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


Summer’s almost here

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Weekends at Tulpehaking

Starting June 1st, the Tulpehaking Nature Center will kick off a summer of free weekend programs for Families and kids.  Here’s what’s coming up in June…

Guided Nature Walks – Every Saturday in June                             1:30 PM

Join our Naturalist as we explore the history, plants, and wildlife of the Abbott Marshlands.  Free.  No Registration Required.

Feed the Animals – Every Sunday in June                                      1:30 PM

It’s lunchtime for our education animals!  See what it takes to keep them healthy, clean, and fed.  We might even enlist some willing hands to help.  Will you be our animal caretaker for the day?   Free.  No Registration Required.

Friday Storytime – Every Friday thru August                               10:30 AM  – 11:30 AM

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 welcome and benefit the Friends for the Abbott Marshlands.  Tulpehaking Nature Center, 609-888-3218, 157 Westcott Avenue, Hamilton NJ 08610.


June Program Listings

June 1st – National Trails Day – First Saturday Walks

10:00 AM – Noon

Join us on National Trails Day as we explore the Watson Woods.  Kelly Rypkema will be our guide.  Meet at the Tulpehaking Nature Center.  Free.  No Registration Necessary.  Drizzle will not cancel.  Cancellations announced on  by 9 am on day of walk.

Cosponsors: RWJ Fitness Center – Hamilton, Mercer County Park Commission, Friends for the Abbott Marshlands

June 4 – Talk:  Abbott Marshlands: ‘Days Out of Doors’

7:00 PM to 8:00 PM

The local Abbott Marshlands are an unparalleled natural and cultural resource.  Visit the six trails found there with Mary Leck as she shares her understanding of this special place.  Her images represent many years of plant study and interest in marsh natural history; they show the marsh through all seasons.  Mary is Emeritus Professor of Biology at Rider University and a member of the Friends for the Abbott Marshlands.

Location: Tulpehaking Nature Center, 157 Westcott Ave. Hamilton, NJ; 609-888-3218.

Co-sponsored by Hamilton Township  Environmental Commission and Mercer County Park Commission.

Watson Woods Walking Club – Wednesdays                                 10:00 AM  – 11:30 AM

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


And don’t miss these special programs later in the summer.  See Calendar for details.

July 27 – Insect Program with Eugene Fuzy  at Northern Community Park, Bordentown Township – 10:00 AM to Noon

August  24 – Poisonous Plants with Mark Manning at Spring Lake – 9:30 AM to 11:30 AM

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