Ojibwe woman harvesting wild rice

Wisconsin Native Wild Rice, Zizania palustris

  Wild rice is one of the only grains native to North America, and definitely it's most misunderstood. It grows naturally in lakes and creeks, the Objibwe call that black stuff by its proper name, 'Manoomin.'

  What is Wild 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.  

  Traditional Harvesting Methods

Native American communities have passed down traditional wild rice harvesting techniques for generations/

One of the key traditional techniques for harvesting wild rice involves using a canoe to navigate through the rice beds. This method, also known as the “knocking” method, involves gently knocking the ripe grains into the boat using long wooden poles.

The Canoe Method involves positioning the canoe near the rice bed. The harvester then uses wooden poles to push the canoe through the rice bed, allowing them to reach the ripest grains. The harvester gently knocks the rice stalks with a wooden pole to dislodge the ripe grains, which fall into the canoe. After collecting enough rice, the harvester returns to shore to process the grain.


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 autumn they harvest about 50,000 pounds of rice to then sell to local mills.

Native Wild Rice
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 Establishment

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 Decline

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.

  Impacts of Climate Change

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 and 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.

Further Reading:

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

Bees flying footer graphic