David Holmgren on tree crops

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Those of you who have been around these parts for a while might remember a review we did a few years back of one of permaculture’s essential reads, Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture by J. Russell Smith.

Some say it formed part of the basis of permaculture’s origins, as a concept. And so it goes without saying that the book is obviously a favourite of David Holmgren’s too. 

Holmgren has done a great little review of his well-loved copy of this fine work on ‘economic botany’ – the analysis of how tree species can be used for human benefit in terms of multiple harvest for multiple uses:

As Holmgren outlines in this video, the book was published when the first ideas of organic agriculture and soil conservation were forming in the late 1920s.

With Smith citing the destructive nature of grain monoculture, the book follows his exploration of various parts of the world, their tree crop and perennial agricultures, and the opportunities they hold.

There’s some great chapters on some great trees in this book. A couple of our faves include:



  • The fruit provide great feed for poultry and pigs when planted among them. Great for fattening pigs. Plenty of falling fruit means no need to harvest and feed at certain times of year. Might we add it’s also very tasty food for humans.
  • Grow fast and fruit fairly early in their lives.
  • Easy and hardy to transplant, gows well from cuttings
  • Has a pretty good resilience to pests and disease.
  • Trunks of the trees make good posts, while branches make for decent firewood.
  • Leaves that are high protein and edible as a vegetable for humans, as well as for cows, goats, sheep and rabbits.



  • Great food for humans. Delicious in fact. And very high in nutrients.
  • Good food for pigs, as well as native wildlife.
  • Fairly fast growing and early producers.
  • Thrives in just about any soil conditions, and so is also great for spots where prevention is needed for soil erosion.
  • Has a nice long fruiting season from autumn into winter.



  • A super tree for foraging animals, including pigs.
  • Highly productive (acorn-wise) per tree.
  • Copes well with less-than-great soil conditions.
  • Obviously produce quality and well-valued wood – which also works fantastically as shiitake mushroom logs!
  • For humans, acorns can be dried and ground into flour or meal.

Holmgren suggests that in a way the book was pretty ahead of its time – and of course it’s one that’s very relevant to this day. It’s no secret that anyone who gets a little excited about permaculture loves a good perennial – we can’t get enough.

And as Holmgren suggests at the end of his review, it’s a bit of a shame really that the clever ideas suggested in this book, written almost a century ago, are still yet to be put to action on a larger scale.

Now this particular book is a bit expensive – it retails for $60 AU – so for those of you who need access to this info, here it is in digital format:

But there’s nothing quite like the hard-copy, written version of a valuable resource that you can  put on the shelf (or maybe that’s just how we feel about such things).

May you plant trees for those who are not born yet as part of your work, all your days.

Do you want to learn the craft of Permaculture Design? We run Permaculture Design Courses with best-practice design process, that activate folks to design the resilient systems they need.

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77 responses to “David Holmgren on tree crops

  1. My favourite fruit tree is the tamarilo, it grows quickly, strikes easily, and bears a lot of fruit when everything else has finished. I love to eat it peeled, diced and topped with yoghurt. It also looks impressive with its large heart shaped leaves.

  2. Wollemia nobilis, as it is not only rare and beautiful, but has such an excellent scent. I’m sure that scent could be made into a natural perfume. Above all, this plant is such a rare majestic mystery that it remains my favourite thus far.

  3. I love me an apple tree. I love that the blossoms make such good bee-food (and so honey) and then that the act of being useful to bees also means that they make such good human food (and great food for enterprising gang-gangs and rainbow lorrikeets etc). Apples are beyond delicious fresh and they preserve in so many good ways: cidered up, dried, turned into apple & ginger butter. They’re stunningly gorgeous in springtime and the late fruiting ones are stunningly gorgeous way into early Winter, when the tree os bare except for globes of fruit. Their wood makes a great smoke, for those who want apple-smoked whatever, and the curlicues of the woodgrain are beautiful for decorative woodwork. They can be grafted onto a zillion different sized rootstocks, so they can be packed into a square metre, if that’s all the room you have, or they can sprawl into gianthood. They live for a hundred years (or more). They have the most poetic (and/or funny) names (Brown Snout, Improved Foxwhelp, Ballyfatten). The species is furiously into diversification, and I love that a wildling apple will be a distinctly different variety from its mum and dad.

