Marsh Meanderings: Wild Rice

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On an irregular basis, a new ‘feature’, called Marsh Meanderings, will appear.
This first is about Wild Rice.  Do check the calendar for field trips and other summer programs.

Marsh Meandering  I.
7 June 2019

A walk along the D&R Canal Towpath trail at low tide revealed small sandbar islands that are now well vegetated with wild rice (Zizania aquatica) seedlings already more than a foot tall.  It’s the only grass growing in that habitat.

This annual, an obligate wetland species, can grow to more than 10 feet by the end of the growing season. After flowering in August and setting seed, it will die. Its seeds are a favored food of many birds including black birds, such as Red-winged Blackbirds and Grackles, and migrant ducks.

Interestingly, there is no evidence of use of Wild Rice by Native Americans in the Delaware River Valley although northern tribes used it extensively.  Much of what’s sold commercially is grown in Minnesota and California.

Arrow shows Wild Rice seed from which the seedling at the left grew. The white root-like structure is the hypocoty (Greenhouse) (c MA Leck)

The slender seeds are more than one inch long with a needle-like extension, called an awn, making up part of its length. From this seed first emerges a seed structure, known as the hypocotyl, and then the shoot. Roots take a bit more time. As human food, they are gluten free, and provide fiber and various nutrients.

Seeds cannot be dried. Early colonists were not successful in bringing them to Kew Gardens in England until it was discovered that seeds needed to be stored in water.

Wild Rice can be found in wetlands throughout the Abbott Marshlands. Young plants can tolerate being inundated. Look for them in mucky, muddy places, the bottoms of small tidal streams, shallow ponds, and in the abandoned canal along the towpath trail where in spring there are often dense grouping of light-green grass plants.

Wild Rice seedlings

Wild Rice seedlings (May 25) in a tidal channel at low tide.

When Wild Rice flowers, male flowers are below the female ones. The yellow male flowers make the plants conspicuous.  Flowering is from late July to September.


Wild Rice

Wild Rice inflorescence. Female flowers are at the top, male flowers below. (Aug. 26).

Wild Rice along Crosswicks Creek (Aug. 26).

This is one of the food plants for caterpillars of the Broad-winged Skipper. Adults (~0.8 inch) obtain nectar from dogbane, swamp milkweed, pickerelweed, thistles, etc.

Broad-winged Skipper (Wikipedia)

Broad-winged Skipper (Wikipedia)

Botanical facts: The Wild Rice species found in the marsh is Zizania aquatica a member of the grass family (Poaceae) like corn or your lawn grass. There are three other Zizania species: Z. palustris is found in northern areas (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Canada) and Z. texana, a perennial species now endangered, occurs in central Texas; Z. latifolia, Manchurian Wild Rice, now rare in nature is native to Asia, where it is cultivated for its stems that are eaten as a vegetable.

Like corn, Wild Rice is monoecious, with both male and female flowers on the same plant, but in Wild Rice, the male flowers, where pollen is produced, are located below female ones.  Male flowers are typically yellow, but may sometimes are reddish.

Because of the economic value of wild rice for human consumption, much research has been focused on learning how to germinate seeds. Early work showed that seed dormancy can be broken by prolonged cold treatment (e.g., 3-6 mo at 1-3 C; 21-37 F) at low oxygen levels, as would occur if submersed in water or in mud at the bottom of a tidal stream. (Although many factors can influence the actual amount of oxygen in water such as temperature and wind, the content of air is 20%, while that of water is 1%, which is why people drown).

Seeds can remain dormant for more than a year. This can account for field observations that some years in some locations in the Abbott Marshlands there may be few or no Wild Rice plants. Long seed dormancy poses problems for plant breeders who desire multiple crops per year, and for growers who wish to change varieties in established fields.  However, freshly harvested seed can be germinated, if first dehulled by scraping and stored 1-4 weeks at 1.5 C (35 F).

Red-winged Blackbird feeding on Wild Rice (Sept., c MA Leck).



Warren Libensperger showing height of Wild Rice (Sept. 1). 

For tides, consult the marsh website ( -Tides) or local newspapers.

Background and for use of Wild Rice by Native Americans and other background see

For use in the Delaware River Valley:
Messner, Timothy. 2011, Acorns and Bitter Roots: Starch Grain Research in the Prehistoric Eastern Woodlands. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa. (p. 21).

Also: Personal Communication, Michael Stewart, June 10, 2019.

Germination and growth
Cardwell, V.B., E.A. Oelke, and W.A. Elliott. 1978. Seed dormancy mechanisms in Wild Rice (Zizania aquatica). Agronomy Journal 70 (3): 481-484.

Whigham, D.F. and R.L. Simpson. 1977. Growth, mortality, and biomass partitioning in freshwater tidal populations of wild rice (Zizania aquatica var aquatica). Bulletin Torrey Botanical Club 104: 347-351.


Mary A Leck,
Emeritus Professor of Biology, Rider University
Friends for the Abbott Marshlands


January Marsh Happenings

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Below: Photo show info, and more.

Exhibit at Tulpehaking Nature Center: ‘Gorilla Haiku’.  Haiku by visitors, young and older!  Try your hand too.

New trail maps on the website (see Trails & Directions).  Also on
Look for new trail and interpretive signs throughout the marsh.
Consider jointing the Friends. (See Contact us)
Volunteer to be a trail steward.

