Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere

Indian Ricegrass

By Adam Benfer

Oryzopsis hymenoides (Roemer & J.A. Schultes) Ricker ex Piper (Poaceae) – or –
Achnatherum hymenoides (Roemer & J.A. Schultes) Barkworth (Poaceae)

The native inhabitants once used Indian ricegrass, which is one of the most common grasses of the American Southwest, as a staple wild grain, used in several culinary treats that added extra calories to their desert diets. This grass is also known as Indian millet and wye (Paiute)(Dunmire and Tierney 1997: 195; Rhode 2002: 173).


Indian ricegrass is a 1 to 2 feet tall perennial bunchgrass with tightly rolled leaves and long, narrow stems. In late May or June, the plant reaches maturity producing a fragile crown of grain on thin branches above the leaves. The seeds are dark colored, hard, and small, though large compared to most grass seeds. Each seed is encased in a set of bell-shaped bracets that open to release the ripe seeds. These ripe seeds will easily scatter when the plant is shaken by the wind or by man, so if one desires to harvest ricegrass s/he must carefully monitor plant maturity (Dunmire and Tierney 1997: 194; Rhode 2002: 173-174).

Geographic Distribution

Ricegrass, the most common grass of it habitat, thrives on the open, dry, sandy soil common in many parts of the American Southwest, tolerates alkaline soils, and doesn’t grow well in gravelly, high mountainous, or exceptionally dry soils that can be found in the same region. It grows anywhere between 2400 and 7500 feet above sea level (Dunmire and Tierney 1997: 195; Rhode 2002: 173-174).

Food Use

Since the Archaic period (and maybe even earlier) the native inhabitants of the Four Corners region have used Indian ricegrass seeds as a grain (Dunmire and Tierney 1997: 195). Up to the introduction of corn to the native peoples of the American southwest, the seeds of Indian ricegrass were the staple grain for many tribes. These seeds were harvested off of the wild grass, dried, winnowed, roasted/parched, ground and cooked into porridges, soups, dumplings, tortillas, and bread. The Western Apache mixed the flour with corn meal and water to make mush, but other tribes didn’t even add corn meal to this recipe. The Havasupai boiled the flour until it became thick and then rolled it into balls to eat as dumplings. The Zuni made a similar type of dumpling that included corn meal in the recipe. The Hopi made the flour into tortilla bread. The Northern Paiute feed ricegrass porridge to people suffering from stomachaches. Other tribes that consumed Indian ricegrass include: the White Mountain Apache, Gosiute, Kawaiisu, and Navajo (Moerman 1998: 370-371).

Other Uses

The White Mountain Apache not only ate of this plant, but used it as a cash crop (Moerman 1998: 371).


Ricegrass seeds, though not as high in starch or sugar as most commonly cultivated grains, does yield ~120 calories per ounce (Dunmire and Tierney 1997: 195).


Dunmire, William W., and Gail D. Tierney
1997 Wild plants and native peoples of the Four Corners. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press.
Moerman, Daniel E.
1998 Native American ethnobotany. Portland, Or.: Timber Press.
Rhode, David
2002 Native plants of southern Nevada : an ethnobotany. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.