Friday, August 31, 2007

Wild Rice

Nature Watch
August 31, 2007

By Susan Benson
Director of Education
Cable Natural History Museum

As summer winds to a close, hunters may be thinking of upcoming game seasons, but gatherers are equally anxious. Of special significance this time of year is the wild rice harvest.

Wild rice is an annual aquatic grass whose nutritious seeds serve as valuable food for waterfowl. The plants themselves provide roosting and resting areas to adult waterfowl and protective cover for young birds. Wild rice also provides habitat for snails, insects, and mammals, adding to the biological diversity of the wetlands where it is found. In addition, wild rice helps maintain water quality by binding loose soils, tying up nutrients and slowing winds across shallow wetlands. These factors can increase water clarity and reduce algae blooms.

But wildlife and water quality are not the only beneficiaries of wild rice—this plant has long been a staple food for Native Americans and early European explorers of the region. To the Ojibwa, the plant is called manoomin, a term derived from “Manitou,” meaning Great Spirit and “meenum,” meaning delicacy.

Today’s wild rice harvest methods remain similar to those used for centuries. The ripe grain is harvested from canoes or small boats with the use of smooth, wooden sticks. Generally, two people gather rice as a team; one moves the canoe through the rice bed using a long push-pole while the other uses the sticks to “knock” the grain from the plant seed heads into the boat.

If you’ve never tried ricing before, be sure to check with the DNR to see when the season is open, and to check if you need a license for the area in which you wish to rice. Wild rice flourishes best in shallow, flowing water such as rivers and flowages, and in the lakes that have an inlet and outlet. Even if you have no interest in ricing, rice beds are worth watching for the number of animals they attract.

Another botanical sign of late summer is, for some people, the onset of hayfever or the “summer cold.” It’s not really a cold, but rather a reaction to the pollen of ragweeds, whose small green flowers unleash huge amounts of pollen from late summer to early fall. Goldenrod is often blamed for the hayfever, but it is innocent of the charge. Because it is tall with large clusters of bright yellow flowers, and flourishes at the peak of the hayfever season, goldenrod often takes the undeserved blame for our sneezing and runny noses.

Through early fall, listen for the chirping calls of crickets and cicadas. Crickets make their songs by rubbing a sharp ridge on one wing against a rough spot on the other. As the cricket rubs, its wings start to vibrate, creating the sound. Cold-blooded field crickets need heat to warm up their instrumental wings. That’s why we hear their singing in late afternoons or early evenings in summer and early fall.

Male cicadas make their pulsating, high-pitched buzz to attract mates from high in the hardwood trees. But by the end of September, after they’ve mated and laid their eggs, the adult cicadas die.

Cicadas spend most of their life underground. Born in trees, young cicadas drop to the earth after they hatch and tunnel into the soil. They feed on root sap for 13 to17 years until they emerge from their dark burrows. In adult form, these insects can’t eat—they don’t even have mouths! Adult cicadas live only as long as it takes to mate and lay eggs.

Now, a warning: boxelder bugs may have a huge population explosion this fall. These insects flourish on 10-year cycles, and we’re now in the most active part of their reproductive cycle. Boxelder bugs are mostly black with red lines decorating their backs. Though they are not harmful, they can be a nuisance as they seek shelter in protected places, such as cracks or crevices in walls, doors, under windows and around foundations.

Become a phenologist! Next to spring, late summer through early fall is the most active times of year in terms of natural changes due to weather and season. As you think ahead and prepare for the coming fall, take note of how plants and animals around you do the same.

Nature Watch is brought to you by the Cable Natural History Museum. For 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 43570 Kavanaugh Street or on the web at to learn more about exhibits and programs.

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