Arno KingHow to grow crotons & the Croton Lady of Bundaberg

As I had a site visit in Bundaberg last week, I set a day aside and visited a few gardens. I had long planned to visit Marge  – known locally as the Croton Lady – who I had met in Brisbane many years earlier. I am really glad I finally made it as I learned so much from the visit. As many people had told me, you don’t need a street number as you can spot Marge’s garden immediately – a manicured front garden – and yes crotons, as well as many other plants. Marge’s back garden will blow you away if you love foliage colour.

Crotons provide lots of colour

Crotons provide lots of colour

 

This garden is a particularly important one as it is one of the largest collections of crotons in Australia and Marge has labeled each of her plants. She has had many experts review the plants and verify these names. She has also compiled an album of named photographs, which assists visitors. It is a popular destination for many local gardening clubs as well as busloads of enthusiasts from further afield, such as Brisbane.

The croton garden along the south side

The croton garden along the south side

 

I was particularly keen to record the plants in this collection, and Marge patiently spent a couple of hours going round with me as I photographed and we recorded the names of each plant. After undertaking this exercise, I have since been able to identify many of the crotons I had previously photographed. Now I seem to see croton plants everywhere I look – and yes I do remember many of the names.

Marge grows numerous Ara

Marge grows numerous Aralias (Polyscias cultivars) as well

Codiaeum variegatum 'Rina'

Codiaeum variegatum ‘Rina’

 

Why is it so important to know the names of the plants you may ask? Crotons can be quite variable as a group, from compact to tall; slow to fast growing; and with some that enjoy more shade and others performing better in the sun. Marge has multiple plants of each cultivar planted in different areas of the garden and they vary in size and colour depending on location.

Codiaeum variegatum 'Danny Boy'

Codiaeum variegatum ‘Danny Boy’

 

Knowing the name of a particular plant is also important if you want to source specific plants for the garden. For many years you could only buy unnamed crotons at nurseries. This used to drive me mad. As a landscape architect, I like to specify certain plants for a landscape project. Luckily things seem to be changing and most commercially available crotons are labeled these days.

Identifying plants also provides you with an insight into their history. Many of the plants we grow have a recorded history in cultivation of many hundreds of years. In turn they were collected from plants already in cultivation in the Indian subcontinent, South East Asia, New Guinea and the Pacific Islands. And yes, the Croton (Codiaeum variegatum) is also a native of Australian! Perhaps some native plant enthusiasts have found some local ornamental cultivars.

Codiaeum variegatum 'Nestor'

Codiaeum variegatum ‘Nestor’

 

Marge encouraged me to come again between March and April when the colour of her plants is most intense.  She felt many of the plants weren’t looking too good when I visited. Crotons respond to heat, water and humidity by producing brilliantly coloured foliage. The recent cool, dry and windy weather had resulted in many crotons defoliating and losing some of their colour. I must admit I was still blown away by the colour in this garden as you can see from the images.

Marge’s love affair with crotons began some 40 years ago when she took home a bunch of colourful leafy stems from her daughter’s wedding bouquet. She decided to grow them on and has been going from strength to strength ever since.

Codiaeum Variegatum 'Shirley Temple'

Codiaeum variegatum ‘Shirley Temple’

 

Marge loves all crotons. It is hard for her to name a favorite, but she does have a soft spot for ‘Super Petra’, ‘Shirley Temple’, ‘Angel Wings’,’ Red Mona Lisa’, ‘Danny Boy’ and ‘Indian Headdress’ .

Marge says the garden was a great salvation when her husband died. They had both enjoyed gardening while he was alive, but the garden has changed quite a lot since then – for one thing, there weren’t quite so many crotons before. There are also many other interesting plants in the garden including Aralias (Polyscias cultivars), Acalyphas (Acalypha wilkesiana cultivars), Caricature Plants (Graptophyllum pictum cultivars) and Pseuderanthemums (Pseuderanthemum carruthersii cultivars).

Crotons grow in pots and the garden

Crotons grow in pots and the garden

 

Crotons are very, very low maintenance plants. This is probably one of the main reasons they are so popular. Once a year, Marge applies blood and bone to her garden. Occasionally she also uses Dynamic Lifter. She also waters the plants during very dry weather.

