Tag Archives: Lotusland

bromeliads for winter

Hot enough for you? It’s over 100 degrees in Los Angeles today, so hot that even the devil has left town.
(That’s the best “It’s so hot” line I’ve heard all summer, spoken by a gentleman from El Paso, Texas.)
And our winters just keeping getting warmer, too, so I’m thinking it’s probably best to face that reality with…more bromeliads. You don’t see the connection? Hear me out.
In temperate Southern California, unless your garden sits in a frost pocket, bromeliads don’t need to be hustled indoors for winter like they do in colder climates.
I’ve never been one to get really excited about pumpkins and gourd displays for fall, but I could easily adopt a tradition of filling the garden with bromeliads for winter.
Their juicy, saturated colors and starburst rosettes would be a huge boost in the shorter (but most likely still warm) days of winter.
If we’re strolling the garden in shirtsleeves and flip-flops in December, then let’s have something sexy to look at. And bromeliads are indisputably sexy.
They’re also incredibly easy to care for, needing about as much water and attention as succulents. Like agaves, they die after flowering but always leave some pups to carry on.

Here’s some glamour shots from local plant shows and sales over the years with IDs if I have them:

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Alcanterea ‘Volcano Mist’

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Aechmea nudicaulis in the center

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Aechmea ‘Loies Pride’

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Okay, so they make dramatic specimens for containers, but what about massed in the frost-free landscape?

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I’m so glad you asked.
This is what Lotusland, an estate garden in Montecito, California, does with bromeliads in an admittedly fantastical and over-the-top landscape:

Continue reading bromeliads for winter

the siren call of cycads

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a local Long Beach front garden, zone 10, south-facing exposure

I recently chanced upon a house and garden that I used to drive by a lot more frequently.
Habits change, errands take one in a different direction, and in that unobserved period a cycad suddenly seems to have become enormous.
And cycads, as a rule, don’t do anything suddenly.

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The most frequently seen cycad, Cycas revoluta, known by the misnomer “Sago Palm,” is probably the only cycad I can safely ID.
I think this is a Sago Palm, though I could easily be mistaken. I’ve never seen one this big.

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That little garden reminded me of the photos I’d yet to post of the cycad garden at Lotusland for you cycad lovers.
I admire cycads, though I haven’t yet come to love them. I really should make up my mind, because it requires an investment of years, decades, to grow them to these sizes.
I know I certainly wouldn’t refuse a good-sized, robin’s egg blue Encephalartos horridus for a tall container. (Like I’d ever expect to find that gift-wrapped under the Christmas tree.)

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Sorry, but I can’t help with IDs of these ancient plants. I know they are very slow growing, so size equates with value, and it’s a huge big deal when they cone.
Ceratozamia, cycas, dioon, encephalartos, lepitozamia, macrozamia — I’d be hard-pressed to tell them apart.
I do know they are one of the most endangered plants in the world.

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Of course, the best way to learn about a plant is to go to the experts.
And it just so happens that The Cycad Society is holding a “Cycad Day” on October 24, 2015.
Maybe you needed a compelling reason to finally make that trip to West Palm Beach, Florida. If so, now you have one. You’re welcome.

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A Southern California source for these plants is The Palm and Cycad Exchange in Fallbrook, California.

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Lotusland’s Rare Plant Auction would be another source.

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I imagine they turn up at the Huntington’s plant sales too.

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Lush and deep green in leaf, some are tolerant of conditions dry enough to suit our native oaks, which don’t appreciate excess summer irrigation.

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Cycads are members of that small, select group of plants dating to the Mesozoic period called gymnosperms (“naked seed”), whose exposed seed are borne in cones.
Angiosperms, relative newcomers but now 80 percent of plants today, generally develop their seeds via flowers.
Credit cycads’ good looks for making people wild enough about them to devote whole gardens to them in climates that can accommodate their needs.
They hail from tropical and subtropical places, like South and Central America.

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That improbable palminess via stiff geometric leaves on a stout trunk, plus their rarity and unique evolutionary status, are part of what turns ordinary people into devotees.

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Where to See Cycads.”


