I have been able to identify wild rice since my Boy Scout days, and have enjoyed paddling a canoe along beds of it in many northern Minnesota lakes and streams.
Wild rice grows from seeds that fall during the growing season into shallow water, typically a foot to 3-feet deep, with a mucky bottom. The seeds germinate in spring, and the plant takes root under water. Ribbonlike leaves float on the surface during late spring and early summer. A stem for each plant emerges from the water in July and stands about 3- to 6-feet tall. It produces non-showy flowers. It’s easy to see the yellow, pollen-covered anthers during this phase. The rice grains are ripe by the end of August, yellow to red in color, and appear at the end of the stalk. Many plants growing together in shallow water take on the appearance of a tall green grass area, which it is.
Wild rice has a higher protein content than most cereal grains, making it good for wildlife — and humans. It attracts wild birds, especially waterfowl and red-winged blackbirds. The nutty-flavored rice seed is the only cereal grain native to North America, and was an important food for Indians in the Upper Midwest long before European immigrants arrived. The rice provided a quarter of the total calories in their diet. The Ojibwe people moved to ricing camps along the shorelines of lakes and rivers in late August. The wild rice was more than about food. It had a ritual of social and religious significance, symbolizing the peak of the natural cycles of earth, air, water and sun.
Jim Gilbert has been a naturalist for more than 50 years.