Botanical prints of threatened flora

For those of us who find beauty in plant forms, the botanical illustrations available online are an always-blooming visual pleasure. Here are two that came my way via a mention in today’s Botany Photo of the Day.

First, a gallery of members’ works on the site of the The American Society of Botanical Artists, well worth a visit. There are only a couple of examples for each artist, but you can follow links to websites for many of those represented.

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Detail, Mountain lilac or Greenbark ceanothus (Ceanothus spinosus), watercolor © Chris Chapman. Source [this is a frames page, click on artist’s name in list at side].

Also, the ASBA has made available online nearly all of a touring exhibition called Losing Paradise? Endangered Plants Here and Around the World.The exhibit is at The New York Botanical Garden through July 25 2010, and at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in DC, August 14th through December 10th.

This ASBA blog has about thirty of the 44 artworks featured in the exhibition (another is added every few days), and each is accompanied by the text from the exhibit catalog: a description of the plant and its situation, and commentary from the artist. (Elsewhere, the ASBA also plans to post all 125 pieces that were submitted for the exhibit, with shorter text; only about a dozen are up now.)

Here are a few samples from the blog. The images on the page are thumbnails, be sure to look at the much larger versions.

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Detail of Painted trillium (Trillium undulatum), mixed media, © Anne Marie Carney, US.

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Detail of Royal catchfly (Silene regia), watercolor © Heeyoung Kim, US.

A perennial wildflower of the US Midwest; its bright red flowers are pollinated by butterflies and hummingbirds.

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Detail, Marsh gentian (Gentiana pneumonanthe), watercolor © Gillian Barlow, UK.

Marsh gentian is being studied all over northern Europe, mainly because of its fascinating relationship with the rare Alcon blue butterfly (Phengaris alcon). Adult Alcon blues lay their eggs on the outside of marsh gentian flowers, and when the larvae hatch, they emerge inside, where they begin to feed on the flower. After molting 3 times, these caterpillars chew through to the outside of the flower, then lower themselves to the ground on a “silken thread”. The caterpillar awaits the arrival of a Myrmica ant, which adopts it and carries it back to the ant’s nest. There it is fed by the ant colony through the fall and winter, growing quite large. In spring it forms a chrysalis, then emerges and exits the colony as quickly as it can to avoid being killed by the ants.

Actually, it’s even odder than that…

The larvae emit surface chemicals (allomones) that closely match those of ant larvae, causing the ants to carry the Alcon larvae into their nests and place them in their brood chambers, where they are fed by worker ants and where they devour ant larvae.

When the Alcon larva is fully developed it pupates. Once the adult hatches it must run the gauntlet of escaping. The ants recognise the butterfly to be an intruder, but when they go to attack it with their jaws they can’t grab anything substantial as the newly emerged adult butterfly is thickly clothed in loosely attached scales.

Over time, some ant colonies that are parasitized in this manner will slightly change their larva chemicals as a defense, leading to an evolutionary “arms race” between the two species.

The Phengaris alcon larvae are sought underground by the Ichneumon eumerus wasp. On detecting a P. alcon larva the wasp enters the nest and sprays a pheromone that causes the ants to attack each other. In the resulting confusion the wasp locates the butterfly larva and injects it with its eggs. On pupation, the wasp eggs hatch and consume the chrysalis from the inside. [Wikipedia]

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Alcon blue butterfly (Phengaris alcon). Source.

Since the butterfly lays its eggs right on the flower, it may be serving the gentian as a pollinator, if it visits more than one plant.

Below, the Santa Cruz Cypress.

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The endangered Santa Cruz Cypress, Cupressus abramsiana, is found only in the coastal Santa Cruz Mountains of central California, where it grows in gravelly, sandy soils above the fog belt, with chaparral and other evergreen species. This tree, once abundant, succumbed over the years to vineyard and home development, and road building. Only five populations totaling a few thousand individuals remain, all within a 15-mile stretch of the coast. It was Federally listed in 1987. It is still threatened by competition with non-native plants such as pampas grass and French broom, insect infestation and hybridization with other cypress species.

Visit the ASBA blogspot to see the rest of 30 or so. The catalog of the exhibit, from which these texts are excerpted, is on sale for $29.95 + s & h.

