Wild Rice

Wild Rice: Male flowers droop, the female flowers are erect.

Love and marriage, horse and carriage, Zizania and canoe… not exactly lyrical but you get the idea. If you want Wild Rice you have to go where the Wild Rice is, and that’s in water, not greatly deep water, but water nonetheless. Emergent is the word.

Truth be known Wild Rice, Zizania aquatica, is not rice and often not wild particularly if you buy it in a store. But those are quibbling points. It’s a popular and delicious grass grain, fairly easy to collect — if you know the technique — and nutritious as well. It was the staple of many Native America tribes, particularly in northern climates.  They fought wars over it. Wild Rice is one of my favorite wild foods though locally we are on the very end of its range.

Zizania palustris

There are at least three species of Zizania maybe four. Botanists argue over that (think of it as a swamp turf war.)  Z. aquatica is along the Atlantic Coastal plain from right here — Central Florida — to the northeast end of North America. From that same northeast land’s end west and southwest along the Great Lakes one finds Zizania palustris (which is either a separate species or a variation of Z. aquatica.)  Both of those are annuals. Zizania texana is found only in Hays County, Texas, in the San Marcos River area, and is a perennial. There’s also a perennial Wild Rice in Japan, Taiwan, China and much of eastern Eurasia called Zizania latifolia. Incidently the latter becomes infected with  Ustilago esculenta which causes the lower stem to swell. The Chinese parboil the stem then saute it with meat or other vegetables.

The entire flower on Giant Cut Grass Droops

Locally the object de forage is Zizania aquatica, see top photo, not to be confused with Zizaniopsis miliacea, Giant Cut Grass, left, which also grows here. Z. aquatica is a very large grass to ten feet tall. Its stems are thick and spongy. Leaves are strap-like up to four feet long and two inches wide, smooth. The leaf’s edge is sharply toothed. The inflorescence is erect, very large up to two feet long and a foot across with spreading branches. The lower branchlets (male) droop, upper branchlets (female) are stiff and upright. Numerous spikelets and flowers, grain ovoid, yellow to reddish, up to an inch long. The flower is the quick key to separating the Zizania from the Zizaniopsis which resembles Wild Rice. The entire inflorescence — male and female parts — droop on the Zizaniopsis. The female parts of the flower on Wild Rice are stiff and point up.

Zizania texana

Several first foragers use the Zizania species. Captain John Smith of Pocahontas fame said of the Wild Rice that it “groweth as our bents do in meadows…. seed is not much unlike rye, though much smaller… this they use for dainty bread buttered with dear suet.”  Most folks don’t realize that Smith was a close friend of the king’s gardener and was in North America to basically find plants. His prowess with the barely pubertic Pocahontas seems to have captured historical fame more than his penchants for pokeweed. Smith was a swashbuckling kind of guy and probably the most famous of men who share his common name. He’s the first among John Smiths and was going to be executed when the ship he was on landed. However, papers labeled ‘only open in North America’ put him in charge of everyone including the captain who was going to execute him. That has to be the world’s sweetest reprieve.  The “bent” he was referring to is probably some speices of Agrostis.

As for the Wild Rice, the Menominee, who take their name from the plant in Ojibwan, manoomin, cooked the grain with deer broth, pork, or butter and seasoned it with maple syrup. The Ojibwa used it to make muffins as well as stuffing for duck and other birds. They steamed it to fluff it up and had it for breakfast with sugar and cream. Popping it was common. And… prepare yourself for this… No, I really mean it. Steel thyself, ’cause this ain’t pretty: TheOjibwa also boiled it with rabbit excrement and considered the concoction a delicious luxury. Other tribes that consumed the grain included the Dakota, Meskwaki, Omaha, Ponca, Thompson, and Winnebago.

Several early writers mentioned how the grain was harvested with the use of two sticks and a canoe. Basically the plant is leaned over the canoe with one stick and brushed with the other. After parching some tribes trod on the grain to winnow it. Not the best method as even just a little grit makes the grain difficult to consume. Sand is not an edible. Incidentally, the Zizaniopsis miliacea has edible seeds as well and the growing tips of its white rhizomes are edible cooked . Zizaniopsis means looks like Zizania. Miliacea is millet-like.

Aquatica means in the water, palustris means in the swamp, texana in Texas and latifolia wide leaf. Zizania is a bit more involved. It’s from the Greek word ζιζάνια  (zee-ZAH- nee-ah) or singular in modern Greek  ζιζάνιο (zee-ZAH-nee-oh.)  It was a weed that inflitrated wheat fields. In Dead Latin it is said zye-ZAY-nee-ah. The word in modern Greek also means dissension or a mischievous person or tare (said tear which is a vetch.) Linguistically you have a choice: You can use Dead Latin and say zye-ZAY-nee-ah or use Living Greek and call it zee-ZAH-nee-ah. I’ve made my choice…

Nutrionally Wild Rice is about 77% carbohydrates and between 15 and 17% protein. The grains are rich in glutelins and essential amino acids, especially lysine and methionine. It is a good source of B vitamins and is low in amylose, only 2%.

