Plant of the Week
Indian Ricegrass (Achnatherum hymenoides (Roemer & J.A. Schultes) Barkworth)
By Forest Jay Gauna
As the common name implies, Native Americans utilized this species of grass in a manner analogous to that of rice by peoples of the Old World and their descendants. The name in Spanish is essentially the same: “arroz indio.” It is also known as Indian Millet or Sand-grass, and Latin synonyms are Oryzopsis h., Stipa h., and Eriocoma cuspidata.
Achnatherum hymenoides is a member of the Poaceae, or grass family. It likes to live in sandy soils and is adapted to dry places, but also lives in moist areas within drier environments; look for it where you see sagebrush, juniper, or ponderosa pine. Distinguishing Indian ricegrass from other grasses may sound difficult to someone who has not seen it before, but armed with a good picture and an idea of what to look for, it can be done. Look for a bunchgrass from 1 to 2½ feet tall. The leaves are tightly rolled from the edges, giving each leaf the look of a long, straight, skinny tube. The inflorescence is the easiest feature to distinguish. It is an open, branching panicle, consisting of long, undulating stalks that look like hairs. Each branch terminates in a single seed (or, technically, a single fruit, containing a single seed). The seed itself is covered with short hairs, is black, and is the portion used for food.
Because of its importance to native Nevadans, A. hymenoides is honoured as the Nevada state grass. In many cultures it was the principle grain, while in others it was only eaten when other crops or wild food plants failed. When mature, the seeds fall easily from the plant. It may be gathered by beating the inflorescence with a light paddle and collecting the seeds in a shallow basket; the Indians of this area produced exquisite paddles and baskets for this purpose. Some seeds would not fall into the basket, but would fall to the ground and produce more plants. After parching the seeds to remove the hairs, the grain can be ground into meal and baked into bread, eaten as porridge, or made into other logical things to make from meal. Another species, A. speciosum is also used for food in a similar manner, though not as extensively.
Besides use as food, Indian ricegrass is also used in restoration, planted to help stop wind erosion. It may be planted as a garden plant, but requires well-drained soil. In the United States and Mexico, it is used as good winter forage for livestock, being cold and drought tolerant; this has led in some situations to overgrazing. The seeds are nutritious for birds.