Siskiyou wild plants: horsetail, chokecherry and yarrow, and a detour into the Iliad

Today I’ll start with a genus of plants that is a bit different: it’s a “living fossil” from the Devonian (405 million to 345 million years ago, age of fishes and appearance of amphibians) when some specimens topped 90 feet (30 meters), it does not flower, and it’s found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. And, people both cook it and use it to scour pots. This is the genus Equisetum, commonly called horsetail. It’s a lover of wet places and we found it at the edge of a creek.

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Above are both stages of growth side by side: the jointed stem somewhat like bamboo, which I plucked from a slope next to the creek, and a smaller stem that has already “leafed out” in radial whorls of needle-like leaves. This picture from Wikipedia shows the leaf whorls well.

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The unleafed stems were beautifully colored,

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and hollow.

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The stems are said to be “anatomically […] unique among plants”.

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This beautiful microphotograph is of a stained cross-section of stem.

Equisetum species grow from underground rhizomes that are extremely persistent and invasive; think twice before deciding it is the perfect plant for that boggy spot in your yard, because it is likely to be there (and maybe other places too) forever. They’ve been used for all sorts of purposes through history. Many a camper and wildland dweller has scoured pots with the stems, which have a lot of silica in them, and they are “still boiled and then dried in Japan, to be used for the final polishing process on woodcraft to produce a smoother finish than any sandpaper.” The leaves are used as a dye for a soft green color. The young shoots are eaten but require special treatment because they contain the enzyme thiaminase[172], a substance that can rob the body of the vitamin B complex.

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In addition to spreading locally via rhizomes, Equisetum produces spores on terminal cones, shown below.

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Photo source.

There are several species found in Oregon, and I think the one we saw and photographed is Equisetum hyemale but I’m not sure. Equisetum, by the way, means “horse-bristle”, as in “scrub-brush”, and hyemale is from hiemis, “winter” (both terms from the Latin). Other common names include scouring rush, pipes (children play with them, as the hollow segments can be taken apart and put back together), and scrub grass.

Downstream from the equisetum, back on the road, we saw next to the narrow concrete bridge a small tree growing in the water

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and laden with tresses of white blooms.

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This is choke cherry (Prunus virginiana), a species of “bird cherry”. Fruits are small and sour but very high in antioxidant pigment compounds, like anthocyanins. With a lot of added sugar, they are used to make wines, syrups, jellies, and jams.

Yarrow cultivars are familiar garden plants. Here is the ancestor of those, Achillea millefolium or common yarrow. It’s found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, even in the Himalayas.

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A closer view of the flowers.

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The leaves are distinctive, giving rise to the common name plumajillo, or “little feather” in Spanish-speaking New Mexico and southern Colorado, and to the millefolium (thousand-leaf) in its scientific name.

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It’s called Achillea after Achilles, Homer’s hero in the Iliad, who was well-trained in healing wounds as well as in causing them. Yarrow has been used for thousands of years to staunch the flow of blood and for other medical purposes, and among its common names are “herbal militaris” or soldier’s herb, nosebleed plant, and soldier’s woundwort. But there doesn’t seem to be any peer-reviewed research into compounds in the plant that may have medicinal properties. One site I visited, planetbotanic.ca, promoted it as an immune stimulant to ward off colds. But then the site’s “fact sheet” also tells us that “Yarrow’s scientific name hints of a legendary use. Achilles’ famous heel is said to have been healed when yarrow was applied to it.” Other than the words “Achilles” and “heel”, everything in this sentence is wrong: Achilles’s mother held her infant by the heel while dipping him in the River Styx to confer invincibility upon him. The water did not touch that part of his body, and eventually the warrior who had survived many wounds was killed by an arrow to the heel, from the bow of Paris.

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Achilles bandaging the wounded Patroclus. From a Greek vase painting. Source.


Paris was not much of a fighter. He mostly stayed with the women and old men observing the ten years’ war from the heights of Troy’s great battlements, so it’s ironic that his blow (even if delivered from a distance) should kill the otherwise invincible champion of combat, Achilles.

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Achilles in battle. Source.