  4. Macadamias. They’re native to here, so perfectly adapted over millions of years to life in just this part of the world. The native bees love the flowers, and the nuts are a super healthy, storeable (in shell) food for people and animals. The oil, besides being wonderful for cooking, makes beautiful soap.

  5. I love that you mention mulberries. When I was young, there was a huge mulberry tree on the corner. I used to collect the leaves to feed the silkworms I had, and would always delight in gobbling the fruit when they were plump and delicious. Though, with an impending move out of an apartment and into a house with a big yard, I can’t wait to plant some edible natives – particularly fingerlimes. Bec 🙂

  6. We have mulberries and find them to be as plentiful and useful as already mentioned. My favourite tree though, would have to be the humble pigeon pea. It builds soil like nothing else we have on the property – even better than weeds. It feeds the mother kangaroos when they’re lactating and the spring rains haven’t arrived to freshen the grass yet. I use them as a pioneer species, support species and ultimately for mulching. Our chipper loves the pigeon peas (never jams) and it composts so quickly on top of the soil.

    I wouldn’t be able to get edible trees to grow here, let alone produce, without the humble pigeon peas. So many uses.

      1. Thanks Kirsten for answering this.

        It is said pigeon peas will die in frost Desiree, which I understand Canberra gets during winter. We get the occasional frost, and haven’t had ours die. If you can plant them in a clump, chances are the ones in the middle will survive. Or try planting them near a rock retaining wall, cement or a north facing brick wall. They’re very plentiful with seeds, so even if they are an annual for you, you won’t be stuck for seeds once you get the first crop.

  7. It’s so hard to pick just one but I’d have to choose Hymenosporum flavum, or Native Frangipani. I fell in love with this tree at the Waite Agricultural Institute in Adelaide when I was studying there. It has beautiful creamy white flowers that change colour to rich sulphur yellow as they age. They smell divine and the bees, butterflies and birds love them. They’re not supposed to grow where I live but I’ve nurtured one beyond the frost zone and it’s now towering above me and I see it every day when I let the chooks out. It’s my climate boundary triumph! Next to it I’m nurturing a Lillipilli up to ‘beyond the frost zone’. 🙂

  8. My Favourite tree was the plum tree in my grandparents backyard when I was a little girl. You always saw birds on the branches and it was a nice place to sit in the summer, It was always good fun when Pa would let us help pick the fruit which had a deep purple coloured skin and ruby coloured fruit. Lots of good memories 🙂

  9. I loved the plum tree in my grandparents backyard growing up, it always had birds singing in the branches and was lovely to sit under in the summer. I especially loved being able to help Pa pick the fruit, which had a deep purple skin and ruby coloured flesh and it was sweet too! lots of good memories 🙂

  10. I love the loquat tree growing in our backyard. This is a 30+ year old tree planted on the north side of our house in front of our kitchen/dining room. Its thick canopy provides shade from the summer sun, but its pruned lower levels let in the winter light. Loquats are the first fruit of summer and that means they flower in autumn and the fruit forms over the winter, ripens through the spring and is ready to pick in November for us. I love that it flowers in autumn; I love to see the tree humming with bees stocking up on nectar for the winter and watching the wattle birds hopping about collecting nectar and then diving off after insects in acrobatic displays. Our tree produces an enormous amount of fruit which we share with cockatoos, possums and fruit bats. As the tree is now taller than our house we take the lower levels of fruit and leave the upper fruit for the wildlife.

    Loquats are truly multi-use trees, as apart from their delicious fruit the leaves have traditionally been used in Japan to produce a pretty pink dye and also used to make tea. The seeds of the fruit can be steeped in alcohol to make a liqueur. The wood of a loquat tree can be used in a similar way to pear wood. Finally loquats shed their very large leaves all throughout the year, so you can have a year round supply of leaf litter to do with as you want. I usually sweep up a big bucket full and if I don’t use it for dyeing I will pile them up at the back of our yard where we have some very poor soil or chuck them in with the chickens to scratch around in.

