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Wild About Wild Rice

Scientists call it Zizania palustris, the Ojibwa call it manoomin. We call it part of a Minnesota dinner.

Northern wild rice is an aquatic plant native to the Great Lakes basin. It's an "annual," meaning it completes its life cycle, from germination to seed to death, within a year. Unless they are harvested by animals (yes, human, you too) or struck by disease, once a grain of wild rice drops, the aquadynamic seeds sink to ... and into ... the sediment where they overwinter.

"Wild rice" is a misnomer. It is often wild, but it isn't technically rice; it's a grass. Wild rice and corn are the only two grains that are native to the United States consumed by people.

Photo: Wild Rice Publications

Wild Rice Monitoring and More

Prior to this year's ricing season, Minnesota Sea Grant, along with the 1854 Treaty Authority, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and Mille Lakes Band of Ojibwe published the Wild Rice Monitoring Field Guide and the Wild Rice Monitoring Handbook by Dr. Pastor's graduate student Tonya Kjerland. The books help resource managers track the annual productivity of wild rice beds. Nancy Schuldt, Water Project Coordinator for the Fond du Lac Environmental Program commented that these publications are important for standardizing wild rice monitoring in this region. "They set the benchmark not only for us at Fond du Lac, but for other tribes who are just beginning to monitor their populations," she said.

The field guide provides a standardized method for measuring wild rice productivity to field crews. It also describes other plants that are often around wild rice and how to identify them. The handbook provides information about the biology of wild rice, as well as its spiritual and cultural significance.

The field guide and handbook both provide a way to assess trends in wild rice abundance and distribution that is consistent throughout the Lake Superior basin, benefiting those who perform research on these data. The methods described were designed to respect Native American, First Nation, and like-minded peoples' views of wild rice.

These publications, wild rice recipes and a video about harvesting wild
rice are available on the Minnesota
Sea Grant website

Seventy percent of the wild rice sold in the U.S. is from California where it is grown, harvested and processed commercially. Minnesotans can proudly say that, in this state, uncultivated wild rice is still harvested in the tradition of the Anishinaabeg and other native peoples ... by hand.

After harvesting, seeds are processed, or parched. Parching prevents the seed from sprouting again so that they can be stored. Parching also hardens the inner kernel and loosens it from the outer hull. Once the hull is winnowed away, a tasty grain remains.

Years ago, local Native American tribes and the DNR noticed that wild rice was rarely found in waters where sulfate concentrations were elevated. Sulfate comes from natural sources as well as from humans in the form of such things as farm runoff, sewage treatment discharge, mining, and acid rain. Proposals to increase copper-nickel mining in northern Minnesota, and consequently the probability that additional sulfate will enter natural waterways, raised more questions about how sulfate and sulfide may affect wild rice beds downstream.

John Pastor, a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota Duluth, studies how wild rice fares in water that has elevated sulfate and sulfide concentrations. He does this in tubs that are about the size of kiddy wading pools. He explained that sulfur, when it is bound to iron, nickel, and copper in ore bodies, is in a sulfide form. When exposed to the atmosphere, this sulfide oxidizes ... becoming sulfate, which dissolves in water and can be transported downstream. When sulfate enters wetlands where oxygen levels are typically low, the sulfate-reducing bacteria that live there strip off the oxygen, creating sulfide again ... only this time, because it is not bound to a metal, the sulfide is biologically harmful. As the levels of sulfide increase, wild rice seedlings have lower survival rates and mature plants produce fewer viable seeds, and those seeds are smaller than what is considered normal.

Minnesota is the only state that has a standard for protecting wild rice from excessive sulfate. Dr. Pastor thinks the current standard is adequate at 10 milligrams of sulfate per liter of water or less, finding that that wild rice in his experimental pools becomes less productive at 50 milligrams of sulfate per liter.

Dr. Pastor's research team, which is partially funded by Sea Grant, has been investigating whether adding iron, as well as sulfate, to aquatic systems precipitates the sulfide in sediments and perhaps renders it harmless to plants. They found the iron-sulfide precipitate ended up on the wild rice roots to a much greater extent than in the sediment. Preliminary results suggest that the precipitate on roots blocks nitrogen, an essential plant nutrient, from being taken up by the plants.

Proposals for new mines have brought extra attention to the Minnesota standard, to which wastewater treatment plants and other industries are also accountable. People anticipate significant rate increases and price hikes on some products if Minnesota becomes more rigorous about enforcing the standard.

What can you do? The main ways you can contribute to a more sustainable society are to stay informed, support science-based solutions and work to manage your
consumption of the electronics in which copper and nickel are used.

Learn more about wild rice on the award-winning website affiliated with Sea Grant, St. Louis River Estuary: The Stories and the Science at http://stlouisriverestuary.org/wildrice.php.

By Emily Kolodge with Rachel Kuntz and Sharon Moen
December 2015

Return to December 2015 Seiche

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