Return to AZ

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Nolina parryi subsp. wolfii in the Kingston Mountains

Who remembers way back when I first started the nursery—which, a few of you may recall, began as a seed business—and I did quite a bit of traveling to California and the Southwest to collect seeds of virtually any interesting plants I could find, that I thought I could sell? I know, it was a while ago. Until this year, my last trip to such far-off destinations was in 2005. Finally, in 2018, I have managed another excursion down that way, plus another shorter trip that I will tell you about also.

But before we get on to the important part of this post, we should pause to note that I have reminded myself of the need to watch “Return to Oz,” one of those great movies which I think didn’t do that well upon release, but is certain to actually be quite interesting. I probably saw it long ago but I’m darned if I can remember anything about it. We will also note that this is the first blog post I have produced in who-knows-how-long which does not have the sole purpose of announcing an upcoming open house or plant sale. So that’s special. What can I say, it’s a major challenge to make time for blogging at this time in my life.

However, lest anyone get the impression this post is entirely recreational, I must announce that seeds will be trickling back into our selection of offerings here at the Desert Northwest. It only makes sense that we should sell some of what we collect; if we have an excess there is no point of just letting it sit around until it loses viability. And excesses are inevitable for things like Agaves, which can yield tens of thousands of seeds from a single infructescence (I’ll be using that word a couple more times, so I hope you like it). In any case, watch this space for more news about seeds, including a selection of Agaves and similar exciting items. Some of them will be mentioned later in this post. Ok, commercial announcement over, now on to the fun part.

So what exactly have I been up to? Well, I don’t know if I’ll have time to write up a whole trip report and put it on the web site, like I used to, so we’ll give it the brief (but not too brief!) blog summary. But before we get to AZ and Agaves, I must tell of the earlier trip, which was shorter and less ambitious, but still worthwhile. In the last week of September I took off for a five day trip to southern Oregon and northern California, during which I tracked down things like manzanita cuttings (not that these are hard to find), and acorns of evergreen oaks.

Collecting acorns presented a new challenge. Since I failed to calculate into my plans the amount of time it takes to track down acorns of certain oak species, and then to actually collect them; I found myself running behind schedule the entire trip. This was because in past years I always seemed to miss my chance with the acorns due to being too early, too late, or choosing a bad year for seed set. This year, remarkably enough, I hit it just right. And once acorns are actually found, the amount of time it takes to collect them really adds up: hence being constantly behind. But all’s well that ends well, as the saying goes; and I ended up with a lot of good collections, such as this Quercus durata growing along a remote mountain road.

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Q. durata. There were easier places to get to this, but hey. This is a wonderful evergreen shub with attractive leaves in all seasons, and conspicuous acorns! This deserves much wider use in gardens, and should be completely drought tolerant in the Northwest.

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And some fun manzanitas like this one (A. manzanita subsp. weislandieri, I suppose) north of Chico with enormous leaves. I noticed everything was particularly crispy dry in this area. I was hoping for Heteromeles seeds but they apparently failed to mature, perhaps due to dry conditions. When I came through there in 2014 they had loads of red berries!)

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For some reason I had never seen Woodwardia fimbriata in the wild before, until now. (I drove through here in 2014 and didn’t notice them, for some reason.)

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Ran across a really, really nice blue form of Quercus douglasii near Platina with thick, deep blue leaves. Not a lot of seeds on it though.

Of course the trip would not be without a misadventure of some sort. It was Saturday night when I was driving “my” rental car up that Berry Summit between Willow Creek and Arcata, on a winding road in the dark and pouring rain, and my tire pressure light came on. Oh crap, I thought, why does it have to be now? I checked out the tires and none of them appeared to be flat enough to explode just yet. Thankfully the tire survived long enough to reach a Tractor Supply Co. in Arcata just before they closed, where I bought a pump to temporarily keep the tire going. I also discovered the problem, which was a screw stuck in the tire. It wasn’t until the next day that Ev’s High Tech Service in Gold Beach repaired the tire properly. They were great, and I’m really glad they were there when I needed them!

So after a drizzly morning excursion in which I discovered I was too late to collect seed of Notholithocarpus densiflorus var. echinoides, I stopped off and visited Ben Gardener in Pistol River, who may be known to some of my readers. He is a pioneer of Australian plant growing on the West Coast who really doesn’t get the credit he deserves. My main reason for visitng was that I had borrowed some books from him twelve years ago and felt I ought to return them, which I did. He said he would put them on the Rare Book Shelf, since a rare book is the one that gets returned. I was glad to find him still on his feet and living in the same spot at the spry age of 93. I told him I’ll be happy if I’m in half as good of shape at that age, although he may have been slowing down just slightly. He was kind enough to take me to his niece’s garden and welcomed me to take cuttings of Australian plants, which I did in such a way so that almost nothing would be noticed to be missing. So Rebecca (I don’t seem to have your contact details, sorry), if you’re reading this, thank you for the cuttings!

Then it was off to Gib Cooper’s place to check out Tradewinds Bamboo Nursery. This was highly anticipated not just because of my continuing interest in bamboo, but also because the last time I had been there was 16 years ago. So a lot had changed from before; some plants had grown much larger (Oldeania alpina, which wasn’t called that 16 years ago), some looked the same (Chusquea foliosa, which occasionally freezes to the ground), and certain remarkable specimens weren’t even there the first time, like the massive Borinda macclureana pictured below. I also bought six more bamboos I didn’t have, that being about what I could fit into the rental car with all the seeds, cooler full of cuttings, campling gear, and other travel essentials I had brought.

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Borinda macclureana, at 10 years old, is a stunner of a plant! All the Borindas are great, but this one may take the cake for a tropical-looking, HARDY bamboo. It’s hard to get a feel for the scale in this photo but it’s easily 30′ tall and wide at the top; exponentially more impressive than any Fargesia.