  11. I too love the Mulberry tree. It is a particularly beautiful tree. I love the shade that it creates and the massive canopy. It attracts numerous bird life when in fruit and as you mentioned earlier it is a source of wonderful food for pigs, chooks, ducks, even my dogs eat the fruit. I pick the fruit and make jam or have them with real raw cream or raw ice cream and I give them to Mum to make jam and what we don’t use we freeze.
    I love picking the fruit while the dogs, chooks and pigs scratch around under the tree. Even the cat gets involved and stirs the dogs up then runs up the tree. It’s a real family affair and fun.

  12. I’d say mulberry trees are up there for me. A little too easy to gorge on the fruit. I remember getting into HUGE trouble as a kid; we were at a friends house who had a mulberry tree, and decided that it would be a good idea to draw on the back timber fence with mulberries. After about an hour, an adult checked on how we were playing – they were not as pleased with the artwork as we were!!
    Just a tip – no amount of scrubbing will get mulberry stains out of a timber fence – a few years of sunshine is the only solution!

  13. I can’t wait to plant a mulberry tree here for my son (6) and I. I remember climbing the tree and foraging the ripe fruit in the bush as a kid, and collecting the leaves for silkworms too.
    I am starting homeschooling this year too, so could really make use of a beautiful new book. On anything!
    Thanks 😀

  14. My favourite tree is the panama berry. It looks beautiful, tastes delicious and is the fastest growing thing in our new food forest. It is also our chickens’ favourite place to be, they’re always hanging out in its shady protection and roosting in its lower branches.

  15. The great oak tree (that sits in our backyard). As kids we played in the mountain of its leaves, as adults we still do! The leaves that compost and feed the garden and so feed me. Fine silhouettes in brisk winter as the sun sets behind the dangling out reaching branches. The shade in summers sun as we rest and play beneath the shelter. Even the house has respite from the summer! And now for watching leaves dance in the wind to the colours of autumn. Mm oak trees…

  16. The great oak tree (that sits in our backyard). As kids we played in the mountain of its leaves, as adults we still do! The leaves that compost and feed the garden and so feed me. Fine silhouettes in brisk winter as the sun sets behind the dangling out reaching branches. The shade in summers sun as we rest and play beneath the shelter. Even the house has respite from the summer! And now for watching leaves dance in the wind to the colours of autumn. Mm oak trees…

  17. Olive trees, for the fruit, the beautiful grey leaves, the twisty trunks of very old trees, the drought and salt and wind tolerance, and how resistant they are to small boys, dogs and chooks 🙂 I can’t decide if Manzanillo or Kalamata is my favourite cultivar.

  18. The white sapote is a winner for me. It’s a beautiful tree, lush green leaves, smooth and interesting bark, droopy limbs perfect for kids to play under and the most AMAZING tasting fruit you can imagine!

  19. I love the bunya pine! A giant among the forest with tasty, generous nuts that coming crashing to the ground. Native to Queensland this beauty can be prickly and unsocial but stands tall and firm with a trunk that resembles the legs of some beast from the years of the dinosaurs. I have planted many of them on our farm.

  20. I love the pomegranate – has been used extensively by many ancient cultures – has many beneficial uses and is aesthetically pleasing – is suitable to grow in many various regions in Australia as it is grown all around the world.

  21. It’s hard to pick one favourite tree, but I will probably have to say mulberry, for the reasons you’ve mentioned above and that I’ve also read that it acts as a natural remedy for worms in cattle (maybe other animals too?), and it will thrive close to walnut trees when not many other trees will.

  22. I’d have to say my favourite is probably limes – I love the flavour of the fruit, they’re a little less common than lemons and I use them to make hot drinks because I can’t drink tea or tea substitutes. The thorns also help make the tree a better support for climbers with small tendrils and help keep away animals that steal all the fruit on vines that climb up the tree (it’s nice to share :)) Unfortunately, even with a sun trap and pond, we haven’t been able to get one to survive our winters… Maybe in a few years when we have a grove established.
    A few years ago I’ve said pear trees were my favourite but I can’t eat them anymore:(
    I’d really love to have a mulberry tree. We planted one last year but it got knocked back a number of times by spring frosts and then finally got killed by the summer heat 🙁 If anyone has any tips for protecting mulberries until they’re established enough to cope on their own, I’d really appreciate them (our summer temps get to about 38 degrees C and our winters are long and frosty (frosts from April to December minimum temp usually gets to around -15 degrees C though this is the first year I’ll be measuring them properly in my backyard so it may actually be a bit lower)

