Wild rice, or manoomin, translated to “good berry”, as the Ojibwe people call it, is not really a rice at all. It is actually an annual aquatic grass native to Minnesota. It officially became the state grain of Minnesota on May 27, 1977. This article will touch on the history, some interesting facts, and attempt to portray the incredible significance of this “food that grows on water.”
Wild rice has been a source of food for humans, fish, and waterfowl for thousands of years. Through excavation, it has been found in layers of earth dating back 12,000 years. At one time, it was documented to grow in 45 of Minnesota’s 87 counties. While it grows beyond the borders of our state, Minnesota has more acres of natural wild rice than any other state. Additionally, our state harvests between 4 and 10 million pounds of cultivated “wild” rice each year. Another large producer of cultivated wild rice is California. A ‘white rice” farmer tried growing it after receiving seeds from a Minnesota friend in the early 70’s.
Historically, natural wild rice grows on its own, reseeding every year in a delicate ecosystem that is difficult to replicate - in case you want to try growing it on your own. Ideal conditions are waters that are 1 to 3 feet deep with a slight current, that isn’t so strong that it uproots the plants, and has a soft organic bottom. It grows 3 to 9 feet tall and is sensitive to fluctuations in water depth. Other water vegetation such as water lilies, water shield, and pickerel weed sometimes compete with wild rice and may limit production. The plants are wind-pollinated with both male and female flowers growing on the same stalk.
Typically, in late August into September, the seeds ripen at various times so that harvesting can be repeated more than once in the same area. Seeds that fall back into the water will form new plants over the following year or two. Traditionally, the harvest is done with two people in a canoe. One is the “poler,” guiding the canoe through the rice beds with a forked pole constantly looking ahead for plants heavy with mature seeds. The other person is the “knocker.” Using two carved cedar sticks about 30 inches long, the knocker gently pulls the stalks over the canoe with one stick and then tap-taps the stalks rhythmically causing the mature seeds to fall into the canoe. Some Native people recite “miigwech!” or “thank you” with each repetition of the process to thank the Creator for the nutritious food that lasted and sustained their ancestors through long winters. Next, the grain is dried, then parched or roasted, and finally the chaff is removed.
In contrast to natural wild rice, the University of Minnesota began studying wild rice production back in the 1950’s. By 1973, the University had established a wild rice research program which helped lead to the growth of Minnesota’s commercial wild rice industry. According to the Minnesota Secretary of State, there are about 20,000 acres of commercially farmed wild rice in Minnesota. The harvesting process is very different compared to natural wild rice harvests. Instead, it is grown as a farm crop, where rice paddies are drained when the seeds are mature, and combines are used to harvest the crop. Most of the wild rice in grocery stores is cultivated. To try natural wild rice, make sure the package does not say “cultivated” on it. An obvious difference is that due to the more labor intensive harvest methods, natural wild rice is more expensive to purchase, but some people also notice differences in how it cooks and tastes compared to commercially grown wild rice.
If you are interested in harvesting wild rice yourself, there are some strict guidelines set by the Minnesota DNR. You must purchase a license, harvest only during restricted harvest periods in approved areas and use only traditional methods with no mechanized tools. All of the regulations can be found here. Failure to follow the regulations can result in a fine up to $1000 and/or 90 days in jail.
Studies at the University of Minnesota have found wild rice has antioxidant properties and phytochemicals to boost immune systems. Wild rice is low in fat, but high in fiber and protein, and gluten free. One cup of cooked wild rice is only 166 calories, yet provides 6.5 grams of protein. It is also rich in folic acid, niacin, potassium, zinc and several B vitamins.
Here are some wild rice fun or interesting facts:
It is said that wild rice can be popped like popcorn, but that is only partially true. It can be popped, but don’t expect the results to be like popcorn. The kernels “pop” but are probably more suited to garnish on a salad rather than a snack to have during movie night!
Lumberjacks used to eat wild rice with milk and honey for breakfast.
Wild rice is the only cereal grain native to North America.
Finally, like all living things in our fragile ecosystem, climate change, water quality, development and construction threaten the future of wild rice. In order to protect this food, valuable to humans and wildlife, and particularly impactful to Native culture and way of life, the White Earth Nation established the Rights of Manoomin in their tribal law, to protect the future of wild rice. To date, however, no U.S. court has recognized a rights of nature law. Cases are currently ongoing regarding the protection of wild rice.
For further reading, these books and websites are recommended by the Andersen Horticultural Library at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, University of Minnesota,
~The Ojibwa: Wild Rice Gatherers, by Therese DeAngelis. Blue Earth Books, 2003. Discusses the Ojibwa Indians, focusing on their tradition of gathering wild rice. Includes a rice recipe and instructions for making a dream catcher.
~The Sacred Harvest: Ojibway Wild Rice Gathering, by Gordon Regguinti. Lerner Publishing, 1992. 48 p. Glen Jackson, Jr., an eleven-yearold Ojibway Indian in northern Minnesota, goes with his father to harvest wild rice, the sacred food of his people.
~Our Manoomin, Our Life: The Anishinaabeg Struggle to Protect Wild Rice, by Winona LaDuke and Brian Carlson. White Earth Land Recovery Project, 2003. 24 p.
~Saga of the Grain: A Tribute to Minnesota Cultivated Wild Rice Growers, by Ervin A. Oelke, John Schumacher, and Robin Schreiner. Hobar Publications, 2007. 139 p.
~The Taming of Wild Rice, by Harold Kosbau. Treasure Bay Printing, 2005. 102 p. Wild Rice and the Ojibway People, by Thomas Vennum. Minnesota Historical Society Press. 1988. 357 p.
~Wild Rice, Star of the North: 150 Minnesota Recipes for a Gourmet Grain, by the 1006 Summit Avenue Society. McGraw-Hill, 1986. 188 p.
~1854 Treaty Authority: Grand Portage, Bois Forte.www.1854treatyauthority.org/wildrice/otherinfo.htm
~Minnesota Cultivated Wild Rice Council. www.mnwildrice.org/
~Where the Wild Things Grow, by Ed Clark. AgWeb January 11, 2012. www.agweb.com/topproducer/article/where_the_wild_things_grow/
Resources for this article:
Photo credits: University of Minnesota Wild Rice Research Database (1), Minnesota Wildflowers (2), Lisa Olson (3, 4), All Creative Commons: intercontinentalcry.org (5)