ABC’s of Gardening: Maple tree, missing bark, seems beyond repair

Q: I have a maple tree at my summer home that has a large area of bark missing and the underlying wood is soft. The tree is alive, but I am concerned about the “open wound.” This started about two years ago with the bark falling off. We put an insecticide on the area, but I don’t think it helped. We had an arborist look at it and he said to take it down. We really want to keep it if we can. Can it be saved? H.G., Kauneonga Lake

Q: I have a maple tree at my summer home that has a large area of bark missing and the underlying wood is soft. The tree is alive, but I am concerned about the “open wound.” This started about two years ago with the bark falling off. We put an insecticide on the area, but I don’t think it helped. We had an arborist look at it and he said to take it down. We really want to keep it if we can. Can it be saved? H.G., Kauneonga Lake
A: This is not a good situation. A tree’s bark is like our skin. If it comes off, it exposes the inner layer of live tissue to disease and insect infestation. It does not grow back. A tree will heal around the edges of the wound to prevent further injury or disease, but it will not grow back over a large area.
There are several reasons a tree may lose its bark: insects feeding, disease, lightning, etc. If it were a small area of damaged tree trunk, I would recommend you have an arborist look at it to determine if the tree is still sound, what may have caused the problem and how to treat it. However, what you are describing sounds beyond repair. I strongly recommend you take the tree down and plant another in its place. It sounds like a real danger to people and property.
Q: I planted pumpkin seeds and now I am getting cucumbers. There is no way that I planted cucumbers. I saved the seed myself. They are growing in containers with fresh soil, etc. How could this have happened? Could it have cross-pollinated with my neighbor’s cucumbers?
A: Even though cucumbers and pumpkins are in the cucurbit family, they cannot cross-pollinate. Squash can cross with other squash, and cukes with other cukes, but not with each other. Think of it this way: Cardinals and blue jays are both birds, but they cannot mate with each other. Somehow cucumber seeds got into the pots where you planted pumpkin seeds. Did you use compost. Do you have squirrels, chipmunks or mice around? Any old soil left in the pots that may have contained other seed? Someone playing a joke on you? It is a mystery, but the pumpkin seeds did not produce cucumbers.
Q: The leaves on my tomato plants are turning yellow. I sprayed it with Sevin, but it did not help. What is wrong? M.B., Glen Spey
A: First, do not spray plants with anything if you don’t know what the problem is. If you use an insecticide and the problem is a disease, it won’t help. You will just put unnecessary chemicals in the air, water and earth. That said, I am not able to identify the problem with your tomato plants without seeing a sample of the leaves. There are many reasons that leaves turn yellow. Are there spots? Is it yellowing from the edge of the leaf inward? Are the older leaves turning yellow and working its way up the plant? You can go to the Web site for some very good pictures that may help you identify the problem.
Q: I have a problem with mice and want to trap them before the winter sets in. Last year they made a nice nest at the bottom of a shrub and did a lot of damage to the bark. What kind of bait should I use? R.F., Thompsonville
A: Mice can carry ticks and other diseases up close to our homes. They also can chew the bark of trees and shrubs while under the snow cover during the winter, often girdling them, resulting in the tree or shrub dying. Contrary to popular belief, cheese is not good mouse bait. It’s not in their normal diet. Mice feed on grains and seeds. I have had very good luck using peanut butter along with some birdseed sprinkled on it to really entice them.
“The ABC’s of Gardening” is submitted by the master gardeners of the Cornell Cooperative Extensions of Orange, Sullivan and Ulster Counties, on a rotating basis, in response to questions from callers to the Master Gardener Volunteer Helpline. Marianna Quartararo is the community horticulture educator at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Sullivan County.
Upcoming events
“Going Underground”: Root cellars. 10-11:30 a.m. Aug. 23.
Maple Confections II Workshop: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Sept. 6. Lunch provided.
“Baking With Herbs”: 6-8 p.m. Sept. 11
All of the above are being held at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Sullivan County office, 64 Ferndale Loomis Road, Liberty. For more information or to register, call 292-6180.

Rabbit Damage to Trees and Shrubs

This winter’s deep snow and extended period of snowcover posed serious problems for rabbits. Denied access to food on the ground, rabbits fed extensively on small trees and shrubs that stuck above the snow. Damage has been common on crabapples, apples, plums, cherries, serviceberries, winged euonymus (burning bush), cotoneasters, viburnums, dogwoods, spireas, and many other woody plants. See photos below.