I did not pass through Bandon or Yachats (places of botanical interest that you may read about elsewhere on the nursery web site), because at Gold Beach I cut east and headed towards Grants Pass via the “coastal route” where James Kim died a few weeks after I went through there in 2006. Sad to say this whole area was a major mess. As I progressed east, the going got slow because numerous large paved sections had been taken out of the road and replaced with gravel (new culverts, I guess, and who knows what other maintenance): this road used to be nice and smooth the whole way; I wonder if it will be repaved. I had been hoping for seeds of Quercus vaccinifolia and Chrysolepis chrysophylla, but with earlier delays (tire repair, road condition) it really got too dark by the time I made it east of the crest where they are found. I was also hoping for Q. sadleriana seeds; I was too late to get more than a small handful. (They had plenty of seeds the second week of October in 2012 when I came through there with Mike Lee and Vor Hostelter! I guess summers were cooler then.)

On the east side of the coastal route, the road was better, but fire camps were set up here and there as fire crews finished off the Klondike and Taylor Creek fires. They also “finished off” about every living thing within 20 yards of the road by cutting fire lines. It is incredible how much destruction can be caused by a motivated fire crew in a short amount of time. A lot of my favorite Arctostaphylos canescens plants that I had taken cuttings from before were razed completely to the ground. So the whole area looks ugly, but don’t read me wrong: I acknowledge the necessity of controlling wildfires, and appreciate firefighters very much. I’m glad this large fire was in a nearly unpopulated area. Anyway, perhaps out of the ashes will come a lot of interesting new manzanitas: I’ll have to go back in three years and check. Then after a quick stop off at Cistus Nursery, I returned home.

So after a week and a half to spend at home and sort through all that stuff, and process cuttings, I left once again in another rental car for a longer and more ambitious trip. This was a trip that really should have been done in at least 16 or better yet 20 days, but given the constraints of family life I figured I’d better limit it to 12. On this trip as well as the last, I spent probably far too much time hunting down Opuntia fragilis in the Shasta Valley. Remind me not to bother with that again. Then there was the hunt for modoc cypress (Cupressus bakeri) which I believe I saw but there were way too many darn junipers in there so as to confuse matter substantially, and none of the cypresses had any seeds. (But at least they were labeled—a rare treat for wild plants!) So the end result of that was that once again I started the trip off behind schedule. I did some real late night driving down to almost Bishop, CA to try to catch up.

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I love it when wild plants are labeled! Why can’t they all be that easy?

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Quercus chrysolepis growing above Devil’s Half Acre, a lava flow just east of Lassen Park. Who knew this attractive broadleaf evergreen could be found in such a high, cold, and snowy area? We’re in at least USDA zone 5 here if not 4. I expect the city of Spokane to be all over this to promote as a street tree.

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I also visited some really interesting and rather ambiguous Opuntia basilaris and/or O. erinacea types along CA Hwy 168, which someone had posted to Facebook so I thought I’d better check them out. A long time ago someone didn’t want to tell me where to find hardy cacti in the Bishop area of California. But now I found them, so, ha.

The next day it took way longer than I thought to get all the way down to the Tecopa, California area to camp. I had really wanted to reach the Kingston Mountains that day, but it was too late in the afternoon. So I got up super early the following morning to do it, and had only been driving for 20 minutes when at 6:15 am it was of course time for the obligatory flat tire. This time it was so bad I had to put on the spare, but at least the weather was pleasant instead of raining. I ended up spending the rest of the morning in Pahrump (not really on my way) where I found the tire was beyond repair and I just had to get a new one. It was a Saturday and tire shops were busy, and I had to go around to a few places to come up with a matching tire, so I couldn’t get out of there until just after noon.

After that, since I had already been detoured to Pahrump, I figured I may as well attempt a different adventure than originally planned; in which I hiked two miles across the Mojave Desert in the sun to the Nopah Range, an environment that reminded me of the Mountains of Shadow bordering Mordor. The trek was harder than it looked from the road. I was hoping some of the Agave utahensis subsp. eborispina plants reported from this area might be found at the base of the mountains, but when I got up there I couldn’t see anything. So, not wanting to give up just yet, I started climbing into a canyon. I was just about to turn back, when I finally spotted one still pretty far ahead and high up. It took quite a bit more climbing to get even close to one with a spent infructescence. Finally after a 40’+ rock scramble I arrived at a nice one, only to find I was too late and all the seeds had blown away. So that won’t be on the seed list; sorry. It was only a two hour foray but I was sure glad I brought a lot of water!

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Agave utahensis subsp. eborispina with no seeds, Nopah Range.

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I made a new friend! This was the first time I had seen Echinocactus polycephalus in the wild before.

Finally it was back to the Kingston Mountains. The west approach was even more interesting than I remembered it (again, from 13 years ago) with tons of great cacti including a good variety of Opuntias, Echinocereus and Ferocactus. But the road was horrible. I kept asking myself, how did I actually drive the Volvo through here in 2005 and not get a flat? At the crest of the highway I found Agave utahensis subsp. nevadensis which I missed that year (seed set wasn’t impressive though). Of course, a major reason to go this way was to collect Nolina parryi subsp. wolfii at the northernmost place that it is found in nature. This magnificent plant with its huge rosette of stiff leaves and larger-than-life flower spike is basically the Puya raimondii of North America. And fortunately it is much easier to grow, albeit quite slow growing! So that will be available again—hooray. Note to self: next time approach and leave the Kingston Mountains from the south. The road isn’t great but it’s a lot better!

It was dark when I got out of there, making me basically a day behind. I drove three hours (including right through downtown Vegas) to northwest Arizona to camp in the Beaver Dam Mountains. I had contentedly settled down to what I thought would be a nice relaxing night, when the wind came up in a major way at about 2:30 am and about ripped my tent to shreds. I took it down hastily and managed to save it. I had to try to sleep in the car after that and was awfully tired the next day.

