Podcast 180: Herbs A-Z: Calluna vulgaris & Centaurium erythraea
This week we highlight two herbs who are close to our hearts. Heather is a plant we both met together and have come to appreciate each in our own way. Centaury was “Ryn’s first herb” in many ways and made a huge impact on his digestive health when he was originally learning herbalism from Katja. Both are friends we turn to frequently!
Calluna vulgaris is heather, a lovely little pink flower from the highlands and moors. Its light, floral aromatic profile is subtle but delightful. It’s an excellent fluid mover, helping disperse stagnations and improve internal flow. Heather supports kidney function and the elimination of wastes, while elevating mood and lightening mental state.
Centaurium erythraea is another lovely little pink flower, actually! This one is bitter, with a capital BITTER. But don’t let that scare you off! It’s an incredible ally for those with weak stomachs. Centaury strengthens the stomach and digestion more generally, helping us get all the nutrition our food has to offer.
These quick plant profiles were done off-the-cuff & on-the-spot. If you enjoyed them, we have more! Our organized & comprehensive presentation of our herbal allies is in the Holistic Herbalism Materia Medica course. We have detailed profiles of 90 medicinal herbs! Plus you get everything that comes with enrollment in our courses: twice-weekly live Q&A sessions, lifetime access to current & future course material, discussion threads integrated in each lesson, guides & quizzes, and more.
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Our theme music is “Wings” by Nicolai Heidlas.
Hi, I’m Katja.
And I’m Ryn.
And we’re here at Commonwealth Holistic Herbalism in Boston, Massachusetts.
And on the internet everywhere, thanks to the power of the podcast. Yes.
So you guys we’re like sitting on the floor in our office, and Elsie is beside us. And every time that we do this I say in Boston, Massachusetts, and I look at him with this kind of grin. Because the very first time that he said, and on the internet everywhere, thanks to the power of the podcast, it was like a surprise. I didn’t know he was going to say it, and it cracked me up. And now every time we do that, I kind of look at him like are you going to say it again?
It still works.
It’s funny every time.
So, we’re still doing it. That’s how this goes.
Today is a good day. Today we’re going to talk about heather, and we’re going to talk about centaury.
We’re very excited about this.
Yeah. These are some herbs we like.
Yeah. A whole lot. A whole lot. Before we do that though.
Before we do that we remind you that we are not doctors. We are herbalist and holistic health educators.
The ideas discussed in this podcast do not constitute medical. No state or federal authority licenses herbalist in the United States. So, these discussions are for educational purposes only.
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Everybody’s body is different. So, the things that we’re talking about may or may not apply directly to you. But we hope they’ll give you some good ideas to think about and research further.
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Getting to Know Heather: Calluna vulgaris
That’s what we do. That’s what we do folks. Yes. All right. Well, without further ado, let’s talk about heather.
Oh my goodness.
I like this herb for a reason that has nothing to do with the plant itself. The reason is that you and I got to learn this herb together. Yeah. It was not one of the many herbs that you already knew a ton of stuff about long before I even met you.
No, this is an herb that we met together. So the Latin here is Calluna vulgaris. And also I just love Calluna. That’s very pretty to me. I’m like oh, that could be a name. Well, I mean it is a name. It’s heather’s name. But it’s so lovely. You know, heather is… why did we even… we got it one day.
It was a time when we were like all right, we’re going to make a Mountain Rose Herbs order. And we were like oh, well, let’s get some other herbs too. You know, aside from the usual, like nettle and dandelion and some ginger.
Like all the normal stuff we normally have around.
Yeah. You know. And we were like well, what should it be? And so we were kind of scrolling through the list together. And like oh, let’s get some heather. Let’s get some cedar leaf. Let’s get some usnea.
Yeah. It is true. We did get those two at the same time. And I will say that heather flower and cedar leaf tea is really delicious. And the only reason we put those two together the first time was because they came in the same box.
They just arrived on the same day.
Yeah, but they were super delicious together, and now we do that a lot.
It is a real favorite. That is a combo that we have a bad habit of making in the evenings. And then like oh, we’ll just need to drink a quart of this in the hour before bedtime. What could go wrong? Nothing’s really wrong, but you are going to wake up and go pee.