On many trees and shrubs, rabbits have removed the bark completely around the trunks and stems, effectively girdling them. All growth above the girdled areas will eventually die and for most home gardeners, replacing the girdled trees is the best course of action. There are no applications that will mitigate the effects of rabbit damage or save severely damaged trees. Wound dressings, pruning paints, latex paints, wrappings and other alleged protective barriers do not help.

Most deciduous shrubs have the ability to produce new shoots or suckers at their base. Because of this ability, many severely damaged deciduous shrubs will eventually recover. (Several years may be required for some shrubs to fully recover.) In early spring, prune off girdled stems just below the damaged areas.

What about bridge grafting? Some girdled trees can be saved by bridge grafting. However, bridge grafting is a difficult procedure for home gardeners. Most girdled trees will sucker at their base and since most fruit and ornamental trees are produced by grafting, suckers that originate from below the graft union will not produce a desirable tree. Instructions on bridge grafting (see below) are available from the University of Minnesota pamphlet WW-00532, “Grafting and Budding Fruit Trees.”

Rabbit feeding injury to shrub stems

Rabbit feeding injury to crabapple tree

Figure 8. Two methods of bridge grafting (L-cut on the left and inlay on the right) are shown. The scion on the left is inserted under the bark at each end; the scion on the right is laid in a groove at each end. Source: University of Minnesota Extension

Repairing Tree Bark Damage

Trees are often thought of as towering giant that are difficult to kill. Many people are often surprised to find out that removing tree bark can actually harm a tree. Tree bark damage is not only unsightly, but can be deadly to a tree.

Tree Bark Function

For all intents and purposes, tree bark is the skin of the tree. The main tree bark function is to protect the phloem layer. The phloem layer is like our own circulatory system. It brings the energy produced by the leaves to the rest of the tree.

How Removing Tree Bark Affects a Tree

Because the tree bark function is to protect the layer that brings food, when tree bark is scratched or damaged, this tender phloem layer below is also damaged.

If the tree bark damage goes less than 25 percent of the way around the tree, the tree will be fine and will survive without a problem, provided that the wound is treated and is not left open to disease.

If the tree bark damage goes from 25 percent to 50 percent, the tree will suffer some damage but most likely will survive. Damage will appear in the form of lost leaves and dead branches. Wounds of this size need to be treated as soon as possible and should be watched carefully.

If the tree bark damage is greater than 50 percent, the life of the tree is at risk. You should call a tree care professional to help you repair the damage.

If the tree is damaged around 100 percent of the tree, this is called girdling. It is very difficult to save a tree with this much damage and the tree will most likely die. A tree care professional may try a method called repair grafting to bridge the gap in the bark and allow the tree to live long enough to repair itself.

Repairing Tree Bark Scratched or Damaged

No matter how much of the tree bark has been damaged, you will need to repair the wound.

If the tree is simply scratched, wash the wound out with plain soap and water to help reduce the amount of pathogens that may be in the scratch and that could cause further damage. Wash the wound thoroughly with plain water after this. Allow the scratch to heal in the open air. Do not use a sealant.

Method 1 – Reattaching lost tree bark

If the removed tree bark is still available after the tree bark damage, gather up as much as possible and reattach it to the tree. Use tape such as duct tape to secure the bark to the tree. Make sure that the bark is going in the right direction (the same direction it was on before it came off) on the tree, as the phloem layer can only transport nutrients in one direction. Perform this act as quickly as possible so that the bark does not die.

Method 2 – Clean cutting the wound

If the bark cannot be retrieved, say because an animal ate the bark, you will need to make sure that the damage to the tree will heal cleanly. Jagged wounds will interfere with the tree’s ability to transport nutrients so you will need to clean cut the wound. You do this by removing tree bark by cutting an oval around the circumference of the damage. The top and bottom of the wound there will be for the points of the oval. Do this as shallowly and as close to the wound as possible. Let the wound air heal. Do not use sealant.