Lotusland, garden provocateur

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More from that June visit to Lotusland, Ganna Walska’s 37-acre estate near Santa Barbara, California.

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In the comments to this post, Emily kindly provided a link to an English series “Around the World in 80 Gardens,” in which a visit to Lotusland is covered in Episode 5.

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The host’s reaction to Lotusland, where everything is “unfettered, including taste,” is worth the viewing.
He had a virulent reaction to the abalone-rimmed pool, deeming it a “monstrous hideosity,” which is not unusual. Many hate the kitschy clam shells.
But Walska’s maverick emphasis on climate-appropriate, architectural plants, de-emphasizing flowers, escapes him.
Her precocious, early adoption of the dramatic massing of plants goes unnoticed.

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In the same episode, the Huntington Desert Garden also confounds him. Indeed, no context for the influence of climate is offered in the episode I watched.
Gardens are seen as nothing but a triumph of style, a groundless expression of taste.

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One of my favorite moments is when our exasperated host quizzes James van Sweden, a pioneer in naturalistic planting, as to why there’s not much garden culture in the U.S.
Mr. van Sweden, whose work succeeded in the sweltering heat of Washington, D.C., coolly eyes his theory-hungry British guest before dryly responding, “Because it’s hot.”

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But the provocative garden legacy of Madame Walska may appear more pioneering today than is historically accurate.
Lotusland’s originality may be by default, as other estate gardens of that era failed to financially survive.
Just about the time Lotusland was taking its present form in the early 1940s, a nearby cactus garden was being dismantled, victim of a fortune lost in the Great Depression.
From 1928 to 1942, Ysabel Wright made a garden in Montecito that in its brief lifespan held the world’s largest collection of cactus, with visitors like Albert Einstein.
The March-April 2015 Cactus and Succulent Journal has a wonderful piece on this garden by Catherine Phillips entitled “The Lost Cactus Garden of ‘Quien Sabe.’”
Both Lotusland and the Huntington Desert Garden procured plants from Quien Sabe as the collection was dispersed.
Ms. Phillips quotes a naturalist’s first impression of the garden after Ms. Wright had abandoned it and left for the East Coast, never to return:
Not all the breadth of the continent had prepared me for anything like this, and I stood lost in it,
staring at the rigid architectural beauty of the cacti and at the mountains that reared behind them turning blue with the dusk
.” — Donald Culross Peattie

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Ms. Phillips’ article on Quien Sabe describes “a particularly Californian ‘cactus-feminism’…a gendered response to the desert that ‘calls to women.'”

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Wright’s garden was built at the dawn of a gentle resistance to the exotic plant introductions and European garden designs that the city was famous for, inaugurating a move towards an advocacy of local flora (The Santa Barbara botanic Garden began in 1926). Through foreign introductions the cactus craze perpetuated the Santa Barbara tradition for botanical diversity, but at the same time the cactus enthusiasm suited a more ‘modern,’ more spontaneous genre with an affinity to a landscape that was not the Mediterranean but was California. Gardeners were looking to incorporate cactus harmoniously and naturally into design, without the crowded minutiae of the rock garden or the formality and artifice of earlier cactus garden models…” — “The Lost Cactus Garden of ‘Quien Sabe'”

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The Ventura and Santa Barbara counties are filled with the stories, if no longer the extant gardens, of women transformed by the climate into plant obsessives.
In his notes on Lotusland, Geoff Stein (aka “palmbob”) alludes to another extraordinary plantswoman, the “Palm Queen,” Pauleen Sullivan, who died in 2012:
(“One of my favorite palm people, Pauleen Sullivan, a leader in her own field of palm collecting and growing in California, was approached by Madame Walska in the late 1970s,
offering to buy many of Pauleen’s favorite palms for Lotusland.
Pauleen refused, of course (another stubborn plant personality), sending Madame Walska off in disbelief, as she had offered Pauleen a substantial amount of money
.”)

Lotusland’s abalone shell pond

More from my Lotusland visit this past June. In my guided tour group was a friendly couple with a serious selfie habit, expressed at every turn in a path, at every new feature.
We ended up exploring the garden at the same pace, always at the back of the pack due to our respective documentation proclivities.

