Harvesting Wild Rice: Connecting Past, Present and Future

Harvesting Wild Rice: Connecting Past, Present and Future
August 28, 2019 by: Maddie Koenig

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This spring, our Rice Rangers program celebrated it's 15th anniversary!  Since 2004, we've been working with students to restore the wetlands along the Anacostia River.  The program has had various iterations over the years, but the core of the program remains the same: students grow native wetland plants in their classrooms, then plant those babies in the wetlands along the Anacostia River. 

Students have helped us plant at Kenilworth Marsh along what is now the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail.  They have also helped us plant at Heritage Marsh, between Heritage Island and the western shore of the Anacostia River, right near RFK Stadium.  

The growing, planting, and student involvement happens during the spring months. However, that doesn't mean we aren't busy with wetland work at other times of the year!  Late-August is ALWAYS seed collection time, specifically for wild rice. 

Wait.  Hold on.  By wild rice . . . we must mean this stuff, right?

wild rice

Not quite.

The species of wild rice that we work with at AWS is known formally as Zizania aquatica.  Zizania aquatica (what a beautiful name!) is not the same wild rice that can be purchased today at your local grocery store and eaten for dinner.  However, wild rice (mostly Zizania palustris, a related but different species) is still harvested and collected by the Ojibwe people of the midwest (you can purchase it here). 

It is known as "manoomin" in Ojibwe (also beautiful!), is considered sacred, and has recently been granted legal protection by the White Earth Band of Ojibwe (read more here). 

The native people who once lived along the Anacostia, the Nacotchtank, would have used a similar harvesting method that the Ojibwe still use today.  Paddling into the wetlands in canoes, the wild rice is bent over the canoe and beaten gently with sticks or paddles so the seed (the part we eat!) falls into the bottom of the canoe.  You can watch a video of wild rice being harvested on the White Earth Reservation by clicking here.

Wild rice harvesting 19th century    
(Wild rice being harvested in the 19th century.  Image from Wikipedia.)

Wild rice is really a powerhouse of a food!  It's tasty for people, but it's especially tasty to migrating birds.  It has just the right combination of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats; and is ripe at just the right time of year.  It really is the perfect fuel for birds that are getting ready to travel hundreds, even thousands, of miles.  When a migrating red-winged blackbird or sora rail finds a patch of wild rice, it thinks, "Jackpot! There's a wild rice buffet down there and boy oh boy is there is a LOT of it!"  At least, there used to be

audubons sora rail
(Here's a painting of sora rails from Audubon's "Birds of America".  Audubon was a talented artist and naturalist, but please know these sora rails are prettier in person. ;)  Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Historically, the Anacostia River had almost 3,000 acres of tidal, freshwater wetlands that were dominated primarily by wild rice. That's not the case today.  We've lost about 95% of the original wetlands along the Anacostia River, so programs like Rice Rangers have been crucial to bringing back at least a small percentage of what was once here.  

When we harvest wild rice, we use a technique developed by Greg Kearns, naturalist at Jug Bay Natural Area, part of Patuxent River Park (run by M-NCPPC).  The work that Greg has done with staff, students, and volunteers over the years has resulted in an incredible return of wild rice to Jug Bay, which is now considered the most important tidal, freshwater wetland in the Chesapeake Bay region as a result.  When we visit Jug Bay, we like to imagine what the Anacostia River used to be like, and what it could be like in the future.

AWS trip to Jug Bay 9 2
(All of the light green in this photo of Jug Bay is wild rice.  Just imagine that on the Anacostia!  Image taken by Maryland Master Naturalist Susan Cahill.)

We visit both Jug Bay and places along the Anacostia to collect wild rice seed.  First, we put on boots and waders.  Next, we get out there in the wetlands.  Using bags made of Tyvek (yep, the same stuff that's under the siding of your house!), we gently bend the stalks of wild rice and place the seed heads into the bags.  We secure the bags in place with zipties. 

Over the next few weeks, the seeds will fully ripen and fall off - into the bags.  Then we'll be back to collect it!  Over the winter, we keep the wild rice seed in water in the fridge to mimic natural conditions.  By next spring, it should be ready to go!

IMG 6340IMG 20190828 100503
(AWS staff and interns use Tyvek bags to harvest wild rice seed. Photos by AWS staff.)

We're really grateful that the nature of our work keeps us connected to the natural cycles all around us; and links us to the past, present, and future of the Anacostia River.  We can't wait to see what our 2020 Rice Rangers season will bring!


Maddie Koenig

Maddie Koenig

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