Homer doesn’t include the death of Achilles in the Iliad; he ends with a final consequence of Achilles’s wounded pride, fit of rage and refusal to fight, when his friend Patroclus goes out wearing the great warrior’s armor to drive back the attacking Trojans. Patroclus and the Greeks carried the day, indeed seemed about to breach the walls of Troy, but the god Apollo intervened, striking Patroclus so as to daze him, sending his borrowed helmet spinning in the dust; one Trojan wounded him from behind and then Hector, Prince of Troy, delivered the fatal blow. When word of this reached Achilles he put aside his pride under force of a greater rage, and went after Hector like a lioness whose cub’s been killed.

All is not the clashing of bronze and shedding of blood in the Iliad. This is a famously tender moment, famously sad as well, one that is familiar to too many soldier parents.

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“And tall Hector nodded, his helmet flashing:
… shining Hector reached down for his son—but the boy recoiled,
… screaming out at the sight of his own father,
terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest,
the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror—
so it struck his eyes. And his loving father laughed,
his mother laughed as well, and glorious Hector,
quickly lifting the helmet from his head,
set it down on the ground, fiery in the sunlight,
and raising his son he kissed him, tossed him in his arms…”

Iliad Bk. 6: 556-56, in the very readable translation by Robert Fagles. Source.


The Iliad ends with Hector’s father King Priam of Troy humbly seeking his son’s body for burial. In his boundless desire for vengeance upon his friend’s killer, Achilles has been dragging the body behind his chariot, around and around the city. Yet when the old man, escorted through the enemy lines by a disguised Mercury, kneels before Achilles, kisses his hands, and implores his son’s killer to think of his own faraway father and give up Hector’s body, Achilles weeps with Priam, and relents.

All that was about 1250 BC, yet reading the Iliad we find characters and feelings that match those we can see around us still. The immense destructive power of rage and wounded pride are as great now as then. And the history of the humble yarrow also connects us to people like Achilles and Hector; their eyes saw these flowers, crushed these leaves to keep with them against the likelihood of wound from sword or spear.

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Troy, level VI, defensive walls, as excavated by Schliemann. This level is about a hundred years earlier than that believed to have been the city destroyed by war in the Iliad, about 1250 BC. Source.

Views of a lion skull

Recently I had the opportunity to photograph a lion’s skull. Since there seem to be few detailed photos of this subject online, I’m posting several here.

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The ruler at the bottom is 3.5 inches (89mm) long. I don’t know the age or sex of this animal, only that it was an African lion. The ragged hole on top of the skull is a bullet hole; more about that later.

The large openings flanking the nasal cavity, and beneath the huge eye-sockets, puzzled me. Turns out they are the passageways into the eye area for the infraorbital nerve, artery, and vein (technically, each of these two openings is termed the “infraorbital foramen”). The infraorbital foramen is indicated by the arrow in the anatomical illustration below, from the University of Wisconsin’s digital collection of Veterinary Anatomical lllustrations.

In searching out what these openings were, I came across the information that Asiatic lions often have divided infraorbital foramina, with a bony bridge across the opening. Most African lions have the single open foramen seen in the skull I photographed. It is believed that the modern lion originated in Africa, and some researchers think that a severe population bottleneck at some point in the recent past of Asiatic lions may have allowed this variation to become common.

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[]Thanks to Bibliodyssey for the post on these great illustrations.

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The longitudinal grooves or clefts in the upper canines seem odd, though I found similar ones on another skull pictured online. Most of the lion skull images online were casts, replicas, and lack these grooves.

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On the side of the lower mandible, insertion openings for nerves or blood vessels are clearly visible.

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Turbinate bones and the air we breathe

Few skulls or replicas online show something I was especially interested in, the delicate turbinate bones within the nasal cavity. These are thin bony structures, with a rich blood supply, found in all modern warm-blooded animals. Here they show a complex scrolled shape that is marvelous to see.

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The turbinates are also seen in the first photo; the close-up above is taken from a lower vantage point, looking farther into the nasal cavity.

What is the function of these unusual structures? The tissue covering the turbinate bones warms, cleans, and humidifies air as it is inhaled; the air exhaled from the lungs, which has picked up even more heat and moisture there, is cooled to reclaim moisture and prevent dehydration. The turbinate system also benefits the sense of smell. Humidifying the incoming air is necessary to “preserve the delicate olfactory epithelium needed to keep the olfactory receptors healthy and alert” (Wikipedia); the turbinates also increase the surface area of the inside of the nose and direct air upward toward the olfactory receptors. And, in humans at least, the tissues are what get swollen and obstruct our breathing, when we have allergic reactions.