Crotons suffer from few pests or diseases, particularly if their cultural needs are met. The only pests Marge comes across are White Fly, Fruit Spotting Bug and Mealy Bug.

Marge in her garden

Marge in her garden

 

White Fly – they are found under the new growth but they don’t appear to do any damage. Marge sprays with a systemic pesticide and white oil.
Fruit Spotting Bug – suck the sap from the new shoots, which can be very annoying. Shoots wither and die and the new shoots that grow can become congested and leggy. Bugs can be caught by hand and disposed of.
Mealy Bug – the worst period for infestation seems to be after winter when some varieties defoliate. The Mealy Bug loves this and hides in the dead leaves and can also be found under the healthy leaves. Marge removes dead leaves and sprays with white oil to keep them under control. This also gives the leaves a shine and brings out the colour. Only spray when required.

A view to a private courtyard

A view to a private courtyard

 

Marge finds that crotons vary in health and vigor. Some clones are very slow and others very vigorous. Others dislike the cold and defoliate readily (eg ‘Vera’ and ‘Shirley Temple’). She says it is survival of the fittest in her garden.

Codiaeum variegatum 'Irene Kingsley'

Codiaeum variegatum ‘Irene Kingsley’

 

Marge recommends that when starting out, gardeners should focus on some of the hardier, older cultivars, such as: ‘Norma’, ‘Undulatum’ (‘Piecrust’), ‘Irene Kingsley’, ‘Captain Kidd’ and ‘Vera’.

Coming from tropical areas, crotons love the warmth, moisture and humidity of the tropical and subtropical summer. This is why they do so well in the tropical and subtropical coastal areas of Australia. If you live south of the subtropics (around Ballina on the East Coast), you can still grow crotons. If you live in a warm temperate climate, grow them in warm sheltered areas. I have seen some great specimens in Sydney. Remember that they love warmth and humidity, so extra summer water may be beneficial. In Europe and the northern states of the USA, Crotons are grown in pots outside over the summer months to provide colour and a touch of the exotic. As the weather cools they are moved into the shelter of greenhouses. Here they are watered but only enough to stop the soil drying out.

 

 

Codiaeum variegatum 'Mrs Iceton'

Codiaeum variegatum ‘Mrs Iceton’

Marge now propagates her plants from marcots. She is able to produce large plants quickly and finds it easier to propagate this way. Each November (or before Christmas once it is warm), Marge selects branches over pencil thickness in width, and makes 2 cuts around the stem beforethen peeling off the bark between them. She makes up a mixture consisting of peat moss, sphagnum moss and coco peat, mixed up and moistened in a bucket. This is applied around the debarked stem. Then a shopping bag or black rubbish bag cut into strips is wrapped around the stem and secured with twisty ties. Marge finds that new roots are produced within 3 to 4 weeks. She cuts the rooted stems off and pots them up in a semi- shady area under trees.

Codiaeum variegatum 'Franklin Roosevelt'

Codiaeum variegatum ‘Franklin Roosevelt’

 

The plants may look stressed for the first couple of weeks, but within 6 weeks they are well established. Marge often makes her own potting mix but has purchased quality commercial brands and found them very successful. She finds plants respond to a light topdressing of blood and bone. Marge has also undertaken marcotting during the cooler months. While it has been successful, the plants have been slow to produce roots.

Crotons also grow readily from pencil thick cuttings taken over summer. To reduce dehydration, remove the soft young leaves and then all but the top cluster of leaves and cut these in half. Pot up and place in a sheltered, shady location. Many people also grow cuttings simply in a glass of water.

Codiaeum variegatum 'Angel Wings'

Codiaeum variegatum ‘Angel Wings’

 

Crotons can often send up branches that are different or a variation on the parent plant and this is where many of our popular plants originate. If you have a croton that produce a branch with different leaves, it may pay to keep an eye on it and once big enough, to take some cuttings. It may turn out to be a great new plant.

