The (Once) Edible Anacostia: Wild Rice

By Emily Haynes, Stewardship Intern

One of the most common species we plant in our wetland planting events is wild rice, and people often ask us if it’s edible. While unfortunately today the river is too polluted for us to eat anything that lives or grows in it, the Anacostia once supported much of the Nacotchtank Indians’ diet. 

Wild rice was a staple of this diet, growing along the riverbanks in the twisting wetlands that flanked the Anacostia before it was straightened and its wetlands replaced by levees, seawalls, and berms. In our work recreating these lost wetlands, we at AWS always make sure to plant plenty of wild rice, as it was once quite populous here. Wild rice is a grassy, aquatic plant distinguished by its narrow, light-green leaves that can sometimes grow up to seven feet tall. Look out at the river today and you’ll see it flowering, showing off its beautiful greenish-yellow flowers.

It was around this time, mid-summer, when the Nacotchtank Indians would begin gathering wild rice seeds, a process that would continue through late summer. Gas-guzzling machines harvest the domesticated rice that many of us are familiar with eating (which normally is the Northern Wild Rice, Zizania palustris, another species native to the Great Lakes), but the Nacotchtank Indians harvested wild rice by rowing through the river’s maze of wetlands on canoes. They then used sticks to shake and knock the seeds off the plant and into the canoe’s basin—a risky process because one sharp move could spill the entire harvest overboard. Once the canoe was full of wild rice grains, it was time to return to land and prepare the rice. Before it can be cooked or eaten, the wild rice husks must be broken up, the chaff removed, and the grains washed and set to dry.

After it was prepared, wild rice was most commonly used to make flour, although many Native American tribes also used it as a cereal grain. To make flour, the Nacotchtank Indians would grind up the cleaned and dried grains. This flour was a major staple to the Nacotchtank diet as it could be turned into bread or breakfast porridge. Because it was easily found, highly nutritious, and especially tasty, wild rice was preferred above all other cereal grains.

The endless stands of wild rice that once filled the Anacostia are gone now, but with help from organizations like AWS they’re making a comeback. Last week I was out with a group of other interns planting wild rice at a site that just five years ago was completely dominated by phragmites, an invasive plant. After years of constant mowing and the steady reintroduction of native plants, the site now has a strong wild rice population. Watching their leaves wave in the breeze on a hot summer day, I catch a glimpse of what the river used to look like. Wild rice on the Anacostia might not be edible now, but with time and a lot of hard work, someday AWS could be out on the river in canoes, harvesting wild rice just like the Nacotchtank Indians once did.

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