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Posted by on in Environmental Stewardship

For the first time, all six of my kids will be going to school. With two in high school, one in Jr. high and three in elementary school, I'm looking at a huge back to school shopping spree. I talked with my wife and there are plans to head down to St. Cloud (a larger city in Central Minnesota that has a Chipotle's (awww yiss!)). The plan is to swoop into the many quality thrift shops to fill out our kids shopping list (and then eat burritos).

Not a bad plan. Shopping at thrift stores is a great way to shorten the loop. But I read something the other day that makes our day trip down to St. Cloud look like a drop in the bucket. You see, the average US family will be spending almost $700 in back to school shopping this coming year. That's money that will be spent on new books, nose tissues, pencils, clothes, backpacks, and all the other necessary materials to set kids on the studious and straight path. With an expected 50 million plus children entering the school system this year, that adds up to a LOT of crayons.b2ap3_thumbnail_935283_10201244124966785_199748450_n.jpg

However, I was curious to how parents were spending their back to school budgets. Were they just going to the big box store? Reusing from last year? I went to our friendly neighborhood Google search. What I found out wasn't too surprising.

Over 69% of school shoppers will be using online stores to fill out their kids material sheets. And 72% of that group state they are choosing online stores that have free shipping, 71% if they have sales, and 68% if they accept coupons. There's probably some Venn diagram that would show this, but I'm not sure a store that would fill all three metrics exists.

On top of that, a cursory glance at the top qualifiers to a "Back to School" Google search indicate that price is the number one concern. "Cheap", "coupon", and "sale" accompany the search more than any other qualifier. Think about that. These qualifiers are used more than "backpack", "WalMart", and surprisingly, even "Rodney Dangerfield".

So, what does this mean? Wanting to save money is not a new thing, especially in these difficult economic times. I think that what it shows us is people are moving away from what has been a traditional tried-and-true method of shopping; the idea that using what you have and only buying when you absolutely need to is giving way to the buy whats on the list at the least expensive way possible. Is this a consequence of smaller school budgets (and therefore fewer supplies donated by the school) or possibly because of lower quality products being cheaply made, (and therefore forcing families to repurchase every year).

b2ap3_thumbnail_3383286713_22b7ac8efb_m.jpgEither possibility aside, the best way to save money is to only buy when you need to. Nothing is cheaper than being already owned. So, here's a few tips that will make your school shopping trip a quick and inexpensive one.

1) Know what you have. Take inventory. If you already have several boxes of pencils, tissues, or loose-leaf paper, then make sure to use that first!

2) Buy clothing that can last the year. For instance, sun dresses work very well in all climates and seasons when paired with leggings or cardigans.

3) Be willing to pack your own lunch. Hot lunches have been increasing in cost (and to be honest have been decreasing in value). Cooking a large meal and freezing many lunch size portions for future use is a great way to stretch a budget and an even better way to know for sure what your child is eating.

Going back to school doesn't have to hurt...the students. (I know that I look forward to them being forced out of the house as early as the fourth of July.) There doesn't have to be mutually exclusive pairing between shopping local and saving money. You just have to plan ahead.

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Posted by on in Environmental Stewardship

Yesterday, some of the staff ventured out on yet another thrilling phenology walk!  In case you weren't able to join us, or even if you were there and already need a refresher, here is a little re-cap of what we discovered.


Our walk began with some new flower faces for us to identify along the edge of the woods.  We found some Prairie Coneflowers (Ratibida columnifera) and a Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum), both native perennials in the Aster family (above, left and right respectively). The prairie coneflower is identifiable by its droopy, bright yellow, notch-tipped petals around a thimble-shaped cone. The elongated cone and shorter height (1-3 feet) make it different from the gray-headed coneflower, which looks very similar.  The cup plant is identifiable by its large, lance-shaped leaves that unite at the base to form a cup around the stem, hence the name.  These cups often fill with rainwater, which is used by many animals, including birds and tree frogs. Also along the forest edge was some flowering Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), a native perennial grass (below) with roots that can grow 10 feet into the soil! In addition to being a great soil stabilizer, big bluestem provides food for wildlife and livestock, habitat for birds and insects, and the Chippewa Indians used the root as a diuretic and to alleviate stomach pains.