Crotons can also be grown from seed. Many gardeners have applied pollen from one outstanding croton to another and produced stunning new plants. While mostly undertaken in Florida (USA), Belgium, England and throughout Asia, Queensland has produced some popular hybrids. Hybridisation was undertaken early last Century in Ipswich as well as Brisbane, Bowen and Cairns. Marge has not done any hybridisation herself, but her plants frequently produce fruit and seed. A croton seedling appeared in her garden and has been named ‘Marge’ by friends. It may turn out to be a great new plant.

Codiaeum variegatum 'Sanderi'

Codiaeum variegatum ‘Sanderi’

 

After visiting Marge I’ve added some crotons to the ‘want list’. These include ‘Sanderi’, ‘Andreanum’, ‘Tiger Eye’, ‘Rheedii’, ‘Punctatum’ and ‘Undulatum’.

Crotons are going through a massive resurgence in popularity. Let’s face it, they tick all the boxes: they are hardy, colourful, long-lived and very low maintenance. Many people find Crotons gaudy and old fashioned. Often this is more to do with how they are placed and used in a garden. If you find them a little too bright you can always plant some of the or pastel shaded cultivars. You can also mass plant a group of the same cultivar in a strategic area of the garden as a focal planting and coordinate colours with neighbouring plants.

If you are time poor, foliage colour may be the answer and if you live in the warmer part of the world or have a sheltered spot to winter potted plants, Crotons are a great choice for the garden. These long-lived plants are a great investment as they continue to provide pleasure for many decades if not centuries.

The Ramshorn croton - Co

The Ramshorn croton

 

Marge hasn’t run out of room for new plants quite yet. The garden now extends onto the neighbouring property, which fortuitously, belongs to her daughter. Currently Marge grows over 120 different cultivars of Croton. She was told that there are some 400 registered cultivars and pointed out ‘I’m not even halfway yet!’ She’s currently on the lookout for ‘Yellow Mrs Iceton’, ‘Twist and Point’, ‘Kentucky’, ‘Dark Ruler Angel Wings’, ‘Caribbean Star’, ‘Glen Roof’, Arrowhead’ and ‘America’ so if you have a spare plant, or new sport, drop one in to her. I’m sure we can help her reach the 200 mark.

 

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Arno King

About Arno King

Landscape architect, horticulturist, journalist and keen gardener, Arno is a regular contributor to Subtropical Gardening Magazine. Based in Brisbane, Arno grows a wide diversity of unusual plant species and has particular interests in growing edible plants in creative settings and biological and organic gardening. Brisbane, Queensland

35 thoughts on “How to grow crotons & the Croton Lady of Bundaberg

  1. What a great post, Arno. Looove crotons and always remember them as something that survived the most brutal wear and tear in my childhood garden, with a stack of kids and neighbouring friends hitting and searching for balls and running bikes and trollies into them with regularity. They always withstood the abuse and came up brilliantly colourful every year, much to my parents’ grateful delight.
    What a find Marge is and she has so many varieties I have never seen.
    Liked the tips on propogating, too.
    I am soon to design a seaside garden for a friend on the Sunshine Coast, with poor sandy soil, so do you think they wd be a wise inclusion?

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Julie

      I have seen crotons thriving in seaside gardens, but not where they get the full brunt of the salt winds. Generally they look best in locations where they have a little shelter from vegetation, buildings or landform. I would focus on some of the hardier, tried and tested cultivars recommended in the article.

      As to the sandy soil – well you will have no problem with drainage! However, as you have probably discussed with your friend, sandy soils will benefit by the incorporation of lots of organic matter and humates to hold moisture and nutrients more readily. This will apply to most plants. Your friend will also need to apply fertiliser on a more regular basis and it may benefit to apply it as a dilute organic foliar feed as well as a topdressing to the soil.

      Good luck with the project.

      Arno

  2. Paul on said:

    Great write up Arno. I remember as a kid seeing boring Brisbane gardens with nothing in them except the odd croton. The problem was not the croton itself but the fact that the garden was not created to show off these colourful plants and other great foliage plants that do well in the subtropics.
    Its good to know more and more gardeners are looking back to the old fashion favourites of yesteryear, and so too are designers.

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Paul

      you have raised a good point – it is generally not the plant, but the way it is used in a garden that is the problem.

      Crotons set off against a backdrop of lush green foliage, or selected so that the colours on their leaves are picked up by neighbouring plants, can look stunning in garden.