Call for entries
Open to all photographers. 9th Voices for the Abbott Marshlands Photography Show. Entries are due Feb. 15th; see call for entries for specifics.  The show will open March 17, 2019.  The 1st Saturday walks and other programs provide opportunities to explore marsh trails in this >3000 acre naturally and culturally important wetland area. For information about the marshlands, a schedule, see Questions:

Photography any time trails and parks are open!


Programs (schedule to Feb.):
Programs below include Tulpehaking Nature Center (TNC) listings. The nature center is located at 157 Westcott Ave., Hamilton, NJ. 609-888-3218

TNC. Wednesdays. Watson Woods Walking Club, 10-11:30. Meet at the Tulpehaking Nature Center. 157 Westcott Ave., Hamilton, 08610. Info: 609 888 3218. Tie up your sneakers and join us for this weekly series. Enjoy an easy mile-long walk with our group as we explore beautiful Spring Lake or other trails of Roebling Park each week. Coffee and refreshments will follow each outing.

TNC. January 4, February 1. First Friday Story Time. 10:30 a.m.  Gather with your little ones while our educators share a story worthy of the Abbott Marshlands, followed by a craft or activity. We’ve chosen the best stories of wildlife and history to enjoy inside or outside if the weather is nice! Donations benefit the Friends for the Abbott Marshlands. FREE, donations welcome. Tulpehaking Nature Center, 157 Westcott Ave., Hamilton, NJ. Info: 609 888 3218.

January 12 (Saturday). Bird Walk. 9am.  Led by Brad Merritt and Andrew. Follow the trails and see how the marsh and its wildlife adjust to the cold weather. In case of inclement weather, contact Brad Merritt at 609-921-8964. Directions: Take South Broad St. to Sewell Ave. turn onto Sewell at traffic light; at road’s end, turn left and continue downhill to parking lot. Co-sponsors: Washington Crossing Audubon Soc. & Friends for the Abbott Marshlands

TNC. January 13, February 10 (Sunday). Winter Bird and Duck Walk, 1-3 p.m. Meet at Spring Lake, Roebling Park. Take South Broad St. to Sewell Ave., drive to the end of Sewell, turn left and drive down the hill to the parking lot. REGISTRATION required: 609 888 3218. Join us for a casual hike dedicated to spotting our fine feathered friends. All abilities of birders are welcome. Bring a pair of binoculars if you have them, extra binoculars are available for those who don’t. Free. For adults and teens.

TNC. January 19, February 9. Girl Scout Days – Winter 2018.
A series on the beauty of winter focused on art. Girl scouts attending the full 3-hr program will meet all requirements for the badge. (Patch not included.) Bring a snack!
Jan. 19, 1-4 p.m. – Junior Outdoor Art Explorer
Feb. 9, 1-4 p.m. – Cadette Outdoor Art Apprentice

Girl Scout Days are open to individual scouts and groups as long as space is available.
Registration and pre-payment required. 609-888-3218. $8/girl scout (county resident); $10/girl scout (non-resident).

January 5, 2019. 1st Saturday Walk. Bordentown Beach. A winter walk, with photography opportunities as the marsh show entries are due Feb. 15th. 10 a.m. – noon.  Guide- Mary Leck. Some tidal ice, a bit of local history, and, time permitting, a walk to lock 1 of the D&R Canal. Dress for the weather. Meet at the Bordentown Beach: take W Park St, and drive down the hill past the light rail station. Contact: 732-821-8310.

January 12 (Saturday) 9 am. Bird Walk. Led by Brad Merritt and Andrew Bobe. Follow the trails and see how the marsh and its wildlife adjust to the cold weather. In case of inclement weather, contact Brad Merritt at 609-921-8964. Directions: Take South Broad St. to Sewell Ave. turn onto Sewell at traffic light; at road’s end, turn left and continue downhill to parking lot. Co-sponsored by Friends for the Abbott Marshlands.

February 2. First Saturday Walk. Spring Lake Roebling Park – Island Trail with Wintering Ducks. 10 a.m. – noon.  Meet at Spring Lake. Take South Broad St. to Sewell Ave., turn onto Sewell at traffic light; at road’s end, turn left and continue downhill to parking lot.Guide: Kelly Rypkema.  Cosponsors with Friends: Robert Wood Johnson Hospital – Hamilton, Mercer County Park Commission.


Marshlands video produced by the two Alliance for Watershed Education interns, Amanda Buchner and Giovani Rivera who interned at the TNC summer 2018.

Links to the video on Facebook:<>   And Youtube: []<> Abbott Marshlands<>

For Tupehaking Nature Center – 157 Westcott Ave., Hamilton, NJ:
Center hours: Fridays & Saturdays – 10 AM-4 PM, Sundays – noon – 4 PM;
other times for programs and by appointment.
Manager and naturalist –Kelly Rypkema – 609-888-3218.


Like us on Facebook.

*App – Abbott Marshlands Paddling Tour –free; it can be downloaded: TravelStory GPS available through the App Store and on Google Play.

Explore the Abbott Marshlands with a guide or walk or paddle the trails on your own! If you are an inexperienced paddler, not familiar with tidal rivers, you are strongly encouraged to learn with an experienced guide.

Walking trail maps are available for Roebling Park, Northern Community Park, the Bordentown Bluffs, and the D&R Canal State Park Tow Path Trail, see Trails & Direction or