Wildrice is an aquatic grass revered by Native Americans in the Lake States, New England, and Canada. The only cereal grain native to the United States, this delicacy is Minnesota's State Grain. In the 1950s University plant scientists began studying hundreds of alternative crops, including wildrice. At the same time, interested farmers in northern Minnesota began to form a cultivated wildrice industry to meet increased demand.
Researchers were challenged in taming the wildrice plant to make it suitable for paddy production. There were limitations of planting, caring for, and harvesting an aquatic species. The seed head "shatters" when ripe, sending the precious crop into the water. Plants in natural stands mature at widely different times so several harvests must be made. And, the seed is not viable unless it is stored in conditions similar to a lake bottom.
Nevertheless, by 1964 selections were successfully grown in U of M paddies in St. Paul. Since then, nine varieties of paddy wildrice have been developed, each with improved production or disease-resistance characteristics.
Today there are two wildrice communities. Native Americans hand-harvest wildrice by traditional methods, from canoes and using flails to dislodge the grain, which is labeled "lake grown." U of M varieties are grown by commercial producers in paddies where mechanical harvesting is done by specialized combines. Minnesota produces over 6 million pounds of "paddy grown" wildrice, and much of it goes to food processors that market it in blends with white rice.
Interestingly, recent DNA analysis shows that white rice and wildrice have some common ancestry, contrary to earlier thinking that these species evolved separately in Asia and North America.
Wildrice Breeding Program Objectives
- Earlier maturity
- Resistance to leaf diseases
- Increased shattering resistance
- Multiple stems that mature together
- Seed that can be stored dry
U of M Wildrice Varieties
*released by commercial growers, research conducted in cooperation with U of M