Trunk wounds and decay


Urban and suburban trees are more likely to have wounds and decay than trees in native stands because people cause most wounds. These wounds are usually unintentional, such as automobiles, construction equipment, or lawn mowers bumping the tree trunk or surface roots, or improper pruning. Naturally occurring events, such as storms, fires, or damage by birds or other animals, may also cause wounds.

Trunk wounds that penetrate the bark will damage the cambium layer, a thin layer of vascular tissue, which is vital to movement of water and nutrients. If less than 25% of the bark around the trunk has been damaged, the tree will probably recover. When fresh wounds occur on the trunk, the injured bark should be removed carefully, leaving healthy bark that is sound and tight to the wood. A wound dressing (tree paint) is not necessary. You will be able to observe the wound closing from the edges each year as the tree grows. When an older wound is discovered, remove the dried and loose bark back to the area where the new wood can be seen along the edges of the wound. Trunk wounds that are not addressed could potentially be a hazard in the future.

Once a wound occurs, decay-causing fungi can enter the heartwood and the decay process begins. Trees have a unique defense. The wood around the wound begins to produce special compounds in the wood cells that set up a wall or barrier to isolate the infected area. This is called compartmentalization. In a vigorous tree, new growth continues to form and add to the sound wood Once compartmentalized, discoloration and decay will spread no further unless one of the barriers is broken. Cleaning decayed wood from cavities is not recommended since the compartment wall might be breached and further decay of the trunk could result. Storm-damaged branches should be properly pruned to expedite the healing process. Avoid pruning directly against the trunk since flush cuts can lead to extensive decay. Prune hazardous branches immediately.


Years ago, filling cavities was an accepted practice. The wound would be cleaned and scraped down to sound wood and filled with cement, mortar, or bricks. These practices frequently penetrated the tree’s natural defensive barrier, allowing decay to spread. Fortunately, this practice has decreased, along with flush cuts and tree wound paints.


In most cases, it’s best to do nothing. A tree will seal over a small cavity eventually, and the tree’s new wood is stronger than anything put into the hole. Large cavities may never close, but as long as the tree does not sustain further damage, a basal cavity may not be a problem. A certified arborist can determine if the tree is a safe or if it should be removed.


When is a tree a hazard?

  • When an inspection reveals a structural weakness, internal decay, or poor branching structure.
  • When there is a “target”(someone or something that could be hurt or damaged if the tree or limb falls).
  • If decay or structural problems are suspected, contact a professional arborist. Trees located in areas where people frequent should be inspected regularly.


  • Large dead or detached branches
  • Cavities or decayed wood
  • Signs of internal decay – mushrooms at the base of the tree or carpenter ants
  • Cracks or splits in the trunk where branches are attached
  • Many branches arising from one point on the trunk
  • Roots that have been cut or covered

Evidence that the tree was “topped” in the past


  • Remove the target
  • Prune the tree
  • Cable the weak branches
  • Remove the tree

A damaged tree.
(Courtesy: Highlander17892 at

A 20-foot tree with its wide trunk and long reaching thick branches may appear indestructible, but it is not. Trees are vulnerable to weather conditions, pest or disease or an unfriendly pet. When any part of a tree is damaged, whatever the cause, there are things you can do to restore that tree to almost new.

Tree Bark

One part of a tree that is susceptible to damage is the bark. Tree bark is said to be like our skin. It protects the circulatory system or phloem layer of the tree that brings the energy generated by the leaves to the rest of the system. If the bark is scratched or damaged, then the tender phloem layer is also injured.

If the bark’s damage goes less than one-quarter of the way around the trunk of the tree, then the tree should be fine and will survive without any problems. Still, the wound must be treated and should not be left open to allow disease to get in. If the bark’s damage goes from one-quarter to half around the tree, it will sustain some damage, but will most likely survive. This damage will result in lost leaves and maybe some dead branches. Wounds of this size need to be cared for as soon as possible and should be monitored carefully for some period of time.

If the bark’s damage is greater than half way around the tree, the tree’s survival is in jeopardy. You should call a tree expert to determine what can be done to save the tree.

If the tree is experiencing 100 percent damage of the bark, then it is suffering what is called girdling and it will most likely die. Some arborists may attempt to treat and fix the tree or create a condition in which it is kept alive long enough to repair itself.