      So often however they are planted with no though, and by people who have no love of gardening. While most plants would die, the crotons are such survivors that they battle on. Sometimes under appalling conditions. No wonder this puts people off these plants.

      Its great that we now have many gardens that are open too the public – where people can see some of these hardy and ‘old fashioned’ plants used in inspiring ways and grown well.

      Arno

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  4. Helen on said:

    Great article. Crotons are so easy to grow, they are a plant and forget about them plant in my garden.

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Helen

      in a warm climate, crotons must be one of the hardiest plants around. Easy to grow and easy to propagate. No wonder they were so popular with gardeners many years ago.

      However given a little fertiliser, some mulch, a light annual pruning and a little watering during dry periods, they certainly become a lot lusher and attractive.

      There are not too many plants like this.

      Arno

  5. Kerry Stevens on said:

    was just wondering where can you purchase crotons we have a few varieties but were after some more varieties

    thanks

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Kerry

      crotons seem to have become more popular and I am surprised at the range now available in garden centres and hardware stores. Even more of a shock is that they now have labels with cultivar names on them – something we never saw a few years ago!

      If you still want more variety, come along to the Foliage Festival put on by the International Cordyline Society in November and February each year in Brisbane – or the Mothers Day and Fathers Day Plant Fairs in Cairns.

  6. I love crotons. being from the tropics I enjoyed the wonderful selection from Marge’s garden. next time in Brisbane i will visit her place. thank you for sharing. very beautiful.

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Lady Walkins

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Crotons really thrive in tropical gardens and are such a feature in these areas.

      I thought I better point out that Marge lives in Bundaberg rather than Brisbane.

      Arno

  7. Hi I have read your article on the Garden of Marge and her fabulous Croton Garden…I am a bit perplexed as cannot find many good size plants in Sydney Nurserys…can you please advise where to go to buy good size Crotons…as many different species as possible

    many thanks kind regards John Williams,

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello John

      Yes there aren’t really a lot of crotons for sale in Sydney. If you want to buy a selection of these plants you may need to head north to Brisbane or beyond. More and more cultivars are being offered for sale and these days the nurseries are labelling them, which is a great help.

      In relation to larger plants, I haven’t noted any for sale, even in Brisbane or Cairns. They are generally offered at 140mm pot size.

      Before investing in a lot of crotons, it is probably wise to try a few in your garden over winter. Crotons are sensitive to cold, wet winter conditions. While I have seen a few planted in Sydney gardens (notably Helen Curran’s garden which opens for Open Gardens Australia), they are by no means commonly grown.

      Regards

      Arno

  8. Debi on said:

    Thanks for the article, Arno…I’m new to crotons and wondering if you know of any compact, dwarf varieties that will take full sun?
    Thank you

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Debi

      Regarding dwarf varieties, if you examine crotons that are offered for sale, you will see that many have tightly packed leaves along the stem (more compact), but some have leaves more openly spaced along the stem (less compact). Many of the most popular crotons are quite compact and many such as the popular ‘Petra’ and ‘Norma’ have been bred for this habit.

      However if you want the plants to remain compact you will also have to trim them back regularly as even the most compact crotons will gain height over time.

      A very popular croton, ‘Mamee’, is often regarded as being compact, which it is, however I have a friend who has 2 metre specimens of this plant in her garden. She uses these plants as a backdrop and appreciates their height, however if regularly pruned they would be much lower and more compact.

      Regarding full sun, many crotons will grow in full sun, however often the best colour in these plants is achieved when they have some shade from the hot midday and western sun. If the position is too hot and sunny colours can become muddy and plants can lack the vibrancy they are renowned for having.

      Good luck with your planting.

      Arno

  9. Jenny Reynolds on said:

    Hi Arno
    My cousin from Brisbane was visiting me (Bundaberg) and wanted to see Marge’s garden but we were unable to find out from anyone where it is. Alas, she had to return without us locating it! Can you give me her address, if able, and next time my cousin is in town we might be able to arrange a visit.
    Thanks very much
    Jenny

  10. Debbie Proud on said:

    Hi Arno

    Thanks for this post, Marge has the touch that I do not have. I just replanted 7 crotons from my back garden to the font garden and they are dropping their leaves. Is it best to cut them back to help them survive the transplant or should I just give them time to readjust. It has only been 10 days.