Yeah. They’re both pretty diuretic. So yeah, that happens. You know, heather actually has become a really big part of my life. Part of it, okay, part of it is that diuretic action. And listen, when we talk about diuretic action that doesn’t just mean it makes you pee. Like that’s the end result is there’s pee. But it’s really about moving fluids. And you know, I think if you’re or a regular listener, you probably know by now that I’m always looking for things to help my fluids keep moving. Because I can tend towards stagnation. So, heather already falls into that category of plants I really love, because they help me keep everything flowing. They help prevent stuff from getting stuck, especially in my legs. But heather also has a traditional application in that way. It is particularly skilled at… You know, it kind of goes into the same category as pleurisy root in that regard. Like really helpful for fluid that gets stuck in the legs, and really helpful for heart issues. And although my cardiovascular health physiologically is fine. Like I’ve never had any problems with it. But emotionally I often need a lot of heart support. And so this is just a plant that any kind of day that I just turn to and I’m feeling very low. It’s almost like heather is perfect for that. Because if I’m feeling low, then also like all the fluid is sunk in me. But also it like lifts the fluid up. it lifts my heart up. It is really an invaluable herb for me.
Heather has a really different feeling, even just as a diuretic, from nettle leaf or dandelion leaf.
Even calendula, it’s very different.
Yeah. I think you’re right to locate that in that kind of lifting feeling in the heart and in the emotions as well. It’s a sort of a reflection of internal fluid movement in the body.
Yeah. I have this photograph that I did not take, but I really love it. It is a picture of Culloden, Scotland. And I’m probably saying that wrong actually. If there are any Scottish listeners to the podcast, then you can write and correct me. And also let’s talk about an in person workshop in Scotland, because wouldn’t that be great. But anyway, it’s this picture of… Culloden Is a place where there was a very large battle, and a lot of people died there. Now those fields are just covered in heather. And this particular photograph has like some of the stonework, and then all the Heather, and like a very sort of typical gray, heavy damp sky. And it’s just stunningly beautiful. And also I think appropriate for heather. Like there’s some sadness there. There’s some heaviness there. There’s like all this dampness there and cold. And like the cold of the stone and the cold of the wet sky and the cold, you know, like all that stuff. And I always feel like that photograph is such a good bumper sticker for heather. Just everything about heather is right there in that picture.
Fluid Moving Tiny Flower Tea
Yeah. Heather, one of the ways we like to take heather is in tiny flower tea. And so tiny flower tea usually is going to have heather flowers and elderflowers, because those are pretty tiny.
And if I have them, meadowsweet flowers, which I don’t have right now. Goldenrod flowers can go in there. And even though chamomile flowers are not tiny on the same scale as all those other ones, they do often end up in tiny flower tea.
Honorary tiny flower. Yeah.
Yeah. I mean it is still a pretty small flower. It’s just not as small as heather and goldenrod.
Sure. Yeah. I mean, if we bring like hibiscus around then everybody’s tiny.
Yeah. But that formula, right, so heather, elder, some meadowsweet if we have it, some chamomile, goldenrod. Yeah. This is a formula that has a bunch of different fluid movers in it. I’m thinking of the elder, the golden rod, the meadowsweet. Actually… I’m sorry, the heather. And actually the meadowsweet as well. Yeah. All of them are helpful for moving fluid, but in slightly different ways.
They are all moving fluids. Like I think about that formula with regard to fluid. Kind of like if you ever, when you were a kid, if you were ever in an aboveground pool. And then everybody in the pool thought it would be really funny to walk around in the same direction while they were in the pool, and like start a whirlpool. If you did this when you’re a kid, you are definitely right now saying oh my God. We did that. And because it’s like a very…
You can feel it start to move you along.
Yeah. Well, that’s the thing. When you did it enough, you could stop. You could just pick your legs up, and you would keep going with it. Yeah. And so I kind of think about that kind of movement. Because when you put all those flowers together, you are getting a lot of movement. And it’s like many individual efforts that will create a strong flow. And those efforts are all slightly different, but the end result is strong movement.
Right. Yeah. So, you know, like the heather is going to be draining some fluid towards the urinary system. The elderflower is really more about kind of opening your pores and your skin. And we think a lot about elderflower for when you need to kind of let some steam rise off of you in an upward direction.