  23. Coconut tree!!! I love coconut tree because you practically could use every part of the tree. I love to drink young coconut juice and eat its flesh. We used to grate old coconut for its milk to be used in curries. It is so healthy!! Coconut crystals is a substitute for sugar and it is great because it has low glycemic index. Love the oil too!! You could use it on your hair to darken it naturally and also you could use it on your skin. I use virgin coconut oil for oil-pulling (to clean my teeth and gums etc..). I also use it for cooking. In my country of origin, the trunk could be used to make a bridge. The leaves when separated from their stems could be weaved into baskets etc and also make to make roof tops (“attap”). The stems can be bunched up to make a broom. Also the flowers could be fermented to make an alcoholic beverage. Coconut shell can be used to make jewelleries, cutleries, or any ornamental decorations. Coconut tree does not need pesticides so most of the time it is organic. What other tree could provide such enormous contribution? Coconut tree is the survival tree. I am coconut about coconut trees but unfortunately couldn’t find them in USA. When I travel home, I never miss drinking fresh coconut juice.

  24. Because of a grand respect for the importance of trees, for many years now David and I have been growing trees for the Tree Project. The trees are grown from locally sourced seed often by city based volunteers for landholders to assist them in specific land management projects. This activity for us was inspired many years ago by learning about an amazing man Richard St Barbe Baker and reading his book Men of the Trees.
    To me all trees are innately valuable but I must say I love a good fig. Just picked from the tree – so delicious – and when there is plenty – fig and ginger jam – ahhh!! As young children we travelled from Ballarat to Natimuk near Horsham in the Wimmera in Victoria for Christmas where our grandparents had a very large sprawling fig tree. It was so large that we played our games under its shade and climbed it without a care. Such joyous memories!!

  25. My favourite tree is my lemon tree. It’s been with me for many years and through a few house moves too. It never really took off until it was planted in its present setting. Now it produces flowers and fruit and just looking at it makes me feel good that I persevered with it. I love the scent of citrus and it is very calming and beautiful to look at.

  26. I cannot pick one tree but love the fact that so many trees were used by the indigenous people for some 60,000 years. If I can, I would pick the acacia species as my favourite.

  27. I love my mulberry tree. Naked or fully wrapped in luscious leaves it reaches out in the morning to hug me. It heralds the first inkling of spring, is a wonderful food source for many birds and we devour the fruit ourselves all year in many forms.

  28. I love all trees… and I try to fit as many as possible into my small inner city block. Apples, pear, nashi, apricots, lemon, olives, fig and, local Tasmanian natives. I love the fact I can tell the children to go outside and get something to eat from the garden.

  29. My fig tree is just the best! – still very young but what a production this last season. In-fact I am still picking the last of this seasons fruit. I have already taken some cuttings so my friends can share the joy of growing their own.

  30. So difficult to narrow it down to one tree! If I’m forced to choose, it would probably be the amazing angophora (Sydney Red Gum) growing in my back yard. It was the reason we bought our house, which is totally falling apart and the land is difficult to grow anything g on, but…

    It’s branches are so close to our balcony that we enjoy amazing native bird life while having an afternoon cuppa. It shelters one of our bee hives so it buzzes with their wingbeats when it’s in flower. The ground beneath it is a haven for bugs and worms when it sheds its bark each year, and our chickens love scratching around in it for tasty treats. An eastern water dragon has been seen basking on its trunk, following the sun as it moves from front to rear. And now and then it drops a small branch, just when we seem to be in need of a bit of kindling for the house fire.

    It’s at the heart of our place.

  31. I love that the bunya pine is such a nutritious food and an Australian native. I heard that Aboriginal people used to plant one specifically for a child when it was born, for that child’s future prosperity. I don’t know if that’s true, but it strikes me as such a wise and compassionate act. I don’t know if we’ll ever get a harvest from the Bunyas we have planted on our farm, but I like to think of them nourishing someone in the future. Hope and connection with a thriving future generation is a great antidote to the Coal Seam Gas gloom that sometimes overtakes me.

  32. I love my Citrus,because in my homeland It was far to cold to survive beyond a small lemon in a warm corner of the living room which produced a few special treats each year. Here in my new homeland on a small city lot, I have planted 16 dwarf fruit trees, coffee tea and banana. But I love that there is always some one of the citrus family producing fruits, fantastic fragrance and year round pleasure..

