May–June 2024

Minnesota Profile

Wild Rice (Zizania palustris)

The seeds have been harvested for centuries by Native Americans.

Welby Smith

Wild rice was adopted as Minnesota’s state grain in 1977, and there couldn’t have been a better choice. The seeds of wild rice, called grains, are a favorite food of humans and have been harvested for centuries by Native Americans, who continue to have a strong spiritual and cultural connection to the plant. Wild rice is also an important food for many migrating waterfowl. 

Terminology. The common name “wild rice” might be misleading. It is a native grass that is only distantly related to the domesticated white or brown rice that is commonly bought in grocery stores. Yet it might surprise people to know that our native wild rice has recently been domesticated and is grown as a commercial crop. Still, the wild-harvested Minnesota grains are considered the best, and they command the highest price. 

Appearance. Wild rice is the tallest native grass in Minnesota and can reach more than 13 feet in height. In the right habitat, it may form dense stands many acres in size. The leaves can be as long as 3 feet and nearly as wide as a person’s hand. It produces a large seed head at the top of the plant, which at maturity may be a foot across and hold more than 200 seeds. 

Range and Distribution. Indigenous wild rice occurs from New England westward to the north-central states. It is most abundant in the Great Lakes region, particularly Minnesota and Wisconsin. It occurs across almost all of Minnesota, although the largest stands are in the north-central region. 

Habitat. Wild rice is an emergent aquatic species, meaning it is rooted in sediments beneath the surface of the water, but the stems and leaves extend above the water. The most productive habitats are shallow lakes, ponds, and slow-moving streams, usually where the bottom is composed of loose, mucky sediments. It can grow from water as deep as 4 feet, but it also grows in shallower water nearer to shore.

Natural History. Wild rice is an annual plant, meaning it grows from seed each year. The seeds fall from the plant when ripe and immediately sink to the bottom of the lake, where they pass the winter. Most seeds germinate the following spring when water temperatures reach about 42 degrees, usually in mid-May. A few seeds may remain dormant for another year or two. After germination, the leaves appear first. They will initially be underwater or floating on the surface. The stems usually appear above the water by early July. They then grow very quickly, reaching their full height in August. The seeds ripen in late August and early September. They drop from the plant soon after ripening, beginning the process again. Once the seeds have been shed, the rest of the plant dies and falls into the water, where it sinks to the bottom and decays.