But that is a continuation, right? It’s like top to bottom, except actually bottom to top, because the heather is coming up from the bottom. And then the elderflower is just like and just let that keep going. Let’s not stop it. Let’s just let it keep going right on out. Yeah. You know, goldenrod is also moving fluid towards the kidneys, and supporting the kidneys and doing their part. And meadowsweet, you know, it has some astringency in there that’s very lovely, very light astringency. And by light astringency, I don’t mean not effective. I mean light. Like not exactly gentle.
It’s not going to give you gut cramps. You can say that much.
Right. It’s like not all the way to effervescent. And effervescent astringency sounds weird anyway. But it’s just like a light touch, like rose, you know?
Yeah. So this combination – and thinking of heather, and it’s kind of central piece in the formula there – that is something that we would think about for physical movement of fluids in the body. But I feel like every time that we’ve discussed this, or made it for ourselves, or suggested it to other people, it’s been a really strong case of the connection between physical fluid movement and emotional fluidity.
100% of the time.
All of your emotional water elements, and trying to help those to circulate well, too,
You know what’s really funny is that… okay. So, if you’ve only ever listened to the podcast, and you only know us from our voices. And you’ve never seen a picture of us, or seen any of our online courses, or seen us in person somewhere. Then you won’t know this, but I’m six feet tall and currently weigh over 200 pounds. Okay, but that’s just real. And Ryn is five foot like four and weighs…
If I stretch my neck, yeah.
And weighs like a hundred and some pounds, like 120 maybe pounds?
Almost 130 this week.
That’s awesome, babe.
Almost. Putting on some muscle.
So, we have really drastically, drastically different bodies. And also I am very damp, so like I hold fluid. Like my body’s so good at holding fluid like it’s my job. And Ryn is very dry, like super duper, super dry. And the funny thing is that for both of us, this tea is actually emotionally very supportive. And you might be like well, yeah. Katja is so damp. She’s always got to get that fluid moving. Of course that would be helpful for her. But I would imagine Ryn can’t even drink that tea. And while it’s true he might appreciate a little marshmallow leaf in with the tiny flowers, you can get your fluid stuck even when you’re dry. You know, if you think about when you’re really dry, and all the snot in your nose gets really dried out. And if you’re sick, and it’s dry. And it’s like all pasty and thick and gross, and like you can’t get it out of your nose. But then think about your emotions that way. That you are really dried out, and your emotions have gotten pasty and thick and stuck. And you can’t get them out. So, I just want to kind of be clear that energetically you can get your emotional fluid stuck, even if you are not a person who is a literal bog, like I am.
Yeah. But like you said, you would have an herb in there to bring in hydration or to bring in fluid in addition to the movers of the fluid.
Right. One thing that that we do a lot is if we’re making a tea like this, where it’s really targeted sort of more towards my need for drying out or fluid movement. Then Ryn will put a licorice stick in his teacup, and just leave it there for the whole day. And I’ll drink the tea straight just how it is, and be super happy that there’s no licorice in it. Thank you, very much. And then he’ll drink his with the licorice stick in there. And that will provide a bunch of extra moisture. Plus he likes licorice, so that’s okay.
Yeah, That is okay. That’s great actually. I really do appreciate that. Actually about flavor, you know, because with the licorice it adds sweetness to it. And it’s not your preferred sweetness.
No, not at all.
Ways to Work With Heather
But you know heather, in terms of flavor, it is an aromatic herb. But it’s one of those light floral aromatics. It’s not exactly like lavender. It’s not like chamomile, although maybe closer to chamomile than lavender.
I mean, the flavor is in no way similar to chamomile, but the quality of the flavor is. Yeah.
Yeah. It’s a floral type.
It’s delicious. You could just drink heather all by itself all day, every day. It’s so tasty. It’s so nice.
Yeah. You can make an elixir as well. You can go ahead and do a tincture of your heather flowers. It’ll convey its medicinal qualities and everything that way really nicely. We default to tea with this one. Because again, we’re often thinking about fluid movement, and so it makes sense to have it in tea.
I mean also because we do default to tea a lot of the time.