In the aloe garden can be found possibly one of Lotusland’s most theatrical features, the abalone shell-rimmed pool.
Never mind taking a selfie, all I could think about was her, the woman who dreamed this up.
The woman who had as many spouses as Henry VIII, at a time when a single divorce would have marked her as a notorious woman
And then after the husbands, after the opera career, she settles in to make a garden like no one had ever seen before, selling her jewelry to buy cycads.
I find it reassuring to know that Lotusland still outweirds us all. You just can’t top it.
It is Madame Walska’s enduring “selfie” writ large. Be brave, be fearless, is the caption. And if you are a woman in 1941 with outsized dreams, it doesn’t hurt to be very, very rich.

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scenes from Lotusland; the Lemon Arbor

Since I snapped hundreds, I’ll probably be trickling out photos of my June visit to Lotusland for months to come.

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The Eureka lemon tree arbor, planted in 1988, is probably one of the more sedate and traditional features of Lotusland.
This arbor might be a good place to start, showing as it does how Ganna Walska had absorbed the principles of the many formal gardens she knew from Europe.
Disappointed in love, and knowing an allee from an arbor, she came to California in her fifties ready to create a bold, brave garden unlike any before it. Or since, for that matter.

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The garden had experienced a rare June rainstorm, receiving .6 inches just before my visit.
The buffs, tans, dark greens, bright yellows and greys were especially vivid under an overcast sky and cleansed of accumulated grime.

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I’ve delayed posting on this visit, hoping to find and read her memoir “Always Room at the Top” before I do.
Written before she made Lotusland, I’m not sure what insights the account of her six husbands and minor opera career would reveal about her character that her garden doesn’t.

This article by The Los Angeles Times from 2005 is one of the best background pieces I’ve read on her.

the indomitable Lotusland

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Following the blue glass slag-lined path on a recent visit to Lotusland in Montecito, Calif.

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We came upon the startling sight of a greenhouse in the jungle.
Not startling in the expected, operatically flamboyant Lotusland sense, but because it was relatively humble, almost modestly functional.

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The docent made no mention of the greenhouse, and we dutifully shuffled past it at our 2-hour tour pace.

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Even so, I lingered here a bit longer, until the sounds of the docent’s practiced narration disappeared around a bend in the sparkling path.
A greenhouse is a potent and evocative structure. It’s where the magic begins.
And the intensely personal quality of a greenhouse, nurturing the seeds of garden dreams, might be why I felt such pathos here.

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Oh, yes, Mme Walska, even after all these years, your garden still casts a powerful spell.

A Visual Compendium of Succulents

This chart has been making the rounds on Pinterest. I’m not too sure of it’s infallibility as a reference since Sedum morganianum, the Burrito/Donkey Tail is listed as Sedum burrito.


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Sedum morganianum famously deployed as jellyfish at Lotusland.

A Visual Compendium of Succulents

But it is handy for charting the march of succulents through my garden.
Let’s see. Lost the Cotyledon orbiculata last week, brought home Senecio haworthii just a couple days ago…


chart found here.

sunday clippings 6/22/14

Future shock for me has arrived in the guise of an orange wristband.

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Congratulations! You moved 24,995 steps, 12.07 miles, 249% of goal!Jawbone’s UP pedometer calculates all that aimless garden puttering and tallies up some surprising stats. My orange UP came as a side benefit to Father’s Day, when Marty was presented with a twin set of wristbands, black for him, orange for me. As someone with zero interest in gizmos and in constant war with remote controls, someone who still hasn’t learned all the intricacies of a smart phone, the pedometer function of the wristband has already become addictive. Every day feels so much more productive, and there’s no more remorse for not “getting out and exercising.” It also knows how many times you woke up in the night (last night only once, but I don’t remember doing so), and it logged that near all-nighter I had at the computer last week when I clocked under 3 hours’ sleep on Tuesday. After wearing it only a few days and already finding its data stream astonishing, a real Star Trek moment come true, I checked out some Internet reviews. Quite a few claim it isn’t long-lived and breaks down after a few months. We’ll see if there’s some merit to these reviews or if it’s just trolling from competitors. By the way, those stats were yesterday’s, which included a 4-mile walk to dinner and a movie, but the bulk of those steps were logged at home, in the “compound.” I call that power puttering.

