Fields, Forests & Wetlands Foods of Eastern North America
A Complete Wild Food Guide
Rice (Wild, Native Species)
Season: August & September
Urban, Rural or Both: Rural
There are two species of Wild Rice in Eastern North America: Northern Wildrice (Zizania palustris) and Annual Wildrice (Zizania aquatica). I have to be honest and say I can't really figure out what the difference is between the two. I will treat them as if they are the same plant, and for the purposes of this book, that makes the most sense.
I hate to say it, but I've only gathered a tiny amount of Wild Rice in the wild. Any time I've seen it ready to harvest, it was out of reach and I didn't have a boat. One time I saw a patch of it that must have been 10 acres or more in size in perfectly clean water in Central Ontario. It drove me nuts not being able to get at some of it.
Luckily, it is available in many stores. It is expensive, but mixed with standard brown rice at a 10 to 20% mix and cook as per instructions for the brown rice works very well, and makes a great base for putting cooked vegetables on.
If you do find some in the wild in clean water, it is ripe, and you have a boat, here are the basic instructions. I've read other ways, so if you find enough to gather, do more research. You have to be very careful of what is known as "shattering". That is when you lightly touch the plant and the rice falls off into the water. It is so easy to do when the grain is ripe that you are best off doing the harvesting when the grain is almost ripe. However, a real problem with getting the timing right is the plants do not all ripen at the same time.
- To gather, you need a boat that can go in shallow water - a canoe is the best option.
- Put a clean tarp or blanket on the bottom of the canoe and go out into where the wild rice is.
- When beside some, use a stick to bend over the plant over the tarp in the canoe, and using another stick hit the plant to knock the rice and husk onto the tarp.
- Take the gathered grain home and dry well. A few days in dry sun will do it. If you only have a small amount, spread on a flat pan and put in a dry warm place like the top of a fridge and leave for about a week.
- Slowly and carefully roast the grain and husk until the husk is a light gold brown without burning. If you just have a small amount, put the pan the rice dried on in the oven and turn to quite low - around 250 Fahrenheit, and keep an eye on it. For a large amount a big iron or clay pot over heat stirred almost constantly is traditional.
- The traditional way to husk the rice is to put the rice in a hollow in the ground on top of a deerskin and stand on the grain and twist around with rubber soled shoes or deerskin moccasins. I have found two other ways that are a lot simpler to do indoors for small amounts. There are thin rubber disks that are used for opening jars where the lid is on really tight to stop your hand from slipping. Two of those with some grain between and twisted by hand over a bowl works pretty well. The other way is with thick rubber coated gloves doing the same. There are some cloth gloves with a non slip rubber coating that I used that worked quite well.
- A few ways to separate the rice from the broken up husks. One: put in a large flat bowl and shake around up and down which causes the husks to move to the top at one side and just blow on them, pushing them overboard. I prefer to pour from one container to another in front of a fan on low, or if you are lucky to have a nice gentle steady breeze, forget the fan. Pour from one container to another so that the rice drops to the lower container, and the husk blows away. Back and forth a few times should get it perfectly cleaned, or winnowed as it is called.
- Plant Size: Up to 3 meter (10 feet) tall including up to 60 cm (2 feet) under water.
- Duration: Annual
- Leaf Shape: Very long, relatively narrow leaves that look like giant blades of grass - which they are
- Leaf Phyllotaxis (Leaf Arrangement) on branch: Alternate
- Leaf Size: Up to 1 meter (over 3 feet) long and up 4 cm (under 2 inches) wide (usually narrower)
- Leaf Margin: Entire (smooth edged)
- Leaf Notes: Leaves are often not symmetrical with regard to the central vein - it is usually closer to one margin than the other.
- Flowers: Both male and female flowers are on a single culm (stem). The Female is above the male and the female spikes are more upward facing (less angle), while the male spikes are more horizontal. The only difference I know of between the two species of this grass is the Northern Wildrice female flower head is narrower than the Annual Wildrice. When the male flowers are finished in July or August, the flowers fall off leaving the lower male spikes on the plant empty like tree branches without leaves - bare looking.
- Fruit: Long, narrow rice grains that are purple-black inside thin brown husks that are not loose on the rice kernel (need to use procedure mentioned above to remove the husk)
- Stem: Stem is hollow, strong
- Habitat: Shallow lakes and slow moving shallow water. Maximum water depth is about 60 cm (2 feet) deep
- Recipe search on the web here (Google search) and here (Bing search).
- Pictures on the web Northern Wildrice Zizania palustris here (Google images) and here (Bing images).
- Pictures on the web Annual Wildrice (Zizania aquatica) here (Google images) and here (Bing images).
- USDA distribution map and plant profile for the Northern Wildrice Zizania palustris here.
- USDA distribution map and plant profile for the Annual Wildrice (Zizania aquatica) here
- The Biota of North America Program (BONAP) distribution map Northern Wildrice Zizania palustris here. BONAP map color key here.
- The Biota of North America Program (BONAP) distribution map Annual Wildrice (Zizania aquatica) here. BONAP map color key here.
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