Girdling can occur when a lawn care tool like a weed eater or a lawn mower accidentally strikes the trunk, when a stake tie becomes too tight, or when a small rodent or pet chews on the tree bark. Spreading mulch around the tree can help to prevent mechanical damage. Perhaps a low structure around the tree may keep rodents and pets away.

Treating a Girdled Tree

Treating a girdled tree must be started immediately.

The first thing to do is to clean the wound and keep the wood from drying. Professional arborists would perform grafting or bridge grafting so that nutrients can be transported across the tree. The graft is considered successful when enough nutrients can be carried over the wound. This would permit the roots of the tree to survive and permit the tree to suck up water and minerals to help the tissues and leaves. Providing time will permit the leaves to make food that helps form new tissues. A new growth will form over the wound and ensure the tree’s survival.

The first step to fixing a girdled tree is to thoroughly clean the wound. The process starts with the removal of any loose bark as well as some healthy branches or twigs that are the size of your thumb in diameter and 3-inches longer than the width of the wound. Use a clean and sharp utility knife to trim each end of the surviving twigs so they lie flat on the tree’s trunk and cut a wedge shape into the other ends. These twigs will serve as the bridge that gets nutrients beyond the wound to the rest of the tree.

Make two parallel cuts starting at the wound and through the bark to form flaps above and below the wound. The cuts should be a bit longer than the wedge shaped cuts of the bridge. Lift the flaps and insert the bridge under it. The bark on the bridge pieces should be placed slightly under the flaps, topside up. If the trunk layers and the bridges join, a flow of nutrients will be re-established and the tree will be restored.

If you need help to treat a girdled tree, then contact the local cooperative extension office.

(Next time – Part II – Repairing Damaged Trees)

Tree Wounds

Wayne K. Clatterbuck Associate Professor Forestry, Wildlife & Fisheries University of Tennessee

Tree wounds are common and the causes include: broken branches; impacts, abrasions and scrapes; animal damage; insect attack; fire; etc. Wounds usually break the bark and damage the food and water conducting tissues. Wounds also expose the inside of the tree to organisms, primarily bacteria and fungi that may infect and cause discoloration and decay of the wood. Decay can result in structurally weakened tree stems and can shorten the life of a tree. Decay cannot be cured. However, proper tree care can limit the progress of decay in an injured tree. This fact sheet discusses tree responses to wounding and what can be done after wounding to keep the tree healthy.

Tree Response to Wounding:

Trees respond to wounding or injury in two ways: compartmentalization and the development of barrier zones (Shigo 1986).


When a tree is wounded, the injured tissue is not repaired and does not heal. Trees do not heal; they seal. If you look at an old wound, you will notice that it does not “heal” from the inside out, but eventually the tree covers the opening by forming specialized “callus” tissue around the edges of the wound. After wounding, new wood growing around the wound forms a protective boundary preventing the infection or decay from spreading into the new tissue. Thus, the tree responds to the injury by “compartmentalizing” or isolating the older, injured tissue with the gradual growth of new, healthy tissue.

Barrier Zones

Not only do trees try to close the damaged tissue from the outside, they also make the existing wood surrounding the wound unsuitable for spread of decay organisms. Although these processes are not well understood, the tree tries to avoid further injury by setting chemical and physical boundaries around the infected cells, reacting to the pathogen and confining the damage.

If the tree is fast and effective with its boundary-setting mechanisms, the infection remains localized and does not spread. However, if the boundary-setting mechanisms are not effective, the infection will spread. Most vigorous or actively growing trees are fairly successful in coping with decay-spreading mechanisms.

Care for Tree Wounds:

Proper care of tree wounds encourages callus growth and wound closure.

Physical Repair

Tree wounds often appear ragged where the bark is torn during the injury. This is common during branch breakage and when the trunk of the tree has been scraped. To repair this type of damage, cut off any ragged bark edges with a sharp knife. Take care not to remove any healthy bark and expose more live tissue than necessary. If possible, the wound should be shaped like an elongated oval, with the long axis running vertically along the trunk or limb. All bark around the wound should be tight.

Wound Dressings

Research indicates that wound dressings (materials such as tar or paint) do not prevent decay and may even interfere with wound closure. Wound dressings can have the following detrimental effects:

  • Prevent drying and encourage fungal growth
  • Interfere with formation of wound wood or callus tissue
  • Inhibit compartmentalization
  • Possibly serve as a food source for pathogens

For these reasons, applying wound dressings is not recommended. Trees, like many organisms, have their own mechanisms to deter the spread of decay organisms, insects and disease.

