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How to Harvest Wild Rice

A few late-summer days on the lake can garner you pounds of nutritious grain for your winter storehouse.

| September/October 2020

Wild rice is considered a sacred cultural component for many Great Lakes peoples. The grain is high in protein and vitamins, and has a long shelf life when stored properly. Flickr/Doug McGrady

For those of us lucky enough to live in the Great Lakes region, enjoying locally harvested wild rice is one of the benefits of living here. We take an even greater enjoyment in harvesting this annual plant using traditional methods, navigating a canoe through beds of wild rice and dislodging the grains into a boat with wooden flails. Working as a father-son team allows us to switch roles, sharing both the work and the bounty. Here’s our primer on harvesting and processing wild rice for anyone who can paddle a canoe and swing a wooden stick.

The Good Berry

The Ojibwe people called the wild rice plant manoomin. “Good berry” is one translation for this word, but there are many others among various tribes, attesting to the importance of this food source. Wild rice is considered a sacred cultural component for many Great Lakes peoples. A good harvest was crucial for the well-being of Indigenous people; wild rice is high in protein and vitamins, and has a long shelf life when stored properly. So, when you’re on the water harvesting, be sure to respect the plant and the proud culture of the tribes that value it.

Two wild rice species are native to North America, Zizania palustris and Z. aquatica, and can be found in many states. Check with your state’s natural resources department for harvesting regulations and licensing. Illustration by Amanda Barnwell

Wild rice is an annual grass indigenous to North America. Three species of wild rice are native to the continent, but one of these (Zizania texana) is found only in Texas. The other two occur near our northern Minnesota home, and can be found in many other U.S. states as well (see map at right). Z. palustris and Z. aquatica grow in shallow lakes and sloughs with a mild current, and also slow-moving streams. Wild rice prefers to grow in several inches of soft muck. This annual grass is self-seeding. Grains not eaten by wildfowl will lie in sediment on the lake bottom over winter and germinate in spring. Wild rice appears on the water surface in late spring as a flat, narrow, floating leaf. At this stage, it’s susceptible to fluctuating water levels. A promising rice bed can be severely damaged by wind, thunderstorms, or flooding caused by beaver activity. High water will uproot the floating leaflets.

Wild rice plants flower on stalks that can reach 12 feet tall or higher. Photo by Barb Barton

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