For the next several days I had generally terrible weather, including snow and ice at higher elevations and lots of wind almost anywhere I went. Although I was not unprepared, this made the trip a lot less fun. I had better weather when I went in December 2004! On one night (and I’m no longer relating the trip in chronological order) I wimped out and got a hotel. It snowed in Flagstaff the day after I passed through it stopping there for lunch, but snow in Flagstaff is none too uncommon. On another night I looked and looked for a campsite, but for various reasons all the ones on my route were closed and I ended up sleeping in the car yet again, which turned out to be just as well since it poured rain all night. In the morning I got up and there was a fresh coat of heavy snow in the New River Mountains and the Mogollon Rim. (Why didn’t I get a picture of that? Oh well.) On the same morning, I attempted to drive to the trailhead of the Barnhardt Trail to look for Arizona Fremontodendrons, but the mud on the road was so bad that I did not feel safe continuing and had to turn around, even with four wheel drive (which I was very glad to have!). I couldn’t believe how wet and almost swampy it could be in a place so heavily populated with cacti and Agave chrysantha.

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Echinocereus swamp? South of Payson Arizona.

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Arctostaphylos pungens northeast of Globe. There’s potential in central AZ for manzanitas that will tolerate summer water and heat, to a point, anyway. I made quite a few collections in various places (cuttings, not plants), and it will be interesting to try them all out, provided I can get them to root.

Unlike California, this was not a good year for seeds in Arizona. I could probably research this, and I know they had a wet summer, but I suspect winter and spring there were on the dry side. A lot of the plants I wanted to collect seeds from (especially Yuccas, but even some Agaves) appeared not to have bloomed that year at all, or very little. So hunting around for seeds was an involved process that took longer than I had hoped. Of course, I made the best of it. It took a long time but I eventually found a Nolina microcarpa with good seed set near Show Low, after passing thousands of them with no seeds nor evidence of having flowered this year. The furthest point of my trip was when I drove clear out to Cloudcroft, New Mexico to try to collect Agave neomexicana at 7,600′ where I collected it in 2005 with my friend Steve Smullen, formerly of Las Cruces. But despite an extensive search I found that none of them had any seeds. That was a heck of a lot of extra driving for no seeds, but oh well. The search for A. neomexicana caused me to run out of time to find A. gracilipes near Alamogordo. And I did not quite make it to Texas, so there will be no A. havardiana or A. lechuguilla collections this year.

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Agave neomexicanas which annoyingly had no evidence of flowering and no seeds this year.

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Not a great picture but this is ice on Quercus hypoleucoides at Emory Pass. Yes the weather was lovely.

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This is the giant form of Agave parryi I have collected before near Mimbres, New Mexico. This year I took a moment to measure some rosettes, and made a point of getting seeds from the largest one possible. This rosette measured 54” across!

Although I had already been around Arizona quite a bit, it was only on the return pass when I finally found seeds on any Arizona oaks, in the Chiricahua Mountains. Agave palmeri in that area was easy to find seed of also, which was nice. What I was disappointed not to find any seeds on, despite looking at thousands of them, was Yucca schottii. That plant does great in the Northwest and is in high demand, but better luck next year, I guess. It didn’t help that it was so foggy up there I could hardly see 20′ off the road. A quick hunt for Agave parryi var huachucensis was also unsuccessful due to any of them that were easy to find with seeds being on (apparently) private property. And I did finally find a Yucca schottii near Canelo with two seed capsules on it, but they were heavily guarded by huge, ferocious looking wasps, so I opted to give them a pass. I was happy that day though that the weather finally changed for the better with sun and temperatures above 70; and that I made it to an actual, respectable campsite before dark, in the Catalina Mountains.

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Here’s an oak in the Chiricahua Mountains that looks suspiciously like Q. greggii, which is not supposed to be found outside of Mexico.

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Yucca schottii in the fog. It can be found as high as 8,000′ altitude in the Chiricahua Mountains.

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Quercus oblongifolia near Canelo.

After a bit of poking around the Catalina Mountains, I drove north once again, making my way towards a good high altitude collection of Agave parryi from Mingus Mountain at 7,200′ that could only be reached by climbing up a short cliff. OK, the cliff had footholds, but it has been a while since I attempted anything like that, a bit out of my comfort zone! Well, how else was I supposed to get the seeds? Fortunately I survived and got a large batch of seeds that looks great.

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Arbutus arizonica—had I been a few weeks later, the fruit would have been ripe. Oh well.

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Arctostaphylos pringlei in the Catalina Mountains, growing out of rocks!

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Agave parryi at Mingus Mountain, Arizona.

In the interest of not making this a book I’m skipping over some stuff, but I’ll note that the trip wouldn’t have felt complete without a pass through southern California and the San Jacinto Mountains. This is an area with a winter rainfall maximum and roughly the same amount of winter rain and cold as we get in Sequim. The east slopes of the San Jacinto Mts around 4,000′ is an Opuntia enthusiast’s paradise, with a confusing array of far more species and hyrids than one normally finds in proximity—not to mention Cylindropuntia, Echinocereus, Agave deserti at the highest elevation where it grows, Nolina parryi, Yucca schidigera, and a giant form of Hesperoyucca whipplei, which I again took a moment to measure. Seed hunting here went reasonably well though I once again underestimated how long it would take. I had to be pretty quick about getting up to Wrightwood before dark in the same day to hunt for Hesperoyucca whipplei subsp. caespitosa, where I located some good plants at a higher altitude than my previous collection. These ought to have respectable cold-hardiness, coming from higher than the base of the ski area.

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7′ wide Hesperoyucca whipplei in the San Jacinto Mountains—yes, they really can get that big!

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Agave deserti, a plant which I am convinced would be more popular if it didn’t have such a dumb name. It is an attractive species.

And from there of course it took two days to drive back, though I may have been a bit distracted along the way taking more manzanita cuttings (can one ever have enough?). It was fortunate that I passed through central California on a Sunday, though I still managed to get stuck in traffic for a bit; and that I did not have any more flat tires. As I said I skipped over a lot, but those are some of the important trip highlights. Then there was the adventure of spending most of the next day after I returned home getting the rental car cleaned out and wiping all the mud off places I have no idea how it even got into.

