Focus on Gardening: Plant of the Month
From Madeline Iyer, University of Florida (UF), Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences
For the green thumbs and garden-dreamers alike, every month we’ll highlight a UF / IFAS feature plant that deserves a spotlight in Florida-friendly gardening.
Rice is one of the most important crops on Earth. This simple grain meets 21% of the caloric needs of our planet’s human population. That’s more than wheat, corn, or any other crop cultivated. And, as a water-loving, warm-season grain, rice can do well in Florida, too.
Ornamental grasses are enjoying a landscaping renaissance, and rice shouldn’t be overlooked! The healthy, green blades add fresh color to planters, even in our summer heat. Gardeners hoping to support wildlife will enjoy how attractive the grain is to birds, too. And, while foodscapers don’t usually harvest enough rice to meet their daily needs, growing rice is still a fun and tasty experiment.
Florida also has a native species of wild rice, Zizania aquatica. As the name suggests, it is usually grows along streams and spring runs. It is most commonly found in North and Central Florida.
Rice is a semi-aquatic, annual grass. It thrives during the warm season, and prefers hot, wet weather. It grows in stands of bright, upright leaves. Late in the growing season rice produces tall flower stalks. The flower heads eventually droop gracefully under a heavy load of colorful grains.
Cultivated rice (Oryza sativa) is the most common rice species available. The color and length of the leaves, the color of the fruits, and its ideal growing conditions vary by variety. Some ornamental varieties boast purple and red tinted leaves or bright gold husks. Stands of ornamental rice grow in tight, lush clumps and add interest in both landscapes and planters. The colorful seed-heads are particularly striking around harvest time.
In general, rice seed is a limited and unusual catalog offering. The most common commercial varieties are ‘Diamond’ and ‘Cheniere’ but home gardeners won’t find these for sale. Instead, choose ‘Carolina Gold’ or ‘Charleston Gold’ for a light green leaf, ‘Blue Bonnet’ for darker green leaves, or ‘Black Madras’ for red/purple foliage. The number of ornamental rice varieties grows each season, however. We would encourage gardeners to experiment with whatever varieties they find offered.
Planting and Care
Thousands of acres of rice are grown commercially in South Florida’s Everglades Agriculture Area (EAA). It is often gown in flooded, fallow sugarcane fields during the summer months. For more information on commercial rice production, see the EDIS resources linked below.
When planted commercially, rice is grown in a flooded plain, or “paddy.” Interestingly, flooding is not necessary for rice cultivation. Rather, fields are flooded to suppress weeds; rice happily tolerates “wet feet” in shallowly flooded soil, but weeds drown.
In the home garden, rice does not need to be flooded to thrive. That said, rice does grow best with heavy irrigation. Plant it at the beginning of Florida’s wet season (around May) to minimize the amount of additional water needed. It is especially at home in areas of your yard where water pools, like under downspouts. Planting rice in these areas can help reduce soil erosion.
For the majority of Florida gardeners, we recommend planting rice in containers. You can even sow seed in planters without drainage holes. If heavy, summer rains flood the containers, and the rice will remain happy and healthy as long as you tip out the extra water once in a while. In drought conditions, water to keep the soil evenly moist, but not waterlogged.
At home, weed your rice plantings carefully, especially while the plants are young. Dense, mature stands of rice can usually suppress weeds on their own, but you will still need to keep the edges of plantings weeded.
Rice can be sown or transplanted, but direct sowing usually produces the best results. Plant rice when the temperatures begin to warm as seed does not germinate well in cool weather. Sow the seeds densely and then top-dress to cover them with a very thin layer of soil.
Like most grasses, rice prefers nitrogen-rich soil. If the leaves begin to yellow as they mature, either low nitrogen or insufficient moisture is usually the culprit. Amend sandy soil heavily with compost before planting. Some gardeners who grow rice in containers use compost instead of soil, although this is not necessary.
Commercially, rice is susceptible to a wide variety of pests and diseases. Most of these are not encountered in the small plantings found in the home landscape.
Harvesting Homegrown Rice
Rice is an easy-to-grow grain, but it is not a perennial. If you’d like to continue growing rice without purchasing new seed each year, you’ll need to save seed each season. Harvest grains when the husks are dry and yellowed by cutting the seedhead off the stem. Allow the seed to dry, in its husk, indoors and then store in a dark, air-tight container until next spring.
If you’d like to enjoy your harvested rice in a meal, you’ll need to thresh, de-hull, and mill the rice. These are labor-intensive processes, but necessary to make rice edible. For directions on processing homegrown grains, we recommend “Gardening with Grains” by Brie Arthur. She’s an avid foodscaper and was the first author featured on the Florida Master Gardener Volunteer Book Club.
Florida’s Native Wild Rice
Florida’s annual wild rice (Zizania aquatica) is almost exclusively found in the state’s natural wetlands. The plants are very tall, with flower stalks sometimes reaching nine feet. The blades are strap-like, thick, and usually 3-4 feet long. The leaf margins are wide and toothed. The rice is produced on spikes of male and female flowers, above the leaves. The lower flowers are male and bear pollen on drooping branches. The upper, erect flowers are female; this is where grains of rice develop. The ripe fruits are surrounded by a yellow to reddish hull.
Wild rice is not endangered or threatened in Florida. It can be harvested by kayak along streams and wetlands, but only with permission and on private land. Take care not to disturb the wetland habitat as you gather. Harvest in fall, and in moderation, as wild rice is an important food source for Florida’s migrant birds. And, as always, be sure of your identification before consuming any wild plant.
Take care not to confuse annual wild rice with giant cutgrass (Zizaniopsis miliacea). While the leaf margins of wild rice are rough, those of cutgrass are sharp enough to have earned it a grisly name. You can distinguish it from annual wild rice by its flowers, all of which are drooping. The bases of young cutgrass plants are flattened as well, while wild rice’s bases are round and spongey.
For more information about adding ornamental grasses and edible plants to your home landscape, or for help identifying wild rice, contact your county Extension office.
For more information on Rice, contact your county Extension office.
To read the original article in full, see UF/IFAS Gardening Solutions.
Apopka UF/ IFAS Location
UF/IFAS Mid-Florida Research & Education Center