Cavity Filling

Filling large holes or hollows in the tree is generally done for cosmetic reasons. There is little data to indicate that a filled tree has better mechanical stability. However, fillings may give the callus tissue a place to seat, thus stopping the in-roll (folding) of the callus (Shigo 1982). Almost any filling can be used as long as it does not abrade the inside of the tree.

Filling a tree cavity is generally expensive and not recommended. Filling does not stop decay and often during the cleaning of the cavity, the boundary that separates the sound wood or the callus growth from the decayed wood is ruptured. Thus, this cleaning for cavity filling can have more detrimental effects on the tree than if it were left alone. Care must be taken not to damage the new callus tissue that has formed in response to the tree damage and subsequent decay.

Pruning Wounds

Proper pruning should be used to remove dead, dying and broken branches; to remove low, crossing or hazardous branches; and to control the size of the tree. However, pruning of any kind places some stress on the tree by removing food-producing leaves (if the branch is alive), creating wounds that require energy to seal, and providing possible entry points for disease.

Pruning cuts should be made to maximize the tree’s ability to close its wound and defend itself from infection. When pruning, make clean, smooth cuts. Do not leave branch stubs. Leave a small collar of wood at the base of the branch. The branch collar is a slightly swollen area where the branch attaches to the trunk. Cutting the limb flush with the trunk will leave a larger area to callus over and a greater chance of decay organisms entering the wound. The optimal pruning time is in the winter (dormant season) when temperatures and infection rates are lower and when trees are not actively growing.

Conclusion. Healthy trees usually recover from wounding quickly. Try to keep wounded trees growing vigorously by watering them during droughts and providing proper fertilization. This will increase the rate of wound closure, enhance callus growth and improve the resistance to decay mechanisms.

Shigo, A.L. 1982. Tree health. Journal of Arboriculture 8(12):311-316.

Shigo, A.L. 1986. A New Tree Biology. Shigo Trees & Associates, Durham, NH. 595 p.

Woods Whys: How Do Trees Heal Wounds on Trunks and Branches?

Wounds will always remain within, but trees compartmentalize these injured areas to prevent decay and allow new growth to continue outward. Photo by Kenneth Dudzik / U.S. Forest Service

Somehow trees put up with all manner of injury and assault during their lives. They have to: they are rooted in place and cannot move to avoid injury. Whether it’s ice- or wind-stripped branches or dings from the lawnmower, trees are quite commonly beat upon. Indeed, a mature, healthy forest tree might easily have had a thousand wounds – wounds that have the potential to expose the inside of the stem (and thus the rest of the tree) to bacteria and fungi, which can lead to disease, decay, breakage, and death.

In order to survive, trees must overcome their injuries. But technically they don’t heal their wounds, at least not the way that human and animal bodies repair, restore, or replace damaged cells or tissue. Trees are built in layers of cells that are bound by rigid walls in a modular, compartmented way. This structure dictates their wound response.

During each annual growth period, trees build their trunks and branches outward from a layer of actively dividing cells. Increments of new wood are added in a cone shape, enveloping the previous year’s smaller, cone-shaped increment. Picture stacked traffic pylons. Thus, trees grow ever upward and outward, in front of themselves, both in length and in girth.

When a cell is damaged, a tree cannot go back and fix or replace it. But it can limit the damage from any given injury by containing it and excommunicating it from the rest of the still-growing tree. The trick is in sealing, not healing. The focus is on resisting the spread of damage – especially infections of bacteria and fungi and the decay they cause – by isolating the wound and then growing beyond it.

Trees close wounds in two separate processes that create both chemical and physical boundaries around the damaged cells. First, they produce what is sometimes called a reaction zone, altering the chemistry of the existing wood surrounding a wound and making it inhospitable to decay organisms. Then, they build a barrier zone to compartmentalize the injured tissue with new tissue called “callus” or “wound wood” growing outward. If all goes according to plan, the callus growth covers and seals the wound and allows new uncontaminated wood to grow over and beyond it.