We journeyed into the forest here on the HUG campus, which has recently been categorized according to the MN DNR Ecological Classification System (ECS), using smaller ecological units called Native Plant Communities (NPCs).  These units have a code name indicating general characteristics of the type of land.  For example, here on campus, our forests fall into two different NPCs, FDn33 (Northern Dry-Mesic Mixed Woodland) and FDc34 (Central Dry-Mesic Pine-Hardwood Forest). If you know how to read these codes, you can tell quite a bit about the landscape before ever even stepping foot on it.  The capital letters at the beginning indicate the type of ecological system, which in our forest, "FD" stands for fire dependent, indicating that historically crown and surface fires were common in these woodlands. The smaller letter in the middle indicates the floristic region of the state, so the "n" would be for northern and the "c" for central, telling us where in the state this system can be found. The two numbers at the end indicate the general moisture and nutrient levels (respectively), with 0 being the most dry and poorest in nutrients and 9 being the wettest and most nutrient rich environments.  So both of our NPC types here on campus are relatively dry and low in nutrients. While both forest types are dominated by red pine, white pine, quaking aspen, paper birch, jack pine and/or red pine, the FDn34 system seems to be differentiated by noticeably more northern red oak and bur oak, evident on our adventure through the woods!

Then we ran into a very interesting plant, Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora), a native perennial in the, well, Indian Pipe family. This is a very unique forest plant identifiable by a single, waxy, white bell-like flower on a white stem. The white color indicates a lack of chlorophyll, meaning this plant does not photosynthesize and must rely on a mutually beneficial fungal relationship (mycorrhiza) to obtain nutrients from dead or decaying plant materials. Some believe that it may be parasitic, feasting off of, and eventually killing, living host plants. Because it does not need sunlight, it can often be found even in the shadiest areas of the forest floor.

Left: Rose hips - not ripe yet. Center: Inedible bush honeysuckle. Left: Edible chokecherry.

We also found quite a few plants with berries that were ripe & ready to eat! Although the wild blueberries have passed, you can still harvest some raspberries if you get out there soon! In the mix of the raspberries we found a wild rose plant, with unripe hips (fruits of rose plants).  All hips are edible, but they are very bitter and riddled with small, hard seeds. Our group passed right by the inedible berries of the bush honeysuckle and instead had a little tasting of some ripe chokecherry berries, which are very astringent when eaten raw. Apparently, they become more delicious in jellies, syrup, preserves, pies and wine. The pit, contains a toxic hydrocyanic acid, but this can be avoided by carefully not crushing the pits or by cooking the berries. Next we were able to sample some black cherries (below, left), which look very similar to chokecherries but can be distinguished by the fine, reddish hairs at the base of the midrib on the underside of the leaves.  These berries have the same hydrocyanic acid in their pits, so the same precautions should be taken.  Our berry tasting ended with some bunchberries (below, right)- round, bright red drupes growing in a cluster from the flower stalk, surrounded by a whorl of four to six leaves.  They can be eaten raw (good survival food to know!) or cooked into jam, jelly, or sauces.


And we were not the only ones eating what nature had to offer! We found quite a few piles of scat out there - one filled with seeds from berries (raccoon?), one filled with bones of small rodents and feathers from birds (fox?), and one filled with insect exoskeletons (sunk?)! Other nature signs we noted were the various kinds of oak gall present. We identified Oak Apple Gall (below, left) and Oak Bullet Gall (below, right), both growths caused by gall wasps of the Cynipidae family.  These wasps lay eggs in the tissue of oak during the fall and when spring comes, they cause an increased production of normal plant growth hormones, resulting in a large, swollen area of plant tissue. The larvae hatch inside the gall, which serves as a source of food and protection until the larva is ready to transform into an adult and chew its way. Although galls may have been growing since spring, they are not usually noticed until they are fully formed, so now is a good time to get out and find some galls.  The bullet gall is more common on bur oak and white oak, while the apple gall is more common on red oaks.


