild Rice
||3 to 9 feet
||July to October
||Straw-colored to Purple
||2, 3, 4
||US and Canada
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.
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.
Wild rice has declined significantly in the last 100 years. In a 2012 research paper, a planning and landscape architecture professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,
wrote: “Watersheds with wild rice have declined by 32% since the early 1900s, and are now primarily limited
to northern Minnesota and Wisconsin.
There has also been a significant decline over the past 10 to 15 years. In January 2020, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission released
a report by wildlife biologist Peter F. David, which showed that the volume of wild rice across forty bodies of water
in Wisconsin had dropped below 1,000 acres over the last ten years. Those same forty lakes and rivers have been
surveyed since 1985, when the waters supported more than 5,000 acres of rice.
Climate change is a big threat as we’re having heavier rainfall, and water level really plays a role in wild
rice production and how abundant it can be from year to year. Researchers and local ricers, however,
attribute the decline to more than just one single effect. There are many other factors, too: dams (which
also impact water level), logging, shoreline development, boaters accidentally or purposefully tearing
up the grass, use of lawn fertilizer, and invasive plants and fish.
Overall, more environmental protections are needed to prevent the wild rice’s decline.
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