wild rice, tall aquatic plant ( Zizania aquatica ) of the family Gramineae (grass family), of a genus separate from common rice ( Oryza ). Wild rice (called also Canada rice, Indian rice, and water oats) is a hardy annual with broad blades, reedy stems, and large terminal panicles. It grows best in shallow water along the margins of ponds or lakes in the N United States and S Canada; certain varieties grow also in the Southern states. Strains have been developed since the 1970s that are amenable to mechanized cultivation.
The seeds were one of the chief foods of certain Native American tribes, especially in the Great Lakes region. Native Americans of the Algonquian linguistic family, especially the Ojibwa and Menominee, and certain Sioux warred for centuries for control of the wild-rice fields. The Ojibwa called the grain manomin [good berry], and the Menominee are believed to have been named for a variant of this word; it is said to have some 60 synonyms, from which a great number of geographical names have been taken.
Native Americans gathered the seeds by pulling the grain heads over their canoes and flailing them with paddles. The seeds were sun-dried or parched over a slow fire to crack the hulls, then the grain was threshed by tramping, and winnowed. The harvest was traditionally followed by a thanksgiving festival. The seed is harvested today, especially in Minnesota, for the epicurean market and local use and commands a high price. It is still gathered by traditional methods, though it is dried, threshed, and winnowed by mechanized means. The strains developed for large-scale commercial cultivation have been bred for uniform maturation and are grown paddies. Calfornia is the leading produce of these varieties, which are less expensive but often less flavorful than traditionally grown wild rice.
Wild rice is an important source of food and shelter for fish and waterfowl and is sown for this purpose. It is also planted as an ornamental grass in home garden ponds and bogs. The seed is usually sown in the spring; it should first be soaked in water overnight. Manchurian wild rice ( Z. caducifolia ) is a smaller plant native to NE Asia.
Wild rice is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Liliopsida, order Cyperales, family Gramineae.
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