Unfettered by bark pressure, the responding callus cells on the edges of a wound grow freely and form elongated rolls. These are the “ribs” of new growth you see incrementally enclosing wounds, such as on an increasingly less visible branch pruning stub. This new growth separates the wood present during the injury from the new wood formed after. The rate and effectiveness of this response differs by tree species and health. Both functions, the chemical and the physical, are necessary but they occur somewhat independently of each other. Rapid wound closure on the outside of a wound does not necessarily indicate that the internal reaction zone has successfully thwarted the spread of an infection.

Understanding the workings of wound response in trees underscores another difference between the way the process works in trees versus people. Whereas we may do well to slather a cut with anti microbial ointment and cover it with a bandage, this is decidedly not helpful to a tree. Applying paint or tar or other dressings and fillers – while a great temptation to tree lovers everywhere – actually interferes with the normal progression of a tree’s wound response and should be avoided. Trees need to seal and close, and generally they do this much better without additives.

It’s not a perfect system and decay abounds in all healthy forests. But when trees are able to compartmentalize wounds and contain them with new growth, infections remain localized and do not spread to existing undamaged, uninfected wood. Given just how prevalent wood rot is in trees – even otherwise healthy, seemingly defect-free trees – it becomes clear how well this tree injury defense system works. Wounds remain encased and the trees simply grow around them.

Every wound ever suffered remains within a tree, but while they may not heal, most trees do get closure.

Michael Snyder, a forester, is commissioner of the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation.

Tree bark can become damaged for many reasons. One common way a tree is injured and becomes infected is due to lawn mowers and weed trimmers. People don’t realize when they are mowing or trimming around their trees the damage they can cause to that tree. The place of injury typically occurs at the trees buttress, or the part that sticks out from the trunk. With numerous small repeated wounds, the tree can become damaged. This damage is especially dangerous to the tree if it occurs in early spring during leaf emergence or in early fall during leaf drop. It is during this time that the tree bark is slipping or loose due to cambium growth.

You can protect your tree from injury by simply hand trimming the grass around the tree or preventing grass and weeds from growing at the base of the tree with the use of a herbicide or mulch.

Injury can be prevented by the removal (by hand trimming) or prevention (use of a herbicide or mulch) of grass and weeds from growing at the base of the tree.

Once a tree is wounded, the tree tries to protect itself from pathogens that would invade the wound. These microorganisms often attack the injured bark and invade adjacent healthy tissue, greatly enlarging the affected area. You can also completely girdle your tree from microbial attack after it has been injured. Watch for decay fungi, which also becomes active on the wound surface. This causes structural deterioration of the woody tissues beneath the wound.

If your tree has been wounded, even if in a minor way, you will need to repair that wound. Here are some ways to tend to tree bark wounds.

1. Scratched Tree – Wash the wound out with plain soap and water. This helps to reduce the amount of pathogens that would be in the scratch and that could cause further damage. Follow this with washing the wound thoroughly with plain water. Allow the scratch to heal in the open air, do not apply a sealant on it.

2.Replacing Bark That Has Come Off – If you can find the bark that has been removed from a tree after damage, gather it up and try reattaching it to the tree. You can use duct tape to secure the bark back to the tree. Like working a puzzle, make sure the bark is placed exactly as it was before it fell off, laying in the right direction. A tree transfers nutrients in only one direction. You must do this quickly before the bark dies. Wait for 12 weeks before removing the tape.

3. Bark That Falls Off and Can’t Be Replaced – If you cannot retrieve the bark that has been pulled from a tree, you still will need to clean the wound. Jagged wounds will interfere with the tree’s ability to transport nutrients so you will need to clean cut the wound. Cut an oval around the circumference of the damaged portion of the bark. Don’t dig too deep. Let the wound air heal and do not use a sealant. Check the wound as often as possible to remove insects. If recovery doesn’t happen in 2-3 weeks, seek professional help.

Healthy trees usually recover from wounding quickly. If you have made the above fixes on your wounded tree, remember to also keep your tree watered and fertilized properly. Having extra attention will help your tree strong and allow its wound to close quicker, not to mention improve its resistance to decay.

About the Author: Andrew Johnson is the owner of Central Texas Tree Care, a leading provider of Austin tree services in Central Texas. Certified ISA Austin arborist services including: tree trimming, tree removal, tree care and stump removal. For more information on Austin tree service please visit

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