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile: Wild Rice

IDENTIFICATION: Zizania aquatica: Annual, erect, aquatic grass  to ten feet. Stems hollow; leaves flat, to four feet long, two inches wide, leaf-markings purple with thick midrib often nearer one leaf side than the other. Flowers cross-fertilized and wind-pollinated, large, open, terminal panicles, two-feet long a foot wide. Male flowers on lower portion of the flower droop; female parts of the flowers are stiff and erect, twisted barbed awns; kernels (seed) closely adhering to thin brown hull, shallow-grooved the entire length of one surface, long, nearly cylindrical, purplish-black when ripe. Roots slender, fibrous, penetrating shallowly.

TIME OF YEAR: Late summer, mid-August into mid-September. Grains are collected by using two sticks the length of your arm. One is used to bend the plant over the canoe. The other stick is used to gently brush the plant to knock off ripe seeds. Successive visits to the same plant are possible as not all the seeds ripen at the same time. Harvesting can start as early as after 4.5 months of growth. Grain is harvested when the plants are still green. If they are brown, you’re too late. Collected grains should be sun dried for at least a couple of days. An alternative is parching the grains which is heating them in an open pan, stiring until they are dry. Hull parched rice immedately or they will remoisten. Keep away from sand. A little grit goes a long ways.

ENVIRONMENT: Wild Rice is completely absent from strongly alkaline waters and avoids stagnant water. The current must not be perceptible but a constant change of water is desirable. Fresh water plant, not growing successfully in water with a salty taste, thrives in brackish water in low marshes bordering tidal rivers, and in no more than two feet of water, and where the annual change of water level is not more than two feet. Grows wild in shallow freshwater lakes and edges of lakes and streams. It requires slow-flowing water through the rice bed or field, with depth of water from one to four feet with constant or slightly declining water levels through the growing season. Raising water uproots the plant.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Cleaned grains are usually boiled. They can also be popped or ground into a flour used with other flours or added to stews as a thickener.

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{ 12 comments… add one }
  • Lisa J January 17, 2012, 10:15 pm

    Now this one is local for me here in central MN. I haven’t harvested it myself, but do buy mine from the local Ojibwe who harvest if from Lake Onamia. While watching a rice processing demo at the reservation this past fall, the man doing the winnowing described that his favorite way of eating the rice is to “pop” it, like popcorn, and mix it with maple sugar left over from syrup-making. I think I could try that. My favorite way to eat it, is as a wild rice omelet with black trumpet mushrooms.

  • Keith January 20, 2012, 12:50 pm

    Hey Deane, great work, I enjoy all of it thoroughly.

    I am wondering if you can answer this: Will Wild Rice survive wherever Cattails and Phragmites can? I have some land with Cattails occupying a nice little chunk, and then at the slightest lower (maybe a foot or two) elevation, next to the almost full year stream is phragmites (the stream stopped running maybe once this year, though remained wet). The property drops a little further and ends up in a swamp, but this swamp is overgrown and I won’t be able to cultivate there for a little while. I can dredge out some of the area with cattails and phragmites and make a little pond for the Wild Rice (hand digging). What do you think, will the Wild Rice survive in a damp meadow? Do you know of any common associates that are edible that I haven’t mentioned? Will it cooperate with Lotus, and Cress? I am located in NY if that helps. Thanks!!!


    P.S. Perhaps you could consider adding an element of this to your articles. If I may be so bold! Maybe you can tell people how they might be able to introduce these species where they want it. Will simply scattering Dandelion seed suffice? Should a root be transplanted? Should it be cultivated as thoroughly as lettuce to assure establishment? For people like me that would be a great boon. Keep up the good work!!

    • Green Deane January 20, 2012, 1:07 pm

      Research on wild rice is quite specific. It wants a change of water but very little current. Also it does not endure rising water because it uproots it. Lotus, I think, prefers warmer winters than you have. If I had a spongy meadow I would consider Apios americana. They grow well in your garden when cultivated but their natural habitat is wet areas.

      I sometimes include how to spread seeds around, as mentioned in my current newsletter. Officials and others frown on this.

  • sun tzu lao May 13, 2012, 4:24 pm

    Keith, I grow it in containers on my downspouts in western ny. Nothing will grow around phragmite, as the roots exude a chemical that kills other plants, which is why you often find it grows in a mass, almost entirely creating a monoculture where it grows. You can try it, but I’m not sure you’ll have any luck.

  • rich October 21, 2012, 5:05 am

    dose any grow in n ca

  • Carl January 20, 2014, 1:09 am

    Just got some wild rice from the organic section of the grocery. Going to plant some and see what happens.

  • Forrest May 20, 2014, 9:40 am

    Does anyone know if wild rice grows in New England? I’d like to try some.

    • Green Deane May 20, 2014, 6:31 pm

      Yes. Look up Zizania palustris.

    • that guy June 8, 2017, 3:38 pm

      Yes it does grow in New England!!! It grows throughout the east and center of the country. Our type is called Canada Rice, and it grows in marshes and near riverbanks. I live in New England. The rice near my river has recently been infected by a mysterious pink fungus. Don’t eat it if it has pink. I live in New Hampshire and I see it at my local river. You should cook it as a grain for the best use. I hope I was helpful!

  • Shoshana Perrey August 3, 2016, 7:30 pm

    Can you share a wild forage location in New York state? I’d very much like to take a trip to forage either Zizania aquatica or an equivalent sub species in New York! Thanks!

    • Green Deane August 5, 2016, 3:29 pm

      I think you can get a better answer by googling “Wildman Steve Brill” as asking him. It’s his backyard.


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