Wild rice (also called Canada rice, Indian rice, and water oats) are four species of grasses forming the genus Zizania, and the grain which can be harvested from them. The grain was historically gathered and eaten in both North America and China. While it is now a delicacy in North America, the grain is eaten less in China,:165 where the plant’s stem is used as a vegetable.
Wild rice is not directly related to Asian rice (Oryza sativa), whose wild progenitors are O. rufipogon and O. nivara, although they are close cousins, sharing the tribe Oryzeae. Wild rice grains have a chewy outer sheath with a tender inner grain that has a slightly vegetal taste and nutty taste. The plants grow in shallow water in small lakes and slow-flowing streams and rivers; often, only the flowering head of wild rice rises above the water. The grain is eaten by dabbling ducks and other aquatic wildlife, as well as humans.
Three species of wild rice are native to North America:
- Northern wild rice (Zizania palustris) is an annual plant native to the Great Lakes region of North America, the aquatic areas of the Boreal Forest regions of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba in Canada and Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan in the US.
- Wild rice (Z. aquatica), also an annual, grows in the Saint Lawrence River and on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States.
- Texas wild rice (Z. texana) is a perennial plant found only in a small area along the San Marcos River in central Texas. Texas wild rice is in danger of extinction due to loss of suitable habitat in its limited range and to pollution. The pollen of Texas wild rice can only travel about 30 inches away from a parent plant. If pollen does not land on a receptive female flower within that distance, no seeds are produced. Manchurian wild rice has almost disappeared from the wild in its native range, but has been accidentally introduced into the wild in New Zealand and is considered an invasive species there.
One species is native to Asia:
Manchurian wild rice (Z. latifolia; incorrect synonym: Z. caduciflora), is a perennial native to China.
Harvesting Wild Rice
The species most commonly harvested as grain is the annual species Zizania palustris. Native Americans and others harvest wild rice by canoeing into a stand of plants, and bending the ripe grain heads with wooden sticks called knockers, so as to thresh the seeds into the canoe.
The size of the knockers, as well as other details, are prescribed in state and tribal law. By Minnesota statute, knockers must be at most 1 inch in diameter, 30 inches long, and one pound in weight. The plants are not beaten with the knockers but require only a gentle brushing to dislodge the mature grain. The Ojibwa people call this plant manoomin meaning “good berry”. Some seeds fall to the muddy bottom and germinate later in the year.
Several Native American cultures, such as the Ojibwa, consider wild rice to be a sacred component in their culture. The rice is hand harvested with a canoe: one person vans (or “knocks”) rice into the canoe with two small poles (called “knockers” or “flails”) while the other paddles slowly or uses a push pole. For these groups, this harvest is an important cultural (and often economic) event. Named by the Ojibwe, the neighboring Omanoominii (the Menominee tribe, whose endonym is Mamaceqtaw, “the people”) is named after this plant. Many places in Illinois, Indiana, Manitoba, Michigan, Minnesota, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Wisconsin are named after this plant, including Mahnomen, Minnesota, Menomonie, Wisconsin and many lakes and streams bearing the name “Rice”, “Wildrice”, or “Wild Rice”.
Because of its nutritional value and taste, wild rice increased in popularity in the late 20th century, and commercial cultivation began in the US and Canada to supply the increased demand. In the US, the main producers are California and Minnesota (where it is the official state grain) and it is mainly cultivated in paddy fields. In Canada, it is usually harvested from natural bodies of water; the largest producer is the province of Saskatchewan. Wild rice is also produced in Hungary and Australia. In Hungary, cultivation started in 1974 on the rice field of Szarvas. The Indian Rice Ltd. was founded in 1990. Now, the Hungarian wild rice growing and processing is managed only by this company. In Australia production is controlled by Ricewild Pty. Ltd. at Deniliquin Lin Southern New South Wales.
Manchurian wild rice (Chinese: 菰; pinyin: gū), gathered from the wild, was once an important grain in ancient China.:165 Because of the difficulty of its domestication, it gradually lost importance with increasing population density, as its habitat was converted for use in raising rice. It is now very rare in the wild, and its use as a grain has completely disappeared in China, though it continues to be cultivated for its stems.:165
Nutrition and Safety
Typically sold as a dried whole grain, wild rice is high in protein, the amino acid lysine and dietary fiber, and low in fat. Nutritional analysis shows wild rice to be second only to oats (quinoa was third) in protein content per 100 calories.  Like true rice, it does not contain gluten. It is also a good source of certain minerals and B vitamins. One cup of cooked wild rice provides 5% or more of the daily value of thiamin, riboflavin, iron, and potassium; 10% or more of the daily value of niacin, b6, folate, magnesium, phosphorus; 15% of zinc; and over 20% of manganese.
Wild rice seeds can be infected by the highly toxic fungus ergot, which is dangerous if eaten. Infected grains have pink or purplish blotches or growths of the fungus, from the size of a seed to several times larger.
Wild rice, cooked
Nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz)
Energy 423 kJ (101 kcal)
Carbohydrates 21.34 g
– Sugars 0.73 g
– Dietary fiber 1.8 g
Fat 0.34 g
Protein 3.99 g
Water 73.93 g
Source: USDA Nutrient Database
The swollen crisp white stems of Manchurian wild rice are grown as a vegetable, popular in East and Southeast Asia. The swelling occurs because of infection with the smut fungus Ustilago esculenta.:165 The fungus prevents the plant from flowering, so the crop is propagated asexually, the infection being passed from mother plant to daughter plant. Harvest must be made between about 120 days and 170 days after planting, after the stem begins to swell but before the infection reaches its reproductive stage, when the stem will begin to turn black and eventually disintegrate.
The vegetable is especially common in China, where it is known as gaosun or jiaobai. Other names which may be used in English include coba and water bamboo. Importation of the vegetable to the United States is prohibited in order to protect North American species from the fungus.