So, what’s next? Well, I am done processing all the cuttings, so that’s good; and I’m still in the middle of cleaning seeds. I need a bit more time to get through that, and then seed availability will be announced here soon. Even if it wasn’t everything I had hoped for, I’m happy to get a few good collections of Agave seed (and a couple Yuccas) so at least for certain species, I don’t have to worry about purchasing seed and wondering if they will come up. I don’t want to pick on any seed companies I mostly like, but I’ve had some issues with that in the last couple of years. It’s nice just to get my own seeds and know they are fresh, and that I can sow as many as I need.

I’m also rather excited for all the Arctostaphylos cuttings. Normally when hunting for Arctostaphylos, I don’t make it further south than the Redding area of California. Besides manzanita there are a few other interesting odds and ends in there as well. This year I will have a lot of new and different collections if I can just keep them all alive and growing. You’ll want to wish me luck with that!

So there you have it: my return to AZ and the Southwest. We’ll see if I decide to do this again sometime or what. After the weather I had, I might make it easier on myself and book some hotels in advance! And did I mention I missed 12 days of sunny, warm weather back home? At least we may all feel reassured that Agaves and cacti can handle nasty, cold and wet weather.

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Selfie with the giant form of Agave chrysantha.

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Exciting Facebook groups YOU should join—and General Update

When you start getting emails of “are you still in business?” that must mean it’s been too long since a web update or at least a blog update. Of course this has been on my mind for a while now, but we’ll start with the blog since that is easier. Yes, we are still in business and we have in fact been quite busy.

Before getting to that though, let’s take a moment to talk about Facebook. You’re on Facebook, right? I mean, come on man, everyone is doing it. Actually, if you are one of those who has still opted out, I can’t blame you. I’m half expecting everything we put up on Facebook goes into some vast database that Big Brother will eventually use against us. But then the same goes for most everything we put on the internet, including my blog and web site, so I guess it’s a chance I’ve decided to take for now, unless someone can convince me to go back to snail-mail only for the nursery business. At least I haven’t bought one of those TVs that listens to your every word and transmits your information to some unknown data cloud.

In any case, there continues to be a steadily increasing amount of action on plant-based Facebook groups (as an aside, the group called Plant Idents is particularly fun). So now that you think I’m nuts, let me tell you about three exciting Facebook groups you should join:

The first is called Arctostaphylos Aficionados. I started this back in late summer or so for people with a serious interest in manzanita—growing it, photographing it, documenting it in the wild, whatever. We even got someone in the group who is doing molecular research on them, so that is exciting; as well as most of the living scientific authorities on the genus that I know of. Do you like manzanita? What are you waiting for? https://www.facebook.com/groups/1536485596588451/

The next is called Cold Hardy Australian Plants, which I started around New Years Eve or so. I am astounded at the positive response to this group which already has more people in it than the Arctostaphylos group; and lots of great discussion, information and photos have been shared. You can be part of the fun at https://www.facebook.com/groups/384205358407272/

Then we have Hardy Cacti for Temperate Gardens. Unlike my other groups this one has NOT really taken off. In fact I started it way back last March and we are still not quite at 100 members. But there is a back story here.

A certain Dan Carter, well over a year ago, started a Facebook group called Cold Hardy Cacti—nothing wrong with that. He then went on to define the subject of his group as being primarily cacti that will grow in USDA zones 6 or colder, where temperatures below 0°F are expected most winters. To the annoyance of some, contributors from zones 7 and 8 would be repeatedly informed their posts were of relatively less interest to the group. For example I even posted photos from an eastern Washington garden and was told my post was only marginally on topic. The problem is, with a title like “Cold Hardy Cacti,” it’s pretty much inevitable that you’re going to attract people who are interested in cold hardy cacti on up to zones 7 and 8; where, outside of desert areas, you very seldom see cacti cultivated due to the challenges of cold and wet. So, while I recognize someone is free to manage a Facebook group any way that he chooses to, in my mind it gets a little silly when you start a group with the title “Cold Hardy Cacti” and then tell such persons their contributions are not on topic. Now this is not meant as an attack on his group; in fact, I am still in his group. But this did motivate me to start Hardy Cacti for Temperate Gardens, which is meant as a “bigger tent” for people interested in discussing cold hardy cacti in any zone. (If Dan reads this and feels I am representing him unfairly, by all means please chime in—I have no personal beef here.) I won’t even say anything if you start talking about Agaves or Yuccas in my group; just don’t start talking about Encore Azaleas or something.

So I still wish to revive this group. It could be a valuable resource for those of us who are growing cacti in climates cold enough to be challenging but not frigid. With that remark I am pledging to become somewhat more involved there myself, and would love to have your contributions as well. Here’s the group again: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1468681576681957/

So what else is new? Well, some people have called this a “really boring” mild winter in the Northwest generally, but in our neck of the woods we had 3” of snow on November 29th followed by a drop to 18°F on the 30th. So we hit our “zonal low” if you will for the winter. A hard freeze before that and another just after Christmas were also annoying. (And what’s with all these early hard freezes lately? 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013, now 2014. Perhaps I ought to just start expecting them.) So greenhouse 4 didn’t get built, but that isn’t really a surprise. But that is all right, since I’m knocking off a whole lot of other little projects that have been bugging me for years. For example an annoying pile of rocks and dirt (inherited from previous owners) on the east side of the nursery growing area that has been covered with groundcover cloth for years has finally been leveled flat. This week I am working on getting Dungeness River irrigation water over to the east side of the property, which is exciting. And I am finally getting more plants into the ground, but more on that in a future post.

I have been doing some cleaning and organizing in the greenhouses as well; in short, we are doing the usual stuff to get ready for spring. And fortunately I am more on top of annoying paperwork this year than before, which means I can be OUTSIDE doing the work! Of course there’s still the web site to update; but for now I’ll just say, if you’re wondering if something is available, just ask, and I’ll let you know.

