Wild Rice (Zizania spp.) has long been greatly valued as a food plant by both man and wildlife. Although now usually considered a gourmet delicacy, it once was a staple in the diets of Native American Indian peoples, indeed the most important food for some tribes. While there are three species native to North America, here in the DC area, Zizania aquatica is the Wild Rice we had growing naturally.
Wild Rice is a tall annual plant in the Poaceae (Grass) Family. It grows in wetlands, usually in slow moving, fresh-brackish tidal waters. Growing in the water, it can still stand 10′ tall. It was once a major component of some of our wetlands and rivers. It has since however disappeared from many of the places it was once common, including in Arlington County, Virginia. This is very unfortunate because of its value to both man and wildlife.
The number of Native American Indian tribes making use of it is incredible. Locally, Captain Smith (of Pocahontas and the founding of Jamestown fame) made note of how common it was and its use by the Algonquian-speaking tribes he encountered, including the tribes making up the Powhatan. He stated that “this they use for dainty bread buttered with dear suet.”
But wildlife of course has been depending on Wild Rice for countless generations. It remains, where it is still found, one of the most important seasonal foods for waterfowl and many other wetland birds. It also provides excellent cover and nesting shelter for them, as well as a host of reptiles, amphibians, fish, mammals, and insects, including as a food plant for at least 5 species of caterpillar. So its disappearance from our local waterways was a major setback for wildlife.