The dinosaur connexion

The turbinates interested me because I remember reading speculation, in Digging Dinosaurs by palaeontologist Jack Horner, that dinosaurs were endothermic, warm-blooded––and he based this partly on indications that some skulls showed signs of turbinate bones (I don’t recall what exactly he described). However, that book was published in 1988, and it appears that subsequent researchers have failed to substantiate his suggestion. The delicate turbinate bones rarely survive as part of fossilized skulls; for example, none have been found in fossils of ancient birds’ skulls, even though the birds must have been warm-blooded. Some dinosaurs have thin tubular nasal spaces, as do present-day reptiles, and it is argued that those with narrow nasal cavities couldn’t have had turbinate bones. The question is not settled, but the current consensus seems to be that dinosaurs were not warm-blooded. For point-by-point summaries of the controversy, these seem good: The Evidence for Ectothermy in Dinosaurs (cold-blooded) and The Evidence for Endothermy in Dinosaurs (warm-blooded). Wikipedia considers some additional points in Physiology of dinosaurs.

Cause of death of this lion

The lion skull had been lent for a display in our local library, by the US Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory in Ashland Oregon. It’s the only lab in the world devoted to crimes against wildlife, and I’ll say more about it in another post. The skull had been evidence in a despicable case: an individual bought up lions (they breed easily in captivity) from roadside zoos, put them in small enclosures and sold the right to shoot them. My grim theory is that the “hunters” were required not to shoot at the head, so that more shots could be taken at the living lion, before the highest-paying customer delivered the coup de grace in a shot to the top of the head. First, that would yield the most money for the scumbag, and second, it would have been very difficult to make this shot to the top of the head of a lion still standing.

At least the person running this was tried, and convicted with the assistance of the Wildlife Lab. Highly unlikely that he received a sentence I’d regard as sufficient, though.

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A Cape Lion (Panthera leo melanochaitus, now extinct) in a drawing of the Dutch artist Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Circa 1650-52. Location: Louvre, Paris. Source, Wikimedia Commons.

Stooks and sheaves at an historic farm

At Hanley Historic Farm near Jacksonville, Oregon, we came upon a wheatfield that had been cut and stacked, and it was a beautiful sight.

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These aren’t just bunches of cut wheat tossed up into heaps like our idea of a haystack; they’re carefully constructed of sheaves, or bundles,

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and each sheaf is self-tied with wheatstraw.

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This takes us back a hundred and fifty years or so: before mechanical harvesters and threshers, grain was cut with scythes, made into stacks in the field to dry, heaved up onto wagons with pitchforks, and then threshed and winnowed to separate the wheat (or barley or oats or millet) from the chaff and straw. Hot, dusty, backbreaking work.

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Winslow Homer (1836-1910), The Veteran in a New Field, 1865 (source)

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(source; artist unknown.)

Think about cutting acres of wheat this way, stopping every 20 minutes or so to sharpen the scythe blade which had to be razor sharp so that the cut wheat would fall neatly.

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Heinrich Bürkel (1802-1869), Loading The Hay-Wagon [and hurrying to beat that rainstorm!] (cropped for this use; entire painting here)

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I’m curious how this wheat will be threshed and winnowed. Historic methods for threshing included having oxen walk round in circles stepping on the grain to break it (mentioned in the Bible: “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain” Deuteronomy 25:4) and using a flail,

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Source

I’ll see what I can find out from the farm, which is run by the Southern Oregon Historical Society.

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Wander through the history of world art

The Heilbrunn Timeline of World Art, on the Metropolitan Museum of Art site, is a garden of delights in which one can easily become lost. It now includes over 6000 items and more are being added. Covering the time period from 20,000 BCE to the present, the site allows exploration by keyword or subject, name of artist, time period, country or region, time period and region, medium, and more. You can even sort the alphabetical list of essays by region or time period, see a cultural time line (e.g. Central and North Asia, 8000–2000 B.C.), or search for something specific in both the Timeline and the Met’s overall collection database. I searched for “hat,” and found 2020 hits in The Costume Institute, and 75 in the Heilbrunn Timeline itself.