The weather for this weekend looks beautiful, so get outside and take a look at nature!  Grab up some delicious wild edibles while they last and before the wildlife get to them (but remember, NEVER eat anything you find unless you are absolutely sure that it is safe)! There are some signs that fall is already approaching... but we don't need to talk about those phenological records just yet. ;) Enjoy summer!

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Posted by on in Environmental Stewardship

While the heat of summer weans, for many, the thought of school just around the corner hammers our nerves and sense of freedom even more. So, why not make the most of it? Look forward to the new year of classes. Now add to that a hint of green thinking, and it might just be the best school year ever!

Let’s focus our sustainable minds on the products college students need. To make sure life in the dorms is as comfortable and efficient as possible, there are a few key areas to address: technology, clothing and school supplies.


Technology b2ap3_thumbnail_vaio.jpg

Unlike the school days on campus that your parents reminiscent over (perhaps way too frequently for your taste), today’s supplies include some high-tech gear. While laptop computers, MP3 players and tablets are energy sinks, they do offer some sustainable benefits. Most notably, these products are eco-friendly in that their existence makes other products unnecessary.

One can take an endless amount of notes in class, thus limiting the necessity for notebooks. The fewer notebooks used, the fewer trees cut down. And, if you want to take it one step further, read how to find the most energy-efficient laptops. The same goes for MP3 players: One of these puppies means you don’t need to buy CDs (if anyone even does that anymore). No CDs, no plastic discs, no packaging, no paper booklets. And, lastly, one Kindle requires a lot less material than a library of books — textbooks, novels or otherwise.



Along with a new grade level, every person needs some new stitches for the year — it’s the American way. That being said, think about how much you might really need that new hat or belt that you’ll wear… oh, maybe three times. One of most common “green” challenges these days is making something new with something old — by altering some of your least favorite clothing into a new, fashion-forward and not-so-harmful-to-the-earth style. And hey, if you mess up then you just have a new set of rags to wash your car with on the first day back to campus.

However, if you're like most people, you'll end up purchasing at least a few new pieces. When doing so, look for clothing that comes from sustainable materials like bamboo or hemp. Again, unlike our parent’s generation, today’s clothing made from such natural materials can actually look stylish and most importantly not be so itchy. 



b2ap3_thumbnail_banner_school_supplies.jpgToday’s university bookstores offer a much wider selection of products than the simple notebooks and binders of yesteryear. Think spiral notebook with post-consumer recycled paper, pens that utilize soy-based ink and planners that combine both green-thinking practices. The pen-and-paper medium is quickly becoming obsolete, but in the interim, those supplies we still find necessary can be as sustainable as possible.


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It's the weekend! Hopefully that means you can get outside and enjoy the lovely weather. Quinn has put together an awesome list of things for you to be doing this weekend, but maybe in between activities you can take a walk and see some wildflowers! Earlier this week I posted 10 wildflowers you might be seeing in the area. Hopefully, you went out and saw all those and now you need some more to go explore!

Quinn also arranged this lovely bouquet of wildflowers we collected from around campus, and you can do the same! So go enjoy the weather and the beautiful nature that surrounds us and see what you can find!

False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) - a native perennial in the Aster family. Identifiable by its large, yellow flower head with 15-30 petals around a yellow center and its coarsely toothed, lance-shaped leaves that appear to be clasping the stem.  This flower is not a true sunflower because it produces fruits and true sunflowers are sterile.

Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) - a native perennial in the Mint family, also known as horsemint or bee balm. Identifiable by its round clusters of long, tubular, lavender flowers and its coarsely toothed, lance-shaped leaves. This flower attracts many insects including bees, butterflies and beetles. There is a strong odor from the entire plant when parts are crushed or rubbed. It has long been used as a tea to treat respiratory or digestive ailments and the oil is used as essential flavoring in Earl Gray tea.