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A lot of those steps were logged checking on the progress of Musschia wollastonii, which at last looks to be thinking about blooming. The perfect exposure in summer turned out to be on the north side of the house, under the triangle palm, morning dappled sun, afternoon shade. This spot was no good in winter, being in deep shade until spring. Speaking of the triangle palm, Dypsis decaryi, I’ve been thinking about attempting to climb a Philodendron melanochrysum up its trunk, image here, with that amazingly elongated “drip tip.” So far Logee’s is the only source, and shipping would be crazy expensive. Cissus discolor is another possibility, also only available via mail order.

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Lots of steps were logged to and from the watering basin, where I can quickly dip pitchers without having to wait for them to be filled up by the hose and there’s less waste. Containers are scattered throughout, with seedlings and cuttings way in the back. It’s basically a hand-watered operation here, with containers and plantings under a year old needing frequent attention. And since I change things up all the time, there’s lots in the year-old category. I’m hoping the seedlings of Hibiscus trionum for planting out late summer will survive the visit to Portland this coming July 11. Nothing makes me feel more like an obsessive lunatic than explaining how to care for the garden during a summer absence. This solar-powered soil sensor I read about in The New York Times (“Planting for Profit, and Greater Good,” June 7, 2014) would make things a lot easier on anyone volunteering for the thankless job of vacation garden duty.

Other plants I’ll be worried about while at the bloggers’ meetup are newly potted cuttings of Brillantaisia subulugurica, a plant I’d never heard of until a couple weeks ago. I was handing out fliers on Dustin’s plant sale at the local community college horticultural department, which was a debacle since it had already closed for summer. But heading back to the car, hoping the fruitless mission wouldn’t be further compounded by a parking ticket, I noticed a mass of blue climbing the chain link fence at the end of the parking lot. Too late for sweet peas, too early for late-season salvias, what could it be? In dusty dry soil, full sun, covered in enormous, comically exaggerated, salvia-esque blooms, with the distinctive lower lip pout, opposite leaves, square stems, but unlike any salvia I’d ever read about or seen. I grabbed some cuttings jutting through the fence and did some Internet research when I got home. Voila, Brillantaisia subulugurica. All the excitement of a plant hunting expedition without the bad food and sore feet. It rooted amazingly fast in water. I need to go back for photos.


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Commelina coelestis

More new things to water. I took a flying leap at this little powerhouse factory of deepest blue, Commelina coelestis, hoping it makes a big clump here with the gold-leaved tansy ‘Isla Gold.’
Locally from Annie’s Annuals & Perennials. And then I wonder why there’s so much blue in the garden this summer.

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Jennifer van der Fluit waters the succulent fence in the front yard of her Long Beach home.”

An update on the “fedge,” a living fence I blogged about here in 2010, appeared recently in The Los Angeles Times in this click-through photo gallery “DIY succulents: Tips for decorating with drought-tolerant plants.” (I’d get current photos myself but I’ve lost the address.) I’ve found that articles from paywall-protected sites can be read if the title of the article is copy-and-pasted into a search engine.

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Jennifer and Appie van der Fluit plant succulents in their 30-foot-long, 4-foot-tall chain-link fence, with a 1-foot-wide channel in between filled with soil.”

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If you’re looking for some weekend reading, The New Yorker did some great reporting on the new direction The Nature Conservancy is taking, such as partnering with corporations like Dow Chemical in an “eco-pragmatic” spirit (“Green is Good” by D.T. Max, full article available to subscribers.) Featured in the piece was Mark Tercek, formerly of Goldman Sachs and now heading up TNC. He writes about the article in a blog post here, which I haven’t fully read yet but the comment section looks explosive. As long-time donors to the TNC, we’ve been arguing over discussing this article at home. Somehow a photo of Ein seems appropriate here, who does such a good job taking care of us.