The other exciting news is that last October I managed to get out and do a quick bit of plant hunting in southwest Oregon and California. Highlights were a couple nice forms of Heteromeles arbutifolia that have already rooted really well, one of which had huge clusters of berries (why didn’t I get seed? But hey, at least they rooted). I also revisited some very nice forms of Arctostpahylos x mewukka that I had collected in 2006 but later lost. These forms from the Mt. Shasta area are beautifully silver—not as screaming blue as some, but still pretty good—and ought to be super hardy to cold (-20°F?). Speaking of cold, I encountered Arctostaphylos viscida in the upper Scott Valley where temperatures in the neighborhood of -20°F are not unknown—temperatures that these manzanitas take in stride. Look for these and similar exciting items to make it to our web list later this year. Then we have the rare Ceanothus pinetorum which looks a lot like C. gloriosus, but it grows high in the mountains and it’s MUCH hardier. Sean Hogan (Cistus Nursery) tells me it’s a major challenge to grow but I’m hoping I’ll have better luck if I get them in the ground from a small size. I guess we’ll find out.

Although it has taken me a while, I still intend to post photos to the web site both from this trip, and from the 2012 trip to Oregon and Northern California that I did with Mike Lee (formerly of Colvos Creek Nursery) and Vor Hostelter. There was also a minor trip to the Mt. Hood area in 2012 that I never did post photos of, but hey, it’s not too late!

We got to see some splendid gardens last fall, including Hummingbird Hill Villa on Whidbey Island, which houses an impressive collection of water-wise plants including a lot of things like Arctostaphylos, Grevillea, Leptospermum and the other usual suspects. The late Bob Barca, who was also one of our customers, started this garden which continues to be well maintained by the surviving family. We also visited Mike Lee, who continues to maintain a collection of fun, unusual, garden worthy plants at Arbor Heights Botanic Garden, a private garden in West Seattle. Both of these were kind enough to allow us some cuttings for propagation of exciting plant material, some of which we have not offered in the past. We also visited Derek Clausen and his amazing conifer collection back in October, but the cuttings from him mostly don’t look all that great now due to the downright hot weather we had back then. Anyway, stay tuned and we’ll see how much of it grows!

Not only that, Mike Lee was in Arizona and generously supplied us with a collection of cuttings and seeds, including four forms of Arctostaphylos, two of Platanus wrightii, the Arizona form of Frangula (Rhamnus) californica and more. (I opened the box and thought, what is this, Cotoneaster? But it’s all good; that just what this form looks like.) The Arizona Arctostaphylos are exciting because these get quite a bit of summer water in their native habitat, which could potentially mean they are both more “garden tolerant” in areas receiving summer irrigation, and possibly even that they would grow in parts of the mid-Atlantic region or Southeast—but has anyone tried? I have no idea, but I know Sean (the same as above) has already propagated a few A. pungens forms from southern Utah, and it’s certainly a fun possibility.

So, that is where we are at for the time being. I think we are going to have a good year with all the new stuff in the pipeline. Also, the word on the street is that the nursery business in general is picking up from previous years. Our local non-specialty garden center says business is way up from last year already, and with the mild weather people certainly have planting on the brain. Thanks for reading and for your continued interest in our business!

This is called 3" of snow, which fell on 11/29/14.  I left one Leptospermum juniperinum outside in a pot through the freeze just to see how wimpy it was.  It died.

This is called 3″ of snow, which fell on 11/29/14. I left one Leptospermum juniperinum outside in a pot through the freeze just to see how wimpy it was. It died.

Plant hunting in California.  This is Heteromeles arbutifolia with impressively large fruit clusters.

Plant hunting in California. This is Heteromeles arbutifolia with impressively large fruit clusters.

Arctostaphylos viscida in the Scott Valley, where temperatures to -20°F may occur.

Arctostaphylos viscida in the Scott Valley, where temperatures to -20°F may occur.

The gardens at Hummingbird Hill, Whidbey Island.

The gardens at Hummingbird Hill, Whidbey Island.

At Arbor Heights Botanic Gardens, this Acacia pravissima was loaded with buds.

At Arbor Heights Botanic Gardens, this Acacia pravissima was loaded with buds.

Cuttings from Arizona in the nursery!

Cuttings from Arizona in the nursery!

General Update

Hi readers. As it has been a few months since my last blog post, some of you may be wondering, what happened to me? Did I drop off the edge of the earth? Was I abducted by aliens? Or even worse, did I lose all interest in plants?

But no, it’s nothing that interesting. For as crazy as I was for starting a nursery, there are still times when I must confess to having the limitations of being a real person. So from about October through early December or so I went through a period of mild, shall we say, “burn out.” Like I felt like I just needed to give myself a little break for once.

It was, as I said, quite mild, and not too serious. And I think it is over now (maybe… LOL) or else I would probably not be admitting to it. Rather than leaving everything in a state of complete abandonment, I have still been working on the nursery, and it is still looking pretty good, other than the wind throwing empty pots all over the place on Christmas Day (I’m actually glad I wasn’t here when that happened—that must have been some serious wind!). I have frequently been busy in the greenhouses sticking cuttings, weeding, and moving plants. I am nearly on schedule with all my “fall” propagation projects (it’s still fall right?), though I will admit there are a few other projects I have been putting off. We continued to fill orders for fall shipping until Hurricane Sandy and the elections brought an abrupt, early end to the shipping season. However I have suddenly gotten swamped with orders this week, which is inspiring. (If it takes us a week or two to send your order, that is because it is supposed to get cold this weekend.)

What I have not been doing is diligently is following the blogs, forums, and facecrack, I mean spacebook groups that I had been checking regularly up till a few months ago. So, without worrying about it too much, I apologize for that.

So in theory, I hope to be back to my regular schedule of 2 – 4 blog posts per month. But for the moment we are just shooting for one occurrence!

What’s next, you ask? Well, I hope to provide an updated list to the web site in the future, but I had better not promise just when, since it always takes longer than I expect. Let’s shoot for mid-February. That is a nice goal. I also have a couple of plant expeditions to report on. Briefly, we went back to the Columbia Gorge area again (I think I said that earlier) the last weekend of September. I also got to go on a trip with Mike Lee and Vor Hostetler of Colvos Creek Nursery the weekend after that, in which we explored the Siskyou/Klamath region of southwest Oregon and Northern California. I had not been there in six years so that was exciting.