    I would appreciate your thoughts.

    Debbie

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Debbie

      My apologies, I missed your email. 2015 was a busy year!

      I hope your transplanted crotons are growing well now. I like to remove a lot of the leaves when I transplant shrubs as this seems to help to reduce water loss and helps the plants to reestablish more quickly. I generally leave only 3 or 4 leaves at the end of each branch and reduce their size if they are large. Of course, watering each evening and morning and covering plants with some shade cloth is also helpful.

      I try to time the transplanting with periods of wet, humid and cloudy weather. In Brisbane, this is generally January and February. Plants establish very quickly as conditions are like a warm green house. We seem to be having these conditions right now!

      All the best for 2016.

      Arno

  11. Anton on said:

    I love crotons they are the quintessential tropical plants up there with coconut palms. Its so true what Marge says about cultivars found in SEA finding their way into cultivation in the West. I just came back from Sri Lanka and I couldn’t believe how many of theirs are named cultivars in the West, and how many different varieties there are. Almost every front garden has a different cultivar. I was able to take many many cuttings and meet many lovely interesting generous people this way. Many of these cuttings are unnamed selections in the West or different colour variants.
    I think crotons are underused in most landscape plantings. The bold colours though are perfect for mass planting. I started with all yellows and worked my way to the fiery oranges and reds.

    Nothing like the low sun shinning through croton leaves to lift the spirits, or the sunshine falling through their leaves as you look up into the bigger ones which make small trees. Absolutely beautiful. I brought back an “undulatum” from Sri Lanka, it was growing beside a small rusty tin shop selling matches candles and other chep items, picture perfect they seem to make everything look poetic and charming in the tropics.

    I even found C. varig “Zulu” a lovely one brought out commercialy in Australia, it was just growing by the way side, fantistic! And there is even one called that, “fantastic”.

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Anton

      I was in Sri Lanka a year ago and also admired the diversity of crotons over there. You are quite right, many of the plants grown there are also grown in Queensland. There is a good reason for this. During the 90s, a lot of plant material was imported from Sri Lanka and plants were named and promoted here in Australia. A lot of these plants have remained great favourites.

      ‘Undulatum’ is one of my favourite crotons. I’ve never seen it for sale in Australia, but you will find it in older gardens, particularly in northern Queensland.

      Sri Lanka is a great country for gardeners to visit as there are interesting plants growing in gardens everywhere. There are also some stunning gardens to visit. And I won’t mention the delicious food. Its good to see there are more garden tours heading over there these days.

      Arno

      • Surangi on said:

        I just read your post on Crotons and Marge’s garden. Great article and so informative. I am from Sri Lanka and realize we are blessed indeed to have so many gorgeous crotons and other plants just growing by the wayside with minimum care. Hope you will visit and write about our plants again.

  12. trish on said:

    I have a garden under tree canopy which gets a small amount of sun at different times of the day. I would love to grow some crotons. I live in SE Qld, sub tropical area. Could you give me the name of some and the best place to buy them in the Brisbane area. Would really like some help…..Thanks Trish.

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Trish

      I find crotons have the best colour and grow most vigorously where they have full sun in the morning and part shade towards the middle of the day and the early afternoon. If they are heavily shaded, the leaves can often lack the vibrant colour that most people love. Ideally your crotons should be planted to the east of the tree where they get the morning sun, and during the rest of the day the light should be strong enough to throw a distinct shadow. If its darker, you might be better off growing plants which perform well in darker locations.

      The best place in Brisbane to buy crotons is at the ‘Tropical Affair’ in February (6th and 7th in 2016) each year at the Mount Coot-tha Botanic Gardens and at the ‘Tropical Foliage Festival’ at Cleveland in November. Both events are put on by the International Cordyline Society so check out their website: https://www.facebook.com/The-International-Cordyline-Society-136270926406476/

      I have visited a few nurseries in recent weeks and most seem to have a good selection of crotons. I find you get the best selection of plants over the summer months and this is also one of the best times to plant them, particularly if we are getting lots of rain, as we are right now.

