Wild rice is making a comeback along the shores of the Anacostia River.

The 10-foot-tall grass once grew in thick stands throughout the river's freshwater tidal marshes, back when the rice was a dietary staple for the area's native Nacotchtank Indians.

As the grass ripened in late summer, the Nacotchtank canoed through the marshes, gently beating the rice heads with sticks to dislodge the grain. Many seeds dropped into the canoes, but some fell into the water, ensuring the germination of the following year's crop.

Four hundred years later, the once crystal-clear river has been transformed into a heavily polluted, trash-choked, silted-in waterway. Of its former 2,500 acres of tidal wetlands, only 10 percent remain.

Although the rice plant never disappeared, its resurgence today is the result of restoration efforts by nonprofit organizations and federal and local governments. More than 125 acres of wetlands have been restored since the early '90s.

Some of the wild rice now flowering in Anacostia wetlands began as a project by students participating in the Anacostia Watershed Society's Rice Ranger program. For the past two years, students have germinated seeds from several wetland plants, later transplanting the seedlings onto the river's tidal mudflats. The plants provide habitat and food for wildlife and help remove silt and excess nutrients from the river water.

Young rice plants must be fenced in to protect them from hungry Canada geese. If allowed to mature, rice seed will provide ample food for other birds, including red-winged blackbirds and ducks.

Wild rice grain is highly nutritious, providing almost as much protein as do oats. But eating anything that comes from the Anacostia, including the fish, can carry risks. The river remains heavily polluted by

Wild rice, Zizania aquatica. illustration by Patterson Clark

Female flowers
bear the grain

Male flowers

Zizania aquatica

chemicals washed in by runoff, by lingering contaminants from the Navy Yard and other industrial sites, and by untreated sewage discharged into the river during heavy rainfall.

Until the river is cleaned up and is safe again for fishing and swimming, it's probably best to gather your wild rice from a local grocer.

Sources: Bay Journal, Anacostia Watershed Society