  33. We planted our fruit trees, Mum and I as a team
    Twenty-three varieties, people thought we were keen.
    Beneath them went radishes, salsify and other good stuff
    Like a new guy on the block…an American groundnut.

    We mulched them and watered them through the drought
    Fed mulberry leaves to the goats when dingoes were about.
    But something was missing, what could it be?
    Oh yes, we needed something to make our tea!

    Camellia sinensis and coffee were next
    With boldo and cardamon for added zest.
    Shy little bloodroots, then thanked us for the shade
    And in went its neighbour, a corydalis with a spade.

    The pawpaws were snugged into the north-western warm
    Their roots nice and cozy from the sheeps’ wool just shorn
    Then lo and behold Mum’s favourite fruit just appeared
    A seed pooped by a bird grew her passionfruit so dear

    Moringas, fast growing, went in between
    A tree to grow to keep our water clean
    For medicine and oil and leftover for mulch
    We would eat the leaves with meals and such.

    We’d sit in the shade of the pecan tree
    Watching bees in the peas and sipping lemon balm tea
    Away from spikes of the barberry near the barrow
    Tickling our toes in cool chamomile and yarrow.

    Plums, lemons, mandarins and lime
    All brought to fruition with patience and time.
    Oranges, peaches of so fine a flavour
    How can we say which is to our favour?

    Fish among the duck potatoes, water chestnuts and rushes
    Sheltered with willows, home for wagtails and thrushes
    Fruit ripening heavy on late bearing raspberry
    Now I’m the only one to praise the burgeoning mango tree.

    I found a seed alone in a park,
    nestled in the leaves down in the dark
    I took it and planted it in my greenhouse carefully
    and it sprouted and grew now 10 inches barely

    Oh yes this will always be my favourite tree
    To grow tall and strong, its limbs spread free
    An oak for my Mum to nurture her memories
    Its sheltering canopy to protect her for centuries.

    Our little haven now rests so serene
    Wind through the eucalypts whispering where it’s been
    The scent of the fruit, the mulch and the soil
    The sun on my back rejoicing glorious toil.

  34. Archihodomyrtus beckleri – Rose Myrtle is my favourite tree. Although this is only a small tree, the small fruit are prolific, the blossoms beautiful, has fabulous weeping foliage and adapts to its surroundings. I have them growing in full sun and full shade and all are flourishing . And it’s an Australian Native as well. Love it!

  35. LEMON is my favourite tree – Lovely to look at, easy to grow and wonderfully scented. I love that it is a refreshing beverage, a salad dressing, a cake or curry flavouring. I love that it heals colds especially when combined with the honey gifted by the bees who love her blossom.

  36. Banana tree!! Delicious!! Throw the peels straight back in the compost!! Chop a trunk down in one easy swoop to use as an organic degradable crate for making compost piles with the walls eventually breaking down into the pile! The big leaves are great for mulch covering wide areas to stop the weeds popping through!!

  37. My favourite tree is the Ash because it is brilliant for climbing and making swings from. It has lots of practical uses too, but as a child of the 70s, my climbing tree will always be my favourite. 😀

  38. Here in California the oak tree is the greatest tree around. Our valley Oaks make literal tons of acorns per tree and are delicious for man and swine. We also have native locust and walnuts that make excellent mast for our piggies. We are setting up a net and pan system with these trees to feed hogs with tree crops and provide shade for water buffaloes all based on this book- it is a classic! Also love wax myrtle, coffeeberry, elderberry, and ceonothus for this as well and all are CA natives.

  39. My fave has always been the Coconut Palm
    Cocos nucifera – the most useful tree ever.
    what cant it be used for?
    if you tried to design a more useful tree
    the only other thing would better it is
    if it had as many uses as a coconut tree AND that it generated electricity….
    but someone has probably done it somewhere with coconut already anyway

    just a few uses and products derived from the coconut palm
    sugar, alcohol (toddy and distilled arak), oil (edible, cosmetic and industrial purposes) , alkali from husk ash to make soap from oil,
    edible palm hearts (kills the tree), milk/cream, edible ‘apple’ from inside germinated coconut, cooking utensils (nut shell), food wrapping (woven lvs.), cloth to strain coconut milk/cream (from base of fronds), wood from old trees), rope/twine (coir fibre), sterile water from inside nut (for drinking, and medical uses)
    fermentation vessel from hollowed trunk base (for homebrew), coir ‘peat’ for hort purposes etc etc.