So I will, of course, provide full reports on both these trips soon, but I got a bit hung up on it because I did not know the manzanitas of that region well enough to positively identify most of the plants I saw. Fortunately for me, Sean Hogan of Cistus Nursery came to the rescue and took some time to look through a bunch of my Arctostaphylos pictures from our trip. He may be one of the few people in the world besides me for whom that would not be boring. We definitely found some interesting things on that trip and I learned much about Arctostaphylos taxonomy.

We also re-visited Far Reaches Farm, Colvos Creek Nursery (full-post feature to come soon), and a place that I had not been to in years, Xera Plants. Xera sells wholesale only but you can find their plants at retail outlets throughout the Northwest who know what is cool. It was inspiring to see how clean their nursery looked. Kelly and Sue at Far Reaches returned from a plant hunting trip to China recently, which you can read about here.

Sometimes exciting things crop up right in your own backyard. We finally got around to visiting a nursery called Phocas Farms. They specialize in Sedums and Sempervivums and are only 20 minutes away from us. Of course these plants are not hard to find in general (particularly if you want common types), but it is hard to find a nursery that grows a large variety of them including many rare species and varieties, and actually knows the names for all their plants! As there are about 12,000 kinds of Sedum (I exaggerate only slightly) this is no small feat, but owners Jim and Kathy Robinson have managed to do it. Phocas Farms sells at a handful of regional plant sales, and at certain farmers markets in season, including the Port Townsend and Port Angeles farmers markets. They can be contacted at luddite@olypen.com.

But wait, there’s more! We also had the privilege of visiting Derek Clausen, a first class plant geek with an amazing collection of rare conifers, southern Hemisphere plants, and other super obscure, rare things in his garden in Snohomish. We are grateful to him for his generosity in sharing plant material and for being one of the favorite customers of not only our nursery but other specialty nurseries both locally and throughout the country as well. His garden is living proof that doing business with specialty nurseries can result in an amazing yard!

I will also be providing a list of this year’s regional plant sale and open house dates before the end of the month. A few things aren’t quite finalized yet. But we have decided we are moving the open house events all to “regular” weekends and away from holiday weekends. We now think that trying to do one on Lavender Festival weekend was probably (on balance) a bad idea, despite the potential to catch more traffic.

In more miscellaneous news, Sean also tells us that the Arctostaphylos patula discussed in my previous post (of course I’m back to talking about manzanita… it had to happen) was originally sourced from Underwood Mountain, just on the Washington side of the gorge. This is significant as it means that a large, reasonably-pure-appearing version of A. patula can be said to be native to Washington State. This area is now quite heavily developed (the part I visited in 2011, at least) but it might pay to look higher up the mountain in the future. He was able to learn this from one of his employees who knows the person who planted it – wow, small world.

Finally, I have it that the two impressive specimens of Nolina nelsoni at the Center for Urban Horticulture are to be moved, and one (perhaps both?) already has. This is a special plant that is super-rare in Seattle, yet appears to be perfectly hardy; growing into a blue-colored, Dr.-Seuss-esque tree with a round head of stiff pointy leaves atop a very slow growing, but eventually tall, trunk. It can certainly survive transplanting at a large size: I have seen growers do it in the Southwest. My concern is that early winter is the worst possible time to do it. I hope they survive!! They are not going far, I hear – just to another part of the CUH campus.

That may be all the news that’s fit to print. Thanks for reading and for your continued interest.

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A very mysterious manzanita we found near Orleans, California. It looks an awful lot like A. densiflora (which is not supposed to occur that far north), but is it? You’ll have to stay tuned to find out!

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Xera Plants looking sharp.

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Flats of Sedums and Sempervivums at Phocas Farms.

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Derek’s Garden – just one little part of it, of course.

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Nolina nelsoni, Center for Urban Horticulture, from a photo I took way back on February 9, 2005. The cool plant at left with big fuzzy leaves is Pachystegia insignis, which froze out in (I think) 2008, sadly.

Greenleaf Manzanita Mystery

Hey, I should actually post something about plants sometime – imagine that. So last weekend we were out and about looking at plants – more on that coming soon – and the highlight of our trip was finding this large Arctostaphylos patula (greenleaf manzanita) in a neighborhood in White Salmon, which is along the Columbia Gorge across from Hood River.

What’s so special about that, you ask? Well, I should provide a little background information.

Greenleaf manzanita is considered to be native to Washington State, but we have learned that it is not at all easy to find and must be considered very rare here. Across the border in Oregon it becomes much more common, where huge specimens are all over the place in eastern Hood River County and western Wasco County, their range extending south from there. In Washington, it has been recorded from Klickitat County and Chelan County.

So far as we have seen, though, these plants occurring in these counties are mostly hybrids with pinemat manzanita (A. nevadensis) or kinnikkinnik (A. uva-ursi), and not clearly, genetically pure A. patula. How do we know? Well, the best we can answer is that we have been looking at them long enough to get a feel for the morphological “center” of these species – as far as key characters such as leaf size and color, plant size, fruit color, and more. With an expectation of “what they are supposed to look like,” we feel like it is possible to make judgments on when something is more or less genetically pure and when it shows evidence of hybridization. Of course, it would take a serious genetic study of these plants to truly sort them out, but we have to do this the old fashioned way basing our judgments on morphology.

An important source of information regarding the distribution of native plants is the WTU Herbarium website, on which we find only a few records of A. patula from Klickitat County. Four of these are from the town of Bingen. (The other one is from near Glenwood: more on that in a moment.) However, we have done quite a bit of driving around Bingen and never managed to find one. So have Mark and Lila at Fairmeadow Nursery. These records are all very old so there is a good chance someone built a house on top of it/them. On the other hand a little more searching the hills around town just might turn up some plants. I have done a little of that on each of my two visits to the area, and I have not found anything yet, but I have still not really devoted enough time to it.