I arrived at this site while googling prehistoric Japanese sculpture (of the “Jomon” culture) and then somehow found myself looking at Moroccan embroidery and a 19th c. American quilt using squares with the signatures of notables of the time such as Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Each item has at least one photo that can be viewed in two sizes, a short description, and perhaps most enticing, links to other pieces related by time period, region, or material. Short essays are provided for many topics. Here’s one on the American Arts and Crafts movement; here’s one on a site in China, dated to 7000 BCE, with pictograms and bone flutes–”the earliest playable musical instruments” found (disputable, but let’s not carp).

Go to the list of artists and sort them according to medium or type of work: performance artist, calligrapher, painter, weapons maker, architect, metal worker, etc.

If this sounds wide rather than deep, who can complain? African Rock Art, Albrecht Dürer, Arms and Armor—Common Misconceptions and Frequently Asked Questions, Ancient Greek Dress, Botanical Imagery in European Painting, the Bikini, the Bronze Age, the Bauhaus…if I had to choose a few sites to be able to access on a desert island, this might make the list. (All of the foregoing are thematic essays on the A-B page.)

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Above, embroidered panel, ca. 1800, Morocco.
Linen, silk; 9 ft. x 32 1/2 in. (274.3 x 82.5 cm)

Purchase, Everfast Fabrics Inc. Gift, 1970 (1970.272)
One of the rarest and finest examples of Moroccan embroidery, this wall hanging (arid) displays the most remarkable achievement of a Chechaouene needlewoman’s skills. The arids were used to cover the surrounding areas of interior arches in matching sets. Worked in plaited stitch, these panels contain geometric motifs based on tracery, arabesques, stars, rectangles, and diamonds, all closely associated with Andalusian elements. Said to have been used as an altar curtain in a Nestorian church in Jerusalem, this particular piece is certainly conversant with a variety of cultures and civilizations. The importance of embroidery in Moroccan life can be illustrated by the ceremony held for every infant girl at the age of four months, when the baby was placed in a chair and given a needle and thimble along with some silk thread to hold, in anticipation of a life blessed with the needle’s art.

[The images may be used for non-commercial purposes, with credit to the source, but the museum stipulates that the accompanying text must be used also.]

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Above, detail, Autograph quilt, ca. 1856–63, by Adeline Harris Sears (American, 1839–1931). Silk with inked signatures; 77 x 80 in. (195.6 x 203.2 cm).
Below, entire quilt.

Purchase, William Cullen Bryant Fellows Gifts, 1996 (1996.4)
In 1856, seventeen-year-old Adeline Harris, the daughter of a well-to-do Rhode Island mill owner, conceived of a unique quiltmaking project. She sent small diamond-shaped pieces of white silk worldwide to people she esteemed as the most important figures of her day, asking each to sign the silk and return it to her. By the time the signatures were all returned and ready to be stitched into a “tumbling-blocks” patterned quilt, Adeline had amassed an astonishing collection of autographs. Her quilt features the signatures of eight American presidents; luminaries from the worlds of science, religion, and education; heroes of the Civil War; such authors as Charles Dickens and Ralph Waldo Emerson; and an array of prominent artists. Today, the autographs displayed in this beautiful and immaculately constructed quilt provide an intriguing glimpse into the way an educated young woman of the mid-nineteenth century viewed her world.

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Below, one result of the “hat” search: [Cornelius Conway Felton with His Hat and Coat], early 1850s
John Adams Whipple (American, 1822–1891)
Daguerreotype; Each 3 1/4 x 2 3/4 in. (8.3 x 7 cm)

The Rubel Collection, Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace, W. Bruce and Delaney H. Lundberg, and Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Gifts, 1997 (1997.382.41)
This rare daguerreotype diptych shows Cornelius Conway Felton (1807–1862), Eliot Professor of Greek Literature at Harvard University, reaching for his felt hat and duster. The first son of a poverty-stricken furniture maker, Felton became one of the most renowned classical scholars in the country and, in 1860, Harvard’s president. Although Felton donned academic robes, he never lost his connection to the everyday experiences of common folk. As opposed to the inflexible silk top hat worn by dandies and professors alike, the broad-brimmed felt duster that co-stars here was worn by outdoorsmen and was practical, casual, and fundamentally democratic.

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