  40. Hmmm, probably the avocado. Its one of those clever trees that acts a bit like natures pantry. The fruit won’t ripen until you pick it and so you can just leave them all hanging there until you need them. Its also delicious and a great source of fats!

  41. I love the carob tree! I grew up in a Mediterranean island and remember the smell of the blossomed tree (and the carob honey too) the huge shade and climbing the trunk to munch on some carob pods, mmm!

  42. Avocado – even though I’m in Southern Victoria you can grow Avo’s here. I have put in 5 (various varieties and both ‘A’ and ‘B’ types) in a suntrap south of the dam and look fwd to some fruit in the next few years. They need wind protection and good mulch and moisture through summer. Also protect young trunks from severe summer sun. Really high value crop too, so much so that I cringe every time I pass them in the shops. Can’t wait for my own organic avos!

  43. Mangrove. Epitome of using the edge and valuing the marginal. Protects the coastal zone, tolerates both dry and inundation, critical habitat for many estuarine species, breathtaking as the tide draws away or rushes in, birthing propagules via vivipary – its own nursery.

  44. A solo old Banksia standing proud and strong amongst the housing developments and streets that overtook its territory – the the coastal hind-dunes of the past.

  45. Definately mulberries. It was the first tree to pay for itself by far and has done so multiple times over now! I love the fruit, bottle freeze and eat copious quantities fresh:)

  46. Loquat. Definitely a loquat. Any tree that is a mild sedative has GOT to be good right? 😉 Not to mention delicious, winter/spring fruiting, medicinal leaves, heavenly scented flowers and evergreen. I just hope ly 1 foot tall loquat gets a move on a puts on height and fruit. I cannot wait!

    1. yeah I have one that seems to have self seeded in one of my wine barrel planters. Half it’s luck and half mine – I love the fruit too. And what’s this about medicinal leaves?

  47. Trees are awsome, we couldnt survive without their benefits however I have a freindly one I inherited on our farm. She is a gracefull Forest Redgum (E. territacornis) that was a remnanat that has mothered many others along the gully. She rests an arm on the ground and has many other arms reaching for the sky and I marvel at her form and size every time I see her and am thankful for the work she does on our place.

  48. Two trees are suggested: Rain tree is a great CO2 sequestration tree that also produces mounds of beneficial fungi leaf mulch. Fast growing, it looks inviting for a tree house after only several years however, I have been warned the limbs are not very strong.

    For fruit though the jack fruit needs to be mentioned (artocarpus heterophyllus). It is very productive and tolerant of dense spacing making it well suited for a high-yield, diversity rich food forest.

  49. It is a cliché but I love your good old apple tree. They produce my favourite fruit, I even have a variety with my name “Anna”. The have beautiful blossoms and are enjoyed by the birds and the bees and the bats. It is also a tree with a backstory and lots of literary references. Apples – the fruit – are always portrayed as a little bit evil, little bit tempting but that is because they so are SOOO good! *cackles*

  50. I love apple trees because they provide a food source for bees who’s numbers are dwindling across the world as well as attracting them to the garden to pollinate other crops. Its nice to see bees buzzing around the apple trees.

  51. My favourite tree is the one that is already there. If you do some quick research you can usually find something useful about the tree, and if you spend some time with it you can soon discover something else for yourself. For example discovering dogwood or strawberry tree have edible fruit, and then checking the taste for yourself, then finding a recipe, then inventing one! This way you are observing and interacting, before ripping out something that could be useful. Trees take a long time to grow and another while to replace. Actually, I’ve had a bit more of a think. My truly favourite tree is The Giving Tree!

  52. I must say persimmons are one of my favourites- nearby where I live one of the pioneering hippies planted two on a country road for th hitchikers to eat while waiting for a ride! Their ability to grow in difficult areas is handy. I love their gooey texture, and they paved the way for my love of gooey fruits- sapotes, rolinnias etc. And also they are fun to climb 🙂

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