So this is why the plant in White Salmon – just up the hill from Bingen – was an exciting find. Could this be a remnant of the “Bingen population” of A. patula? That is certainly a possibility. But there is a catch. It is worth noting that this plant looks very different from the Glenwood plants. The Glenwood plants are low growing, show evidence of hybridization with A. nevadensis, and very scattered within a population of even lower, clearly hybrid plants: in fact, I think these are all hybrids, since none of them is taller than about 2′ or have leaves as dark as the White Salmon plant. By contrast, the White Salmon plant looks very much like the Mt. Hood area forms of A. patula across the river in Oregon.

So the question remains: did someone plant this, or did it grow here by itself as the last remnant of a now lost population of A. patula in the White Salmon/Bingen area? It is very unlikely that this plant was purchased at a nursery, since nurseries almost never offer it; but it may have been dug from the wild in Oregon and replanted (which usually doesn’t work, but it might have survived as a seedling). The fact that this plant looks so different from the Glenwood plants, and similiar to Mt. Hood plants, might lead me to suspect that possibility. But on the other hand, Glenwood isn’t all that close to White Salmon, so why shouldn’t an A. patula in White Salmon (or Bingen) look like the ones across the river in Oregon? (Although… to complicate things further… we have never seen it at such a low altitude in Oregon. The White Salmon plant is at just 700′ while in the Mt. Hood area it seems to occur pretty much above 2,000′. The Glenwood plants are all at about 1,400′.)

I guess the thing to do would be to talk to the property owner. We didn’t really have time to pursue that over the weekend, but perhaps if I go back next year…

Christmas greetings!

Here at the Desert Northwest we would like to wish anyone who manages to read this, a very warm and pleasurable Christmas. We know that a lot of people find the holidays to be a stressful time of the year or just plain don’t care for Christmas. But we feel there is no harm in wishing positive things for you anyways. Can it hurt? So there you go.

Today is also special because it marks the five year anniversary of this blog. Wow – it does not seem that I have been blogging for five years! When I started this, blogging was just becoming big – now it seems everyone has a blog. There are so many blogs out there one can hardly keep track and (dare I say) way too many “garden bloggers” recycling the same old boring information. We will take that as a challenge to keep this blog interesting into the future!

The picture above is a little bit special. I don’t much care for the hustle and bustle and mass-commercialization of the holiday season. I’m also not really a fan of “Christmas music” and Santa Claus. The best holiday season I ever had was the one where I took off on December 2 on a huge botanical expedition to the Southwest and returned to the Northwest on Christmas Eve. So basically I missed the whole thing. On that trip I took this picture of Arctostaphylos patula in southern Utah. I didn’t spend a lot of time on the pic but I thought the leaves and bark made a nice contrast with the snow. You can click to expand it and use it as wallpaper! A little something from us.

Have a great holiday and we’ll see you in 2012!

Annuals: A Major Waste of Time, Effort, and Resources???

One result of our meteorologically quiet and somewhat dry autumn is that many annuals look better than one might expect. Usually by mid-November they are brown and frosted – as has already occurred in some colder gardens – or melted into a mushy mess by our not-so-gentle autumn rains. In either case their departure is a sorry sight, as they usually leave quite a mess to clean up – and once you’ve done that you have a big hole to fill in, or just leave it empty so it can look empty all winter. This leads me to ask, could there be a better way to garden without using annuals?

Now I’m not lambasting all annuals indiscriminately, believe it or not. Annie’s Annuals certainly grows some good annuals, among other things. I’m aware that many wild plants are, in fact, annuals: their life cycle involves germinating, flowering, and setting seed within a single year (usually less) to perpetuate their species. This is sometimes a survival strategy to endure winter cold, but more often summer drought. Many annuals also produce food, but I’ll get to that later.

So here are a few reasons why we are not overly fond of annuals. I’m really not trying to spoil anyone’s fun, but perhaps you’ll consider some of these points the next time you’re shopping for plants, or even making plans for your garden.

First, growers of annuals are major consumers of peat moss. This is a finite resource that will expire at some point. It is also quite environmentally destructive to harvest it. Once you’ve dug up a peat bog it takes thousands of years to recover. This has become a major substrate in potting soils for annuals because it works so well. While some substitutes have been developed (coco coir being the best known), none of these has really caught on sufficiently to show promise that it could truly replace peat moss. So for the present, it takes some really specialized knowledge to figure out what else might produce acceptable results without compromising quality. Growers of annuals aren’t guilty exclusively; but, broadly speaking, most perennials and shrubs seem able to perform better than annuals in a bark or compost based soil mix.

Second, you plant annuals, and then in a few short months they’re dead. Sure, they are great while they last. But if I’m going to spend $100 on plants wouldn’t I rather enjoy them year after year? I dunno, that just seems like kind of a no-brainer to me.

Third, it’s more work to plant a bunch of stuff year after year (and then to clean it up year after year when it dies) than to just plant it once and let it keep on growing. Gardening of any kind requires a certain amount of maintenance, but having to do the exact same work over and over again seems like a waste of effort (unless you’re really easily amused, in which case I guess there’s nothing wrong with that).

Fourth, many annuals require a lot of water to look good in our dry-summer climate. This is not true of all annuals; there are certainly many exceptions – but I rarely see drought tolerance considered as a factor when someone selects annuals for planting. Watering takes time and money; and, while a lot of perennial and woody plants require regular water through our dry summers as well, we try not to grow or encourage too many of those and only use them in moderation.

Fifth, the majority of annuals that are now available are over-bred genetic dwarf hybrids of the species and earlier hybrids from which they were bred. This means they just plain don’t have what it takes to perform that well in the garden. A lot of people buy these plants and plant them, then after watching them languish they think they did something wrong and blame themselves. This creates a negative experience that I consider to be quite destructive since it has the potential to turn people off from gardening in general. Sometimes it really is the plants’ fault – or, more precisely, the growers and breeders fault for producing this junk to merchandise to unsuspecting plant shoppers. So because growers are now flooded with over-bred dwarf annuals, gardeners lack the right plants to choose from. Of course we could do something about that by growing and selling only the best kinds, and perhaps someday we will.

