Indian Ricegrass is a perennial cereal grain and nitrogen fixer native to the drier parts of Western North America.
Before the arrival of corn, Ricegrass was an important staple food of the Native Americans. It has a pleasant nutty flavor, is quite nutritious, is very Winter-hardy, and even fixes nitrogen (making it a “companion plant”, as well)! Indian Ricegrass seed is a native food high in protein, high in fiber, and it’s naturally gluten-free. It can be eaten raw, cooked like oatmeal, roasted into gomasio, or made into flour to make breads or thicken soups. In fact, it’s so good that, since 2000, Indian Ricegrass has been commercially grown, harvested, and milled to create a gluten-free flour product called “Montina”.
Indian Ricegrass has strong ornamental qualities. It’s branching, wavy flower stalk and seed pods are so interesting and unique that it’s often used in flower arrangements. In the home landscape, a patch of these bunchgrasses creates a beautiful natural prairie look. This is a perfect plant for dryland gardens or drought-restricted areas. It grows beautifully with other native grasses like Wild Rye and Slender Hairgrass, or alongside native wildflowers like Great Camas or Tiger Lily.
Environment and Culture
Indian Ricegrass’s wild home is in the drier parts of the West (generally East of the Cascades), from BC down to Southern California. As a plump and nutritious groundcover, it provides food and cover for a wide variety of animals, including elk, deer, and a myriad of birds and rodents. It’s wildlife value along with its nitrogen fixing and erosion control capacities make it a superb restoration plant. As a perennial, it grows back every year, so you don’t have to till and re-plant like most grain crops - making it an incredible asset to sustainable gardening/farming. It will eventually form a groundcover if conditions are favorable, as it spreads from seed - not vegetatively.
Harvest, Care, and Preparation
Unless there is high predation by birds, allow seed heads of Indian Ricegrass to dry down on the plant into late Summer. When the seed pods are dry and brown, the grass stems can be cut, overturned in a bucket and shaken vigorously to free the seed. This can also be done by simply bending the flower stalks (still attached) into the bucket and shaking. Then, use wind, your breath, or a fan to separate the lighter chaff from the heavier seed. Or, you can put the mixture in a pot of water - the seed will sink and the chaff will float.
It's best to first toast seeds in a frying pan to remove tiny hairs before eating. Then, they can be boiled and eaten just like oatmeal or other breakfast grains - with honey, fruit, etc. Seed can be also be roasted and partially ground, then mixed with salt and other spices to make a gomasio. However, it is most often ground into gluten-free baking flour and used in muffins, breads, and the like. Enjoy this nutritious, native edible!