Yeah. And it tastes great, you know. And it’s pretty to look at in your cup or your French press or whatever else. So, like these qualities matter. But yeah, you can tincture heather flowers if you want. You can make an elixir with them. It would be quite nice. And maybe you have a different flower tea, sorry honey infusion that you mix together with the tincture there.
You know, actually it’s occurring to me – just because I’m thinking about the sage elixir that we have – that actually heather and sage elixir together would be quite nice. Really lovely. Get that warmth going and the astringency from the sage. And then all the movement of the heather. I want to mention two other ways that I like to blend heather. One is with red clover, just heather and red clover together. And this again is like I particularly like this in August and September when it’s hot. And those of us who do retain water are like really feeling that and it’s uncomfortable. And we would just like to be rung out. That is a really beautiful blend in that regard. Red clover is kind of like a full body lymph mover. It really has a lot of pulmonary lymphatic movement action. And then the heather really focuses on the sort of lower part of the body. And they do both have some heart emphasis as well. So, I find that to be a really comforting blend. And the other place that I like to work with heather a lot is like in a PMs blend, again for a person who has a tendency towards stagnation. And for me that often looks like a bunch of mullein… no, wait, stop. That’s not what I meant. A bunch of mugwort. Yeah. I don’t know where I was going with that. A bunch of mugwort, a bunch of heather, and then like some kind of warming thing. To be honest, I don’t love ginger in that particular blend, only because it overpowers the beautiful flavor of the mugwort and the heather together. So, I’m more likely to go in like a damiana direction instead of a ginger direction. Even though you might be sitting there thinking what? Katja has a blend that she doesn’t put ginger in? I mean, it would be fine, but it’s just that the ginger flavor is so strong that you would lose the flavor of the heather. But so that is very helpful for me. Especially when like on those lead uterus days, when you just feel like everything in your body is moving downward in a very uncomfortable way. That could be really good.
Centaury: Centaurium erythraea & Stomach Strengthening
Nice. Okay. Well let’s go ahead and talk about centaury next.
Let’s talk about centaury next, because centaury is a pretty fun herb in our history of being herbalist together as well.
Yeah. Centaury: Centaurium erythraea. You know, we’ve told this story here before I think. But the reason that I will wanted to get centaury and try it when I was having my very first herb of the month experience was just because it has the name centaury. And it has a reference to centaurs it. And I thought well, that’s pretty cool. Let me hear more about that. And it does go back to myths about Chiron, you know, a very famous centaur from Greek mythology. Who was a healer and, well, we can call him an herbalist. And so this herb is named after that figure, because of the medicinal potency of the plant, and people recognizing that this was a really cool flower, really cool plant. And it can do a lot of good for you.
And then as a Sagittarius whose birthday is in two days, you were like, this is the plant for me.
This must be it. I think I have an obligation to try this out. And you know, for some context at the time I did not have an autoimmune paleo type diet. This would have been during the transition time. So, I’d met you. I was eliminating gluten and dairy from my life, because you did, and it would be nice.
Voluntarily, out of love, out of crush?
Yeah. It didn’t all happen at once. There were certainly a couple of days when I, okay. So, at the time I was also doing a lot of martial arts at this particular school. And I was spending a ton of time there. So, I would like go to work at an office job, and then I would leave, you know. And then I would go to the martial arts school. And I would be there for like four hours or something.
Usually teaching a few classes, and then taking your own classes really late.
My classes were late, yeah. And so then I would get home around like 11. And then I would order a pizza from the local pizza shop, who would also bring me a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream. And then I would eat the pizza, and I would drink a dark beer with it. And then I would eat the pint of ice cream.
I don’t even know how you could possibly have eaten that much.
I probably didn’t eat much the rest of the day, you know.
I think that’s how.
I would like wake up feeling gross in my belly. And then I would kind of like get through my work day.
I wonder why.
And then I would go, and I would like work out, and finally burn calories, and generate hunger, and get home, and be ravenous. And then I would eat all this crap.
And then the next morning he would be like, why do I feel so bad?
Why do I feel bad? So like my… yeah, you know. It was not smart, but it’s what I was doing. And into that context, centaury came in as a savior, as a gift from the world to my belly.
I think that centaury is exactly the kind of savior that you would expect a centaur to be. It is not kind. It is not cuddly.
