Leonard and I were driving along California Highway 139 near the Oregon border when Leonard suddenly pulled off the road. He had noticed Indian ricegrass (Oryzopsis hymenoides) growing among the sagebrush and other grasses near the road. Leonard, who wants to plant a test plot of Indian ricegrass in our pastures, began collecting ricegrass seeds. I grabbed my camera.
Grasses have their own vocabulary – ligules, culms, lemmas, glumes, etc. – and even then it is difficult to describe grasses. In addition, identification of many grasses is very technical and requires magnification. Indian ricegrass though has a distinctive appearance and is easy to spot – even from a moving car. So rather than read a boring description of Indian ricegrass, readers can check out the photographs. I think it is a very pretty grass.
Also called mountain rice, Indian ricegrass is a native, perennial bunchgrass (a single plant grows in a clump) that can be found from British Columbia to Manitoba and south to Texas,
California and even into Northern Mexico. Indian ricegrass is common in the middle altitudes of arid and semi-arid regions of the West.
Highly palatable, Indian ricegrass is an important forage for wild grazers such as mule deer, pronghorn, elk and jackrabbits, among others. Domesticated livestock also eat Indian ricegrass. Because it produces green shoots earlier in the spring than most other grasses, Indian ricegrass is a valuable late winter and early spring feed. Rodents, insects (harvester ants, for one) and birds (especially mourning doves) eat Indian ricegrass seeds.
The seeds of Indian ricegrass were used as food by Native Americans. The small seeds can be eaten raw, but are better dried and made into flour. Even today Indian ricegrass is cultivated in Montana and marketed as a gluten-free grain or flour.
The genus name, Oryzopsis, derives from the Greek: “oruza” meaning rice and “opsis” meaning appearance. Someone apparently thought this grass and seed resembled rice, although I find the comparison imaginative.
Indian ricegrass is the State Grass of Nevada and Utah.