Wild Rice - Zizania palustris L.


To many who know wild rice it is known only as an item on the supermarket shelf, but this grass, Zizania palustris L., grows natively in the Connecticut River basin.
Wild rice habitat along the water's edge
Close up of a wild rice plant
Wild rice is a tall aquatic grass of North America with a grain two or more times the length of the long grain rice of Asia (Oryza). Though the importance of wild rice to Native Americans of the Eastern United States and Canada was limited, it has been of enormous importance to the Ojibway people, not only as a food but in their social and religious ceremonies. Today wild rice still retains an economic importance and one of the major sources of this rice for the market is Grey Owl Foods, a marketing organization owned by Native Americans from 72 reservations in Saskatchewan, Canada. The rice is also a valuable food for water fowl and is planted for that purpose.

Wild rice has been difficult to cultivate, in large part because of the ease with which ripe grains fall from their stalks or "shatter." For centuries Native Americans harvested it in canoes, bending the long stalks over the canoe and shaking off the grain. By 1985 a shatter resistant cultivar had been developed and the amount of wild rice in cultivation now greatly exceeds that harvested from plants growing naturally. California and Minnesota are the two major sources of cultivated wild rice. The new cultivar produces shorter grains that swell less when cooked than do the natural strain, so wild rice from the Connecticut River will not look exactly like what you might purchase in the store.

Wild rice has been found on numerous sites on the Connecticut River, on the borders of streams in shallow water protected from strong river currents. A population has recently been found on the western banks of the river, south of Route 116 in Whately, MA. Some plants seems to have been infected by a foliar fungal disease, brown spot. Ergot, Claviceps zizaniae, is also known to occur on natural grain wild rice.

References:

Hayes, P. M., R. E. Stucker and G. G. Wandrey. 1989. The

domestication of American wildrice (Zizania paulustris,
Poaceae. Economic Botany 43:203-214.

Steeves, T. A. 1952. Wild rice: Indian food and a modern

delicacy. Economic Botany 26:107-142.

Vennum, T. 1988. Wild Rice and the Ojibway people.

Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul MN 55101. 358 pp.