And lastly, there’s a Cactus & Succulent Sale and Show at the Huntington beginning this coming weekend, June 28, 2014.

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Such sales are where I pick up succulents like this one about to bloom. I lost the tag, but it’s possibly Senecio scaposus v. addoensis

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I’ll end with a photo of Ganna Walska in a Gatsby getup, cradling a crazed-looking cat. I bet she’d drive down from Lotusland for the Huntington’s upcoming plant sale this weekend.

(P.S. Timber Press is running a Hellstrip Contest to celebrate the release of “Hellstrip Gardening” by Evelyn Hadden. $250 is up for grabs. Contest ends July 6, 2014.)

the packrat king

If you’ve ever visited Lotusland, you’ll instantly know why I was drawn to these clamshells.


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Set up temporarily on a bird bath stand. I was hoping they’d hold a lot more water than they do.

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Sitting on the stand at these awkward angles, the only stable arrangement, leaves just a very shallow pool. Possibly enough to slake a bird’s thirst, if not enough for a Botticelli bath.

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The real deal at Lotusland.

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When one of my high school buddies called to ask if I knew of someone who would be interested in sorting and pricing the contents of his father’s garage, I immediately grasped the enormity he faced. This garage was mythic. I had visited it once, maybe twice as a teenager, and the endless drawers of rocks and gemstones, the shelves filled with the corruscated shapes of geodes, had left an indelible impression. There was also a hazy impression of a typical, post-WWII suburban garage divided into cramped rooms stuffed to the gunwhales with whatever had aroused his dad’s magpie tendencies, which were epic by any magpie standards. As a teenager, I couldn’t help but compare it to the garage at my parents’ home, which most disappointingly housed a car and tidy laundry facilities. I had to see it again, if only to test the soundness of adolescent memories that had burnished that garage into a cave of wonders. Was it just a junk pile? I needed an impartial third eye to soberly assess this storehouse of dreams. Marty agreed to come along.

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Clams just aren’t growing them like this anymore.

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My buddy figured two years would be needed to get the job done, the contents sorted and priced, destined for collectors or sold as scrap. Two years now seems an optimistic number to me. Inching sideways through the packed shelves, a new question pops up with each step: How long does Kodachrome film last? Why all the boxes of pencils? Is this Life magazine with Paul and Linda on the cover worth anything? And then there’s the big question that looms over everything: How could he leave all this stuff for his family to sort through? It is an overwhelming, Herculean task. My buddy will be living with what is essentially a physical manifestation of the dusty nooks and crannies of his father’s imagination for years to come….oh, wait a minute. Is that really such a bad thing? Looking at my buddy’s haggard face, I wasn’t sure.


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I grabbed my Lotsuland clamshells, a set of cocktail glasses sporting the pirate ship logo of the old Tasman Sea, now closed, and made a clean getaway. Marty fully corroborated my impressions, that this man had collected his way into something extraordinary. Bizarre and of dubious value, but extraordinary.

I can’t wait to go back.


Succulent Experiments

Crassula expansa subsp. fragilis was planted this past May in these car jack stands, using window screening to hold the soil in, first pictured here near the bottom of the post.

Unlike my mossy experiments, this crassula is growing much faster and really seems to be thriving rather than barely hanging on. Tiny, starry white flowers are just starting to erupt. Love the delicate, thyme-like texture on this one. Soon it will engulf the entire structure.

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I like it so much that a new one has been created using Crassula pellucida var. marginalis. So much of this crassula was broken in the process!
Someone really adept with their hands and eye could get some beautiful folds out of the window screen as a feature in the open spaces of the design. It’s nearly as pliable as a stiff fabric.

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Hanging on branches temporarily to grow in the dappled light under the Chinese fringe tree, Chionanthus retusus, the simple abstract shapes are not a glaring intrusion here. I have no doubt that this idea for multiple, nearly identical hanging planters was inspired, consciously or unconsciously, by the inventive hanging succulent creations seen this spring at Lotusland. The strips of rusty metal used for hangers, about 2 feet in length, are salvage from Building RESources in San Francisco, California.

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