Common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) - a native perennial in the Aster family. The species name is millefolium, meaning thousands of leaves, comes from the deeply divided, fern-like leaves, which often leads people to confuse this plant with some kind of fern before it flowers.  The genus name comes from a legend that Achillies used this plant to treat bleeding wounds in the Trojan War. In the photo above, left, an Arcadian Hairstreak can be seen resting on this flower.

White Sweet Clover (Melilotus alba) - a nonnative annual or biennial in the Pea family. Identifiable by its spike cluster of white flowers and its leaves that are divided into three narrow lance-shaped parts. This plant originated in Europe and was brought over as a hay/pasture crop to improve soil fertility via nitrogen fixation. The genus name melilotus comes from the Greek word for "honey", and this flower serves as a major source of nectar to the honeybee.  Its seeds may stay dormant for decades waiting for ideal conditions.  Yellow Sweet Clover (Melilotus officinalis) is nearly identical to white sweet clover, except for the difference in flower color. The leaves and flowers smell like vanilla when they are crushed. This plant contains the chemical dicoumarin, which is a chemical used in rodenticide.

Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) - a nonnative biennial in the Snapdragon family, sometimes known as the flannel plant. This plant originated in Europe. The first year it is a low rosette of soft, flannel-like leaves. The second year it sends up a tall flower stalk with a club-like spike of yellow flowers, which only open a few at a time and start from the top down. The third year, the dead, dried, brown flower stalks can still be seen. Early settlers and Native Americans used the woolly leaves of this plant to line their footwear, as it provided warmth and comfort.

Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) - a native perennial in the Ater family. Identifiable by its large, arching spike cluster of yellow flowers, usually with the tip of the tallest nodding to one side, and its narrow, alternate leaves. There are about 15 species of goldenrod in Minnesota, all of which look similar, sometimes making identification rather difficult. This plant is often mistakenly blamed for allergies and hay fever (when the real culprit is ragweed!) and it's actually only responsible for 1-2% of airborne pollen.  This plant attracts many different pollinators and you can often find insect galls on its stems.

Spotted Knapweed (Centaurea maculosa) - a nonnative biennial in the Aster family. Identifiable by its many lavender/purple flower heads, each surrounded underneath by a brown, prickly bract and narrow, pointed lobe-shaped leaves. This plant is considered a noxious weed by many state agricultural departments (including in MN) due to its aggressiveness in crowding out other plants and its ability to chemically change the soil to favor its own offspring while discouraging the growth of other plants.

Blue Vervian (Verbena hastata) - a native perennial in the Vervian family. Identifiable by its tall, thin spikes of blue/purple tube-like flowers that begin blooming from the bottom up and its narrow, lance-shaped leaves growing oppositely on the stem (why it is often confused for a plant in the mint family). The genus name verbena is Latin for "sacred plant", and is from ancient times was used for a wide range of medicinal purposes. It has a high nectar content, attracting many pollinators like bees and butterflies.

Giant Blue Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) - a native perennial in the Mint family (one of the largest members of its family). Identifiable by its square, four-sided stem, thick spike cluster of light blue/purple flowers and its sharply pointed, lance-shaped leaves. The leaves smell strongly of black licorice and can be used in tea. This is another plant favored by bees.

Prairie Phlox (Phlox pilosa) - a native perennial in the Phlox family. Identifiable by a round cluster of pink to purple flowers and its narrow, pointed, oppositely attached leaves. When the seed of this plant is ripe, the pod explodes, sending the seed several feet away from the mother plant!

Common Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) - a nonnative perennial in the Aster family. Identifiable by its several large, flat, clusters of yellow, button-like flowers and its deeply divided, fern-like leaves. Originally a native of Europe, it can now be found all around the world, including here in MN along roadsides and in old fields. The leaves have a strong medicinal odor, but also contains the toxic oil (tanacetum). Because of this, it has a long, controversial history of medicinal uses, most of which have been discredited.