It’s not a subtle herb. Okay. So, if you haven’t tasted this one before…
It’s not gentle.
just think of the most bitter thing that you can imagine, and then take out all of the other flavor elements except for the bitter.
Yeah. It is 100% pure, unadulterated bitter.
If you’re like well, I don’t know. I’ve had bitter coffee. Okay. Just take out all of the like coffee scent from the bitter element. Or if you’ve had, I don’t know, like even radicchio has like a minerally, salty flavor to it.
Plus radicchio is just nowhere near as bitter. Like it’s not just that bitter is the only flavor, it’s that it’s bitter turned up to 11.
Yeah. Right. So, you know, my herbal teacher at the time said that you have to pick an herb. And you have to drink a lot of it, like a quart at least every day, to really understand it. So, that’s what I did. And the first couple of cups it was like, what am I doing?
I was so glad it was his herb of the month and not mine.
But honestly, after a couple of days I would really be craving it. And I would drink it. I would be like yeah, this is great. I’m going to feel really good. I could start to feel the immediate effects of the herb on my digestion, to help me to process all of the fats and the cheeses and whatever nonsense. And to, you know, help regulate the blood sugar, and get the liver humming along, and clear through some waste products and this and that. And you can really feel like a lightning and like an inner movement that happens, especially if you get that like feeling of just a brick sitting in your belly or in your guts. So, you can feel that. And that’s going to be noticeable even the first time you have a cup of the tea, you know. If you start from that place of feeling stuck. And it’s like stagnant and heavy and everything. You drink a cup of centaury tea. In an hour or so you’re going to feel substantially different in there. But the other effect of this one – and this is why we do herb of the month, right? – is that with extended time, you can get deeper effects from the plant. And so for this, I started to have much more resilient digestion generally. Like at the time, and even still to today, I have some remnants of it. But, you know, like fatty meals were really hard on my stomach. It didn’t stop me from eating them, but it never went down very well, you know? And so what I would find was that after a few days, or after a week, or into the second or third week of drinking centaury every day, I was like oh. This is what people mean when they say they have a strong stomach. Like they just eat the food, and then they don’t have to worry about it, or be like where’s the nearest bathroom or whatever else. Like, it was just fine. And this was also a period of time when I was like more completely eliminating food allergens from my diet, and learning how to make healthier food, and more mineral rich stuff, and incorporating other herbs as well. And so there was a lot of change happening in my physiology. But the centaury was like the keystone.
I think that the strength part is pretty key. It was something you talked about kind of nonstop at the time. And this is like a lot of years ago. This would’ve been like 2007 or something. And this is something I still really remember about your experience is that you just kept talking about how much stronger you felt like your stomach was. And we have very visual herbs this week, because I really do see a centaur there with his bow and his arrow. And, you know, this is like pillar of strength, and kind of like undefeatedness. It’s not like centaurs have Achilles heels, you know. We don’t think about them that way.
Yeah. I do sometimes put centaury into tea blends when I want that feeling. And for me when that’s what I’m aiming at, it’s usually going to start with some evergreens, like pine or cedar, juniper sometimes, things like that. But yeah, it’s not uncommon for me to also want like just a little pinch of centaury. And that’s the way I work with it these days, you know, and really since that initial month. I don’t very often just have a whole cup of straight centaury tea.
When you do, it’s always like oh, he’s not feeling well.
Yeah, that’s evidence, you know? But yeah, what I do often like now though, is to just get a little pinch of it. And put it into, you know, a quart of tea or whatever amount that I’m preparing. Just a little bit to add that bitter element, to get that stomach strengthening effect. The herbalists’ action term for that is stomachic, which is a little weird to say. But a stomachic herb like this one can build strength in the digestion over time. And yeah, I will put it in there for those kind of like fortification formulas.
You know, it also is a tiny pink flower. Not quite as tiny as Heather, but the color is really similar.
Yeah, we’re going to grow some.
Of both. Yeah.
