Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere

Wild Rice

Zizania aquatica L. and Zizania palustris L. (Poaceae)

By Adam Benfer

Wild rice, despite its common name, is not a closely related undomesticated ancestor of white rice (Oryza sativa L.), though they are both part of the large Grass Family (Poaceae) along with most grains. Wild rice, considered the only important grain native to North America, was once a seasonal staple in the diets of many Native North Americans (Berzok 2005: 65-66). The Ojibwa even named one of their months after the autumnal harvest of this rich wild food resource and practiced ceremonies in its honor and told legends of its origins (Vennum 1988: 58-80). A sacred food for some, wild rice can be substituted for domestic rice and tastes great with wild game (Gibbons 1962: 224; McPherson and McPherson 1977: 37). It is remarkably nutritious and palatable when prepared properly, and because of this it has made its way into markets and groceries all over the world. This plant is also known as Indian rice, water oats, water rice, and manoomin (Ojibwa).


Wild rice is a annual tall grass, native to aquatic habitats throughout a significant portion of North America. Appearing above the water’s surface sometime during the month of June, the erect, hollow, jointed stalks reach average heights of 2 m (6.5 ft) above the water line when mature in late summer, though they can grow much taller. This aquatic grass has long narrow leaves that are about 3 cm (1.2 in.) wide. Wild rice has both male and female flowers, which bloom in loosely branched clusters at the stem peak in early August. The female flowers located on the stiff upper branches produce the edible seeds, while the male flowers on the flexible, lower branches bear the pollen. It takes the wild rice grains a week or two to ripen into elongated, brown-skinned seeds (Kuhnlein and Turner 1991: 100-101).

Geographic Distribution

Wild rice once “grew in the lakes and rivers of Minnesota, upper Michigan, northern Wisconsin, New York, the Great Lakes, Florida and Upper Mississippi, which reached into Louisiana, Southwestern Missouri and Virginia” (Berzok 2005: 65). Now it can be found from the Atlantic coastal area of Canada to Manitoba and from Saskatchewan, southward as far as Texas and Florida. In this geographic region wild rice often develops large, dense beds along the shores of rivers, lakes, and streams (Kuhnlein and Turner 1991: 101).

Food Use

Wild rice, being indigenously considered an important dietary element, was a staple food among the Dakota, Menominee, Ojibwa, Omaha, Ponca, Winnebago, and the Pottawatomie (Moerman 1998: 614). When the month of the wild rice harvest approached some Native American tribes temporarily made camp near their local wild rice patches where they closely monitored the crop for optimum ripeness (Berzok 2005: 65-66). To harvest the wild rice they used clean, well-dried canoes or rafts to come up under the seeds and gently knock them loose into the watercraft. To preserve wild rice, the harvest should first be dried and subsequently parched over a fire or in an oven on low heat. Make sure that the grains are frequently stirred in a flat pan in order to parch them evenly and avoid burning. Once parched, the husks can be removed by being hand rubbed and winnow out the trash/removed husks. Finally, store preserved wild rice in tight jars until it is ready to be used. Before using the rice should be thoroughly washed to remove the overly strong smoky flavor (Gibbons 1962: 224; McPherson and McPherson 1977: 37). Wild rice was used my many tribes “to thicken soups of venison, bear, fish and fowl, or parched and carried by hunters” (Berzok 2005: 66). The Menominee cooked wild rice with deer broth, pork, or butter and seasoned it with maple sugar. The Ojibwa prepared wild rice a number of ways. For example they used the rice to make gem cakes, duck and fowl stuffing, steamed rice puffs (eaten with sugar and cream for breakfast), cooked with deer fat and maple sugar, or boiled with rabbit excrement. The Pottawatomie also used maple sugar to season wild rice when making wild rice pudding or preparing it with wild fowl or game (Moerman 1998: 614). Toasted or boiled wild rice can be ground or pound into flour and used to make excellent and nutritious pastries. For example, one might try substituting as little as 25 % wild rice flower into a pancake recipe and serve it with homemade maple syrup (Gibbons 1962: 225). It has even been reported that portions of the grass were buried in water pits in the fall after harvest and left to begin decomposing over the winter. Then in the spring the tribe would return to consume this delicacy (Berzok 2005: 66). Other than wild rice grains, the central portion of the species’ lower stems and roots are edible throughout the spring and summer. Simply remove the tough covering and eat (United States. Dept. of the Army 2003: 113). Presently wild rice is farmed in man-made paddies in some northern states using specialized harvesting equipment. Since the colonization wild rice has grown in popularity and is now considered a gourmet food that is valued for its unique nutty flavor and high protein content (Kindscher 1987: 237).

Other Uses

Both the Ojibwa, the Thompson, and no doubt other tribes made profit trading this valuable commodity (Moerman 1998: 614). Its considerable trade value made wild rice something to fight over. The Dakota and Ojibwa are said to have battled over the rights to wild rice beds for over 250 years (Berzok 2005: 66).


Wild rice not only has a higher carbohydrate content than all other more common grains, but is exceptionally rich in protein, phosphorus, and calcium as well as providing a good source of iron and B vitamins (Brill and Dean 1994: 130; Vennum 1988: 39-45).


See Kavasch (2005) pages 50 and 92 for recipes.


Berzok, Linda Murray
2005 American Indian food, Food in American history. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
Brill, Steve, and Evelyn Dean
1994 Identifying and harvesting edible and medicinal plants in wild (and not so wild) places. 1st ed. New York: Hearst Books.
Gibbons, Euell
1962 Stalking the wild asparagus. Field guide ed. New York: D. McKay.
Kavasch, E. Barrie
2005 Native harvests : American Indian wild foods and recipes. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.
Kindscher, Kelly
1987 Edible wild plants of the prairie : an ethnobotanical guide. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas.
Kuhnlein, Harriet V., and Nancy J. Turner
1991 Traditional plant foods of Canadian indigenous peoples : nutrition, botany, and use, Food and nutrition in history and anthropology, v. 8. Philadelphia: Gordon and Breach.
McPherson, Alan, and Sue McPherson
1977 Wild food plants of Indiana and adjacent states. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Moerman, Daniel E.
1998 Native American ethnobotany. Portland, Or.: Timber Press.
United States. Dept. of the Army
2003 The illustrated guide to edible wild plants. Guilford, Conn.: Lyons Press.
Vennum, Thomas
1988 Wild rice and the Ojibway people. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press.