Wild rice is part of life for people and wildlife, too
I cross the Mississippi River every day on my way to work. Throughout the four seasons, I witness firsthand the changing moods of this quiet stretch of the river. I observe the river's waters freeze in late fall; I see it become laden with ice and snow during the long months of winter; I watch the river reappear in the springtime when the ice breaks and the water flows; and I see, by late summer, the progress of the life-giving wild rice crop.
It seems this year's wild rice, in most places I've been where wild rice typically flourishes, is fair to good as far as its abundance and density is concerned. I believe our late spring and cool summer weather, along with fluctuating water levels in some parts of the Northland, has had a telling effect on local stands of wild rice.
For example, some of Minnesota's traditional wild rice lakes remains closed to human harvest until further notice, although, in spite of low yields, these lakes, and others as well, are predicted to produce plenty of wild rice for migrating waterfowl and other wildlife that relies on this nutritious native grain for food and cover.
The Chippewa called wild rice, "mahnomen" or "manoomin", which means "good berry." So important was this food source to Minnesota's indigenous people that many settlements were established nearby that were also fiercely defended. After all, the grains of this grass were delectable and nutritious, but only locally abundant.
Declared as Minnesota's official state grain in 1977, manoomin is commonly known today as wild rice. Some 15,000 to 30,000 acres grow in Minnesota, and no other state has more.
Native only to North America, wild rice can be found from Manitoba to Florida, but is found primarily in the Great Lakes region. The aquatic grain grows in large stands or beds and in small patches in wetlands, lakes and rivers. Few natural and wild foods are as important to people and wildlife as wild rice.
In a way, wild rice is really a misnomer. It's not actually rice at all, but is really a grass like big bluestem, wheat, barley and oats. Growing primarily in waters 3 feet deep or less, wild rice can reach surprisingly tall heights of 8 feet and more at maturity.
Colored green during the growing season, the plants turn golden as they ripen in late summer and fall with grains of brown gracing the heads.
Although wild rice grows year after year in the same locations when conditions are favorable, the plant is an annual, not a perennial. When ripe grains fall off the plants into the water, they sink to the bottom, lie dormant through the winter months and germinate in the springtime.
Wild rice has three growth stages: submerged, floating-leaf and emergent. As a wild rice plant grows, it produces a single root and a single leaf. More leaves appear as the plant reaches for the surface of the water until the tops emerge, floating like green ribbons undulating with the waves or current. As the growing season progresses, stems extend well above the water, seed heads appear and the plants ripen by late August.
The harvest of wild rice is regulated in the state of Minnesota. Season dates typically begin in mid-July (although this year it was Aug. 15) and concludes by the end of September with harvesting times set from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.
Restrictions include not harvesting green rice; watercrafts not exceeding 18 feet in length and 36 inches wide; push poles limited to only those that are forked; and harvesting sticks (flails) that are round, made of wood, no longer than 30 inches and no heavier than a pound.
Obviously, there is a reason people harvest wild rice, just as there is a reason flocks of waterfowl congregate within wild rice beds every autumn: it tastes good and is good for you.
Wild rice has a delicious, robust nutty flavor, is very high in protein but low in fat, and contains B vitamins, potassium and phosphorus.
Furthermore, wild rice contains antioxidants, which is believed to reduce the risk of cancer in people. The plant is also a folk remedy for heart and stomach ailments and burns.
Recipes abound that use wild rice as the main ingredient. There's creamy wild rice soup, wild rice casserole, wild rice stuffing, wild rice salad and wild rice pudding. Another favorite main dish, wild duck, is often prepared and stuffed with the wonderful grain or served with cooked wild rice as a side dish.
Aside from providing us with recreation and food, wild rice is an extremely essential wildlife food source that doubly serves as significant habitat for many species of wildlife. Not only can birds such as ducks, geese, swans, rails and blackbirds feed on wild rice, they can do so in the relative safety of the dense beds.
Wild rice is indeed another Minnesota native to appreciate as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.