Centaury (& Gentians) & Bitters
This is going to be excellent. And it is a really pretty little red pink flower there. It’s really nice to look at. Centaury is related to gentians. And gentian plants are worth talking about in a modern context through the lens of sustainability. There are a lot of different gentian species from all over the world. You know, the yellow gentian is kind of the European, most famous one. There’s a relative of gentian… I was trying to remember this a few episodes back. It’s a relative of gentian from like India and Asia called chiretta. C H I R E T T A. And you know, both gentian and chiretta and other gentians aside from those are herbs that have an important place in medicine, but also in like culinary arts. Because they have a very pure, simple, clean, sharp, bitter flavor to them. So gentian for instance, is a key ingredient in a lot of cocktail bitters, commercial ones, like Peychaud’s and Angostura, Fee Brothers, and other bitters makers like that. They’ll often work with gentian or some other like simple, pure bitter like it to get that element into the flavor profile. And kind of leave the clarity of your citrus notes or your herbs with a little sweetness to them or whatever else to be experienced on its own.
Right. In that case they’re building complexity of flavor in the formula, as opposed to going with something like mugwort that is bitter, but also already has a great deal of complexity.
Yeah. And you can do that too, you know. So, like when we make a cocktail bitter, sometimes we do want to put in calamus or some other complex bitter in there, because we want to emphasize that. But other times you want to let you know, like pear and cardamom come through strong. So, that is a place where I’ll work with centaury. And I do prefer to work with centaury rather than gentians, because with gentians it’s almost always the root that is harvested. And that means that you’re going to kill off the plant. Many of them are ecologically threatened, especially in the wild. Not all of them are organically cultivated anywhere or extensively. So, because of that, that plant is much more at risk. Centaury, on the other hand, is a more abundant plant. And you can work with the aerial parts of it. So, you don’t need to kill off the whole organism when you harvest. So, it’s more sustainable. Taste a centaury tincture, taste a gentian tincture right next to them. There are some differences, but they’re really, really small.
Yeah. It’s very subtle.
And I can’t think of any reason why I would have to have gentian over centaury.
No, they’re really analogic. Yeah.
Yeah. let’s see. Other thoughts around centaury. I really do though. I encourage people to make their own cocktail bitters. It’s not difficult.
In the herbal medicine making course, there is a video like step by step to show you exactly how to go through the whole process. Yeah, it’s really not difficult, and it’s super fun. And if you’re making cocktail bitters, you can make excellent mocktails with cocktail bitters. Now cocktail bitters themselves do have alcohol in them. But when you make a mocktail with them, you’re really only putting like one or two squirts in. So, the amount of alcohol is completely negligible. It would be completely safe to still drive. It wouldn’t necessarily be the preference of someone who is a recovering alcoholic. But if you were having a mocktail, because you just didn’t feel like having alcohol, or you were going to be driving or something like that, it would be completely safe. But you also could make your cocktail bitters, your recipe, with vinegar instead, and have it as a shrub. And then there would be no alcohol whatsoever involved. Also an option.
Nice, right on. Yeah. You know, the usual process for making a cocktail bitter blend is really simple. You’re going to just make a tincture first. And again, take like three flavors that you think go well together. And then add in a little spoon of centaury into your mix. And go ahead and tincture that like normal. Once that’s ready, then you can strain it out. But this time you’re going to hang on to the marc, the leftover plant matter. And then you’re going to mix that with some water, like an equal amount to the amount of alcohol that you got, or the amount of tincture that you pressed. And then you’re going to just cook the marc into that water, and basically make tea out of it. And then strain that real well. And then combine that tea with the tincture you already made. That’ll bring down the alcohol content total a bit, and complexify the flavor for you. And then if you want you can add a little bit of honey or molasses or some other sweetener to that. Stir that in, and you’re good to go. So, that’s the recipe for people who don’t need weights and measures.
Yeah. Anyway, it is really fun. And, you know, since we are near the holidays, it makes a fun gift. Yeah. Well I’m actually really excited, because I just made a batch of tea right before we sat down, that was mugwort and pine and juniper and orange peel and heather. So, there’s no centaury in it, but we could put some centaury in yours.
Having talked about it now I’m like I might make a little cup or two, you know? Yeah. Why not?
Yeah. And so we are going to go drink that, and we will see you next week with more.
Yeah. It looks like next week we may be talking about gotu kola, and I believe chicory.
Yeah. So, we’ll be back to talk to you more then. Until then take care of yourselves. Take care of each other. Drink some tea.
Drink some tea.
Make some bitter faces if you have to when you drink your tea.
And we’ll see you soon.
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