      I hope you have great success with the crotons.

      Arno

      • trish on said:

        Thanks Arno for you help. I bought 3 crotons Petra, Anna and Lisa, So far so good They are growing quiet well, if they continue to grow well i well get some more…. Thanks Trish.

  13. Tony Liardo on said:

    please can you name the hardiest varieties suitable for south west Sydney .I have a tropical style garden with many palms ferns gingers and would like to add further colour. email salesnsw@ctmqld.com.au my name is Tony cheers

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Tony

      thanks for your patience. I have discussed this issue with a few Sydney gardeners.

      My advice is that they can be grown in mild areas of Sydney, but they can be unreliable and disappointing. They often fail during cool, wet winters and, of course, frosts can be devastating to them.

      If you really love growing these plants, you could treat them as annuals each year, planting them as soon as the ground warms in September, and composting plants when they finally die. Alternatively you could treat them as indoor plants during the cooler months, and plunge pots into the ground during the warmer months.

      Arno

  14. Anthony on said:

    Is there a book of croton names..with pictures…

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Anthony

      A book to look out for is: Crotons of the World by B. Frank Brown. It was published by the author some 20 years ago, however you should be able to find some copies on line. There are lots of great pictures to drool over.

      The International Tropical Foliage & Garden Society Inc (based in Australia) publishes a quarterly magazine and these often feature great articles on local Crotons.

  15. Jill Emerson-smith on said:

    I’m growing crotons in our high alkaline soil, they aren’t thriving but are going ok. I would appreciate knowing what soil type they prefer? I have managed to strike cuttings and they are the ones that are just hanging on. They have regular water and this is high in lime too.
    Thank you.

  16. Arno King on said:

    Hello Jill

    Crotons flourish on slightly acid to neutral soil, however they grow well on slightly alkaline soil. If you have highly alkaline soil, your job will be to neutralise the pH by adding organic matter to the soil and mulching well. Using coffee grounds and tea leaves, which can be sourced from local cafes in bulk, will be very helpful for mulching. The coffee grounds are also great for repelling most plant pests. They hate the smell.

    The highly alkaline soil will also impact on mineral absorption by the plants and therefore foliar feeding with an organic fertiliser containing trace elements will be essential. Apply the fertiliser at 1/2 the recommended rate and monthly.

    You should start to see the plants respond as you improve the soil pH and start with foliar fertiliser application.

    Let us know how the plants respond.

    Arno

  17. Cliff Daniels on said:

    Hi Marge. Could you please send me your email address, as I have a plant that I need to be identified. I recently seen it on one of our tours south in our caravan.

    • Hi Cliff – sorry, this article is not written by Marge, it’s written about her so I am unable to provide any contact details.

  18. Basavaraj. Maidur on said:

    Good information regarding crotons

  19. Robyn carmichael on said:

    Hi, am seeking advice on why 4/5 of my crotons are not leafy and looking very spindly. The leaves are small and appear to lack colour to me.
    I have applied seasol a few times but it does not seem to have had any affect.
    They are between the house and fence and I think they get good sun between mid morning and about 3-4pm.
    Surprising how one appears to be flourishing when the others struggling.
    The soil and growing circumstances are the same for all of them..
    Does this species vary so widely in their requirements.
    I have other varieties that appear to be flourishing in deeper shade..
    Transplanting is an option by their size, or possibly potting them ……………..

    • Arno on said:

      Hello Robyn

      yes the various cultivars do vary a bit in regards to vigour. However most of the commonly sold plants are fairly vigorous cultivars, and given how 4 or 5 plants are not doing well, I would consider the issue is growing conditions.

      I’m wondering if the plants are suffering due to the dry conditions last summer and autumn. Then we had a wet winter and spring. The poor vigour could simply relate to recent weather.

      Now that it is getting warmer, I would suggest watering your plants regularly. Keep the ground moist. I would also fertilise them. Seasol is a growth enhancer based on seaweed. It is great when used in conjunction with a fertiliser. Seasol also makes a fish based fertiliser called Power-feed, or you might like to use another fertiliser. Finally mulch around the plants to retain soil moisture and mediate temperatures.

      Within a few weeks your plants should respond.

      Arno

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