When most of us think of rice, we envision paddies cascading down the mountainside of Vietnam or Indonesia. We think of Asian food, saucy curries spooned out next to long-grain or egg-fried amalgamations flavoured with soy. As a Louisiana native, I turn to red beans and rice, gumbo, and etouffee. These are visions of the Oryza sub-tribe of cultivated grains, but for centuries wild rice, four grasses forming Zizania genus, were a staple plant. These species of this plant are now commonly referred to as wild rice, Indian rice, Canadian rice, and water oats.
Species of Wild Rice
There are three species of wild rice native to North America and one to China. Two of these species are annuals, two perennials.
- Northern wild rice (Z. Palustris) is cold-natured, growing primarily in the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada and branching out into shallow waterways beyond there. It’s an annual that was commonly eaten (and still is) by indigenous people and now has commercial production.
- Aquatica, recognized plainly as wild rice, is an annual native to the Atlantic and Gulf coast of the states. It was also used by several tribes in the past, but due to their relocation, harvesting this grain is a tradition largely lost.
- Texas wild rice (Z. Texana) has obvious roots. It’s a perennial strain that is nearing extinction due to habitat loss and pollution. Only found in the San Marcos River, plants are limited to pollenating within less than a meter of the parent plant, furthering its reproductive issues.
- The Chinese strain, or Manchurian wild rice (Z. Latifolia), is nearly extinct in its native habitat but popped up as an “invasive” in New Zealand. While the grain is no longer appreciated in China, the infected stems (smut fungus) of cultivated plants are used as a vegetable.
Cooking Wild Rice
Wild rice has a lot to be appreciated for in terms of nutrition. Like conventional rice, it is a gluten-free carbohydrate. It’s also a viable source of protein, as well as dietary fibre and amino acids. It has significant amounts of B-vitamins, as well as several minerals, such as zinc, manganese, phosphorus, and magnesium. It is also considered a high antioxidant food.
In terms of taste and texture, wild rice has a chewy outer coating over dense grains and a distinctly delicious nuttiness. Traditionally, it was used both as stuffing and in stews for savoury game dishes, but it was also mixed with syrup to make sweet puddings as well as rice puffs. For the most part, these days it’s used as a savoury grain.
Preparing wild rice, as with actual rice and legumes, works better when it is rinsed then soaked overnight. The rice has Phytic acid, a naturally occurring defence mechanism that protects its seeds (a good thing for it) but inhibits mineral absorption (a bad thing for us). Soaking the grain breaks down this coating and makes the grain easier to digest. It also reduces the cooking time by about half, minimising the fuel required. (In other words, soaking our grains and legumes is a good habit to get into.) From there, it can be boiled or steamed.
Cultivation of Wild Rice
Though actually wild wild rice is still relatively prevalent in the Great Lakes region, enough so that the native grass is still harvested traditionally by hand/canoe, what we see in supermarkets is cultivated. When foraged in the wild, the technique used—gently sweeping the seed heads into the bottom of a canoe—inevitably drops enough seeds in the water to reseed the annual for next season. It can grow in as little as four inches (10 cm) of water or as much as four feet (120 cm) and requires cold stratification to propagate.
With that in mind, cultivating wild rice is known to be an up-front challenge that pays in dividends once founded. An established rice bed more or less replants itself and produces abundant harvests. For those with homestead ponds and dams, cultivating wild rice is a good tool for aquatic production. It likes to grow in the water, leaving land and shore cultivation for other crops. It’s also great for stabilising loose soils, providing fish habitat, cleaning the water, tying up nutrients, and buffering winds.
Another huge bonus is that this a cold temperate crop (Z. Palustris), one that can thrive in notoriously frigid environments like Minnesota and Ontario. For warmer though still temperate spots, Z. Aquatica will work. In either case, the rice likes clean, slow-moving water. It can be expected to grow to be around three meters tall and has long, strappy leaves. It flowers in late summer and the seeds become very dark as they mature. In addition to being good for human food, ducks and other birds also love wild rice.
Though the perennial forms of wild rice are struggling to survive (Texas wild rice) or damaging their reputation through self-propagation (Manchurian wild rice), at the very least the annuals make for a great addition to a permaculture site. For one, they readily seed themselves, so that’s nearly as desirable as a perennial, and obviously they can be left to their own devices as a wild plant yet harvested as a staple food.
In addition to the aforementioned functions, such as soil stabilising, wildlife habitat, and water conditioning, cultivated wild rice also makes use of all that arable aquatic space that the underwater edges of ponds, dams, swales, and other permaculture earthworks add to a site. In doing so, it provides lots of biomass, tolerates brackishness that damaged or swampy landscapes might have, and produces a niche crop for local markets.
So, in terms of permaculture, what’s not to like? This is exactly the kind of crop we are looking for. It performs multiple functions, has no real footprint, grows and reseeds with or without human interference, and provides significant calories. What’s more is that it thrives in cold environs, where growing seasons can be a time crunch and local carbohydrates are a little harder to come by. And, it has great selling potential. The biggest trick for many will be finding viable seed, particularly outside of North America.