Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Wild Rice Restoration

A small stand of Wild Rice.

     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.
     This is one reason that several local jurisdictions have made efforts to restore Wild Rice back to their wetlands, including Arlington. So last September of 2016, crews from various jurisdictions and environmental groups traveled to Jug Bay Wetlands in Maryland to collect seed to hopefully return this valuable plant to its historical range. Interestingly, Wild Rice had been at low numbers at Jug Bay as well, but had been successfully recovered. 
     Jug Bay's experience restoring it provided valuable lessons to the rest of us who wanted equally successful results in our own parks. Here's a short video documenting some of our rice collecting efforts. Please turn up the volume however, as the GoPro used in recording it was waterproof sealed and thus the sound is a bit muffled:    

Wild Rice, some bagged a week or so earlier so less ripened rice would fall into the water and not be able to be collected. Only a small percentage of the overall rice was bagged for collection, leaving always enough for regeneration and wildlife food. 

A seed head of ripe Wild Rice, bagged and ready to harvest. Note all the empty stems around it which have already released their ripe Wild Rice into the marsh.

Quite a few bags were collected, ready for cleaning, and shows you the great amount of food produced for wildlife, the results of its successful recovery at Jug Bay.

Wild Rice ready to be stored for cold stratification all winter.

     After the successful collecting trip, the Wild Rice was cleaned so just seed was preserved. This was stored in water in a refrigerator. This cold stratification process, while keeping it moist, is essential in getting it to germinate the following spring. The water is changed periodically during the winter storage (it's some really smelly water...) until later when it can be sowed. For Arlington, the original planting site along Four Mile Run where the stream restoration process in partnership with Alexandria was taking place, was not yet completed on the County side. This resulted in us making arrangements with our colleagues in the National Park Service to find suitable habitat that was within Arlington, but owned by the Service. This location, where Wild Rice historically grew, was Roaches Run.
     So after agreeing to help plant some on the Alexandria side together, staff from the City of Alexandria, Arlington County, and the National Park Service (with lots of advice from our friends at the Anacostia Watershed Society), all got together to help each other plant the Wild Rice at Roaches Run. This sort of inter agency partnership and sharing of resources happens all the time, allowing us to share knowledge, staff, and other resources to further all our conservation missions. What follows is a short account of how the Wild Rice was sowed, using mud balls and team work. Please disregard how windy it was that day:

A Wild Rice mud ball ready to be launched into the water at low tide. Note the rice seeds.

     Since this was our first attempt and this plant is an annual, this teamwork will have to be repeated until the rice takes hold. It is our hopes though that we can be successful in restoring huge Wild Rice stands along the tidal Potomac River in our area. This was just the first step in returning this species (and only one of many plants and animals we hope will also be recolonized) back to its historic haunts where it played such a vital role, but we all have to take first steps before we can run. In the future, we hope the natural landscape and all it supports will once again be there for future generations of people and wildlife to enjoy.

Wild Rice grains.

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