I was recently asked if wild rice grows in North Dakota: In a word yes. Although we may generally think of wild rice growing in northern Minnesota (where it has been designated the state grain), the historic range of the species covered much of North America east of line from Manitoba southward to Texas. We are on the edge of its range. Here in North Dakota it has been documented in the counties south and east of a line from Walsh County to Emmons County. But wild rice is a rare find in our state.
Wild rice is a stout annual grass that grows to a height of six feet or so in fresh water lakes and streams. It produces a pyramidal shaped inflorescence in which the green or purplish female flowers are rather contracted, under which are spreading male flowers. It really has an interesting and unusual appearance.
Wild rice tolerates a rather narrow range of water condition. It cannot tolerate high alkalinity, and does not do well in calm water or conversely where currents are strong. It grows best in fresh, clear bodies of water with a hint of a current and a muddy or silty bottom. It also seems to prefer a slight drop in water levels as the growing season progresses.
Wild rice is widely known to have been a staple in the diet of many Native American tribes. The Ojibwe called it “Manoomin” or good grain. Even today in the White Earth Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota harvests several thousand pounds of wild rice each year, typically in September. It is harvested by boat or canoe in which a person uses a large stick to pull the seed heads over the boat and then hit the seedheads to release the seeds into the boat. This is followed by a considerable amount of processing before it is ready for cooking.
The timing of the harvest is critical. Recall that wild rice is an annual. So if people try to harvest it too early the grain is green. If it is too late, many of the seeds have already shattered.
Although we may not be able to collect a good meal of wild rice here in North Dakota, it is often available in grocery stores. Some of that may be wild rice that is grown commercially, but a goodly portion is harvested in the traditional manner. The wild stuff is a little spendy, but a meal of wild game, perhaps pheasant or duck, accompanied with wild rice is a meal fit for royalty. So is a good wild rice and mushroom soup. Excuse me; I have to make a quick trip to the grocery store.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.