My sixth and final reason has to do with how they’re used. This is less of a serious complaint since we can do something about it; that is, use them tastefully if we use them at all, and show gardeners how to do likewise. The problem is that the sort of “boink-ism” that Annie’s Annuals blogged about has infiltrated every area of society, it seems. People, and especially new gardeners, don’t even know how to use annuals well since they have so little to go on.

At the Desert Northwest, we do not grow or sell annuals. But that doesn’t mean we never could: but they will probably not ever become a really major part of what we do. We would probably stick with certain easily grown and water-wise annuals that perform well here and fit our theme.

Another great excuse for annuals is that some of them produce food. Like tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, peas, and more. We think that’s just grand. If you’re going to be an annual and use up all that time and effort it takes to grow you, you might as well give something back.

We would say, though, that we do not believe annuals will feature prominently in the future of the horticulture industry – at least, not the segment of it that survives the challenges it now faces – relative to the past. As people are increasingly interested in sustainability; and in saving time, money and water; they will gradually figure out that annuals just don’t make as much sense in a sustainable and water-wise garden. Not that they’re all going to disappear, or that we want them to. But for gardening to remain popular it has to make sense to our current generation of people who don’t like wasting money and would usually rather be spending time on other things than planting and replanting the same area over and over again.

I may be right, or perhaps not – I guess time will tell!

Here’s part of an appealing mixed planting of water-wise annuals, perennials and shrubs in downtown Port Townsend. Now I think this (possibly excepting that one stray grass front and center) looks great – hooray for whoever did this.

New botanical expedition report!

I have now posted photos of the highlights from our botanical expedition to Chelan County that we took in October! This is the first such report I have produced in about five years, so that is exciting. Have a look, and let me know if the new format gives you any trouble.

I have also made a few minor corrections to the web site – thank you for your feedback. You can now see what our mail-order plants look like at the Terms page; these images had not been loading earlier. I think things are all fixed for the time being.

Backyard Botanical Adventure!

Although many cool plants come from exotic destinations, it is also possible to drive 35 minutes from my doorstep and reach a rather interesting site in the northeast Olympic Mountains, just up the Dungeness River. This site is certain to “wow” anyone who thinks native plants are all boring and ugly. Sure, some of them are; but there are plenty of exciting ones, and here you can find a lot of them in one spot!

So last weekend Mark and Lila, owners of Fairmeadow Nursery in Olympia, came up to visit; and we all drove to this area. We had a lot of fun looking around at the plants. Lila noted that we should return in the spring when all the wildflowers are in bloom. In addition to the plants I will show you below, there are also many little forbs, bulbous plants and other wildflowers growing here that are sure to put on an excellent show. I have never been there in the spring yet myself; it seems I am always too busy then.

The most conspicuous of these exciting plants are some truly gigantic specimens of our native Arctostaphylos columbiana (hairy manzanita). It is difficult to get a feel for the scale from this picture, but the plants are mostly 6 – 8′ tall and 10 – 20′ across or more!

There are a lot of variations in form here: my favorites include this one with large, blue leaves. There is also one with super dense growth, and another with exceptionally hairy stems and grey-green leaves (not pictured).

Good forms of Arctostaphylos x media can be found here. This natural hybrid of A. columbiana and A. uva-ursi (kinnikkinnik) exhibits considerable variation. Although mentioned as a popular Northwest garden plant back in the 1950’s, it seems to have never caught on widely, as it is still rather rare. This is unfortunate since many of these forms are great plants, and each is a little bit different.

Impressive, tree-sized junipers are found in plenty here: this is J. maritima. With this past summer having been so cool, these fruits may not ripen, and certainly not until after access to the plants are snowed in. Although marginally distinct from J. scopulorum, I consider this to be one of our more special native trees.

The juniper populations tend to be centered around these large rock outcrops where Pseudotsuga menziesii (Douglas-fir) and other forest trees cannot compete, resulting in sufficient light to sustain the juniper populations.

This low growing Juniperus communis var. montana occurs more widely in alpine areas and rock outcrops in the Olympic and Cascade Mountains. In the northeast Olympics it is quite common above 4,000′.

Farther up, one can find rock walls covered with Sedums, Penstemons, ferns, forbs, mosses and lichens – the ultimate no-maintenance vertical garden!

The views aren’t bad either. This is looking northeast towards Mt. Zion.

In any case, diversity may be somewhat less than what one finds in the Siskyou/Klamath bio-region, but it is still a fun area to botanize; and I seem to find something new every time I go up there. Of course, it was great to have the opportunity to share this experience with someone else who was excited about it! Following my planned return in the spring, I may have to update my Plants of the Olympic Peninsula pages.

Big web update news!!

FINALLY, for the first time in… sheesh, I can’t remember how long. Maybe ever?… the Desert Northwest Mail-Order Catalog has been updated to where it agrees in its entirety with the availability list, and everything on the list has a description! I even cross-linked everything so you can click on a plant name from the main list and get a description, as well as adding cross-links within each page of the catalog where appropriate. I still have a little more work to do, like making some inventory adjustments and adding more images. But all things considered, this is a MAJOR accomplishment especially considering the size of our inventory right now. I am aware of a few links that still don’t work (and here I’m mostly writing to myself as a reminder of what to fix) – notably most of the links on the “downloads” page and the downloadable lists under “Local Sales”. Also for some reason the Sequim webcam was offline, but it was not mine anyways. I’ll have to search around for that if it doesn’t come back. If you find other broken links besides that, I will appreciate if you let me know!

Anyhoo… check it out!! http://www.desertnorthwest.com/catalog/catalog.html

Danger Garden Interview

Loree at Danger Garden sent me an e-mail interview about the concept and goals of the Desert Northwest. Check it out here! We are most appreciative of her efforts in getting the word out about us.

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