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Posted by on in Environmental Stewardship

On Thursday of last week, some of the HUG campus employees ventured out from our offices and took a stroll around the campus to see what we could find on a phenology walk. We wandered into the pine plantation and observed what was growing in the understory. We also took a look at what was growing along our dirt roads on campus. Perhaps you were there for all of it, some of it, or maybe you had to miss it, but this is some of what we found and discussed! We will hopefully be doing more phenology walks, which will be open to employees as well as the public, so be watching for announcements on dates & times!

These are wildflowers that are in bloom in the Pine River area right now, so head out on a hike and enjoy nature's scenery!

Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) - a native perennial in the Bellflower family, also known as bluebell.  The droop to this bell-shaped purple flower helps to protect the pollen from dew and rain. In the Pacific Northwest, the Haida Indians believed that picking this flower caused it to rain, which is why they are called "blue rain flowers" in that region. It is a circumpolar plant that grows at relatively high latitudes. In Europe, the leaves are sometimes eaten raw in salads and are thought to have minor medicinal qualities.

Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) - a native perennial in the Aster family. This plant is the only one of its species in of North America. Identifiable by a large round cluster of many individual white flowers and long, narrow leaves that are densely hairy underneath, causing them to look white. This plant was used by Native Americans for many medicinal purposes, including boiling in tea or a steam bath for rheumatism, smoking to treat colds and making poultices for treatment of sores.

Goatsbeard (Tragopogon dubius) - a nonnative biennial in the Aster family. Originally from Europe, this large, yellow, dandelion-like flower turns its flower head to face the sun, but the flower closes by noon (as shown above).  It has a long tap root that can be used as a coffee substitute. When it seeds, it looks like a giant dandelion head, which are sometimes referred to "blow balls".


Butter & Eggs (Linaria vulgaris) - an invasive perennial in the Snapdragon family, also known as toadflax. Originally from Europe and now a garden escapee. The name comes from the two-tone pea-like flowers; the darker orange part, which looks like an egg yolk, and the lighter yellow part around it, which is the butter. The orange part is actually a "honey guide", a target to guide insects into the long spur of the flower (where the nectar is located).

Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) - a native perennial in the Ginseng family. Identifiable by its three distinct round clusters of small, white flowers and clusters of round purple/black berries on a leafless stalk. The roots are very aromatic and have been used as a substitute for true sarsaparilla in root beer. The berries are often eaten by wildlife and while they are apparently not toxic to humans, they are said to be not worth the effort. 

White Campion (Silene latifolia) - a nonnative annual in the Pink (or Carnation) family. The bright white petals of this flower come out during the night to attract night-flying insects, like moths, to pollinate.  During the day, the white petals retract back into the flower's sticky calyx, or "bladder", which is where the nickname bladder campion comes from.

Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) - a nonnative biennial in the Aster family. In the first year this plant is a rosette of low to the ground, spiky leaves. In the second year, it sends up a tall, spiky flower stalk, with spiky narrow leaves ending in a sharp spine, and has large, reddish purple flower heads sitting on a spiky green base. Lots of spikes - beware! The seeds are a favorite food of the American Goldfinch, which also uses the parachute-like, soft, thistledown to line their nests. This is why the Goldfinch often nests later than other summer birds.

Rabbit Foot's Clover (Trifolium pretense) - a nonnative annual of the Pea family. Identifiable by its dense, cylindrical, fuzzy flower heads ranging from pale pink to white, this species can be found in large numbers along roadsides. This plant helps out by fixing nitrogen into the soil, as do many other members of its family.

Ox-eyed Daisy (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum) - a nonnative perennial in the Aster family. This plant originated in Europe but has become quite common here, often seen along roadsides. This plant contains pyrethrum, which is a chemical used in organic pesticides because it repels insects.  Also in this photo is one Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) - a native member of the Aster family. Historically, this plant had many medicinal uses. The Ojibwe people used the roots to make a poultice to treat snake bites and steeped them to cure colds or worms in children.


So get outside & find some of Minnesota's beautiful wildflowers.  While you're out there, don't forget to also enjoy some of Minnesota's delicious wild berries, like these blueberries & raspberries! (But only if you are sure of your identification as something edible - berries can be dangerous!)






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