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6 easiest orchids to grow, with longwood’s greg griffis

157951_Paphiopedilum_spicerianum_Erdmann_Duane_Longwood_Volunteer_Photographer_RIGHT ABOUT NOW, countless orchid plants in homes everywhere—plants perhaps gifted to their owners, or others we bought for ourselves on an impulse when in bloom last year—could be coming back into flower…but, um, maybe they aren’t.

Where did we fail?

Is it the wrong orchid for our conditions, or did we do wrong by the right orchid? Oh, dear.

I sought advice from Greg Griffis, the orchid grower for Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, where the annual Orchid Extravaganza runs late January to late March. He gave me an Orchid 101, because I think it’s time we improved our track records.

Greg Griffis’s own orchid history is an inspiration: He first became aware of orchids in 2009. Studying Music Education at West Chester University, he lived close to Longwood, and attended the 2010 Orchid Show there, where he purchased his first plant. One plant quickly became 20. Greg was hooked.

11393250_10152871658697374_2130715750467065590_nHe has since worked for Parkside Orchid Nursery, Hilo Orchid Farm in Hawaii, and at the start of 2015, found himself back where it all began: Greg became the orchid grower at Longwood.  He also teaches the garden’s popular beginning orchid class and a free online version, too.

The theme of our conversation was “6 Orchids Everyone Should Own”—a bold suggestion, I know, but I think we’re up to the task, gardeners. (One is Paphiopedilum spicerianum, in the photo at the top of the page.) Read along as you listen to the Jan. 25, 2016 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

my easy orchid q&a with longwood’s greg griffis

 

 

Q. The orchid show at Longwood, the Orchid Extravaganza, takes place late January through late March, so thank you for making time to join me despite all the work on that.  I believe I read that orchids were one the first collections at Longwood, since like 1922.

A. Yes, they were gifted by one of the relatives of Pierre du Pont—about 2,000 plants in the early 1900s.

Q. Wow. And today there are how many thousands of orchid taxa in the collection, and how many plants?

A. At Longwood we have about 6,100, and are somewhere in the range of 2,000 different taxa.

Q. So 2,000 taxa and 6,100 plants and you’re the Orchid Grower and that means you’re responsible; the buck stops with you.

A. That’s right.

99614_Orchid_Extravaganza_2013_Albee_LarryQ. What kinds of things does getting ready for the show involve—it’s got quite lavish displays, not just bring out those orchids, right?

A. Actually our collection only feeds the collection display—which is on year-round. But for the show, we’re bringing in plants from all over the country. We have boxes coming on from Hawaii, deliveries from all over the plant just for the show. We actually just had plants arrive from Taiwan today.

Q. So you’re making archways, and hanging things—you probably won’t tell me ahead of time, but we’ll see soon on the website [or in person; get show ticket details]. 

So let’s zoom back down to the home scale. As I said in the introduction, things can go wrong when we bring home the wrong orchids (or any plant!) for our conditions—or when we treat a well-suited plant badly. Before we meet the six orchids we’re all going to buy after hearing this podcast, do you want to give us any general “before you adopt an orchid…” overall advice?

A. I think the first thing I like telling people is that orchids aren’t hard, they’re just different. Growing orchids requires a different mindset, especially when it comes to watering. People are used to growing plants that grow in soil that stay evenly moist all the time, where orchids like to dry out a little bit between watering, but at the same time don’t want to get desiccated. So that watering is probably the most important part of orchid growing.

Q. So that’s what I have to have in mind—and I’m sure some are slightly different in their watering needs—but it’s thinking differently from the way I’ve treated other plants.

Shall we go plant-by-plant, and you tell us more about how to grow orchids using the illustrations of your must-have plants?

A. We’re kind of going in order of ease of cultivation in your house.

Q. Oh, good. [Laughter.] So we’ll start with the simple ones.

Phalaenopsis_Sogo_VivienA. Our first one is a Phalaenopsis, the moth orchid, the one you’ll find in your grocery store these days and is mass-produced. The plant in particular we’re talking about is Phalaenopsis ‘Sogo Vivien’ [above], a miniature Phal that’s very compact, so you can fit a number of these on your windowsill. They only grow from 6 to 8 inches in diameter, and they produce quite a few stems that are branched, and carry tons of flowers. It can look like a cloud of flowers above the plant.

Q. So it’s been bred down from the basic species down to a more compact but very  floriferous specimen.

A. Exactly. Today’s Phalaenopsis are easy to grow. Basically they just want to grow in a slightly shady location—like an east window is good to grow them in. And as I tell people: If you’re comfortable with the temperature, most of the orchids you’ll find commonly in the marketplace will be comfortable, too. So for a Phalaenopsis that’s between 60 and 80 degrees. Phalaenopsis like to grow on the moist side, so you don’t want them to dry out completely, but maybe when they’re about halfway dry—that’s when you want to water them.

Q. What kind of medium are they growing in that I want to water, so I can get a visual of what you’re describing?

A. They can be produced in sphagnum moss, a good-quality dense moss that is harvested and they’re packed in, so it acts as one unit. Sphagnum moss can be easy to grow in at home, because it’s easy to judge how dry it is. When the moss is dry, it’s lightweight, it feels dry to the touch—you can tell. I usually tell people to wait till the surface of the moss is just barely drying out before watering it again.

Or they come in a bark mix, which is what we grow most orchids in. Picture half-inch-size bark chunks mixed in, with maybe some charcoal or some perlite that the plant is planted in. In a bark mix, I think the easiest way to judge watering is by weight. What people do is they soak the plant down, really run water all the way through the pot until it’s soaked—and then feel how heavy the pot is. Maybe every day for a week until they think it’s just about dry again, so they can feel the different weights as it moves along from being wet to dry.

Q. I’ve had friends who grew orchids who kind of dunked their plants until they stopped bubbling—do you recommend that, dunking the medium, not the whole plant, I mean? Until it takes in some water and stops bubbling, then lifting it back out of the bucket or other container of water. Instead of watering from the top down.

A. And you can dunk them, too—some people do that for water conservation. But either way works fine, but the point is getting the media really wet when you water.

Q. And I might have a saucer under these but definitely not let them stand in water, or have “wet feet.”

A. You never want an orchid standing in water.

Q. So I can use a saucer to protect the surface in my house, but no reservoir.

A. And you don’t want to plant them in a decorative pot, either. Better to plant them in a plastic pot that you sit inside your decorative pot.

31104_Garden_Highlights_Longwood_Volunteer_PhotographerQ. You use it as a cachepot. So what’s orchid Number 2?

A. It’s an Oncidium, Oncidium ‘Sharry Baby.’ The big deal about ‘Sharry Baby’ is that is smells like chocolate. It’s about a 1-inch reddish flower with white marking, and it smells like chocolate. It can be fairly strong, but never overpowering.

Oncidiums are the definition of intermediate: They like intermediate light, so an east window or slightly shaded south window will work just fine. They like intermediate temperature—again, if you’re comfortable they are comfortable, anywhere from 50 to 90 will do OK. They also like intermediate moisture.

Q. Give me a visual on the flowers.

A. The biggest part of the flower is the lip, and these are called the “dancing lady” orchids. It kind of looks like it has a big skirt.

Q. Color range?

A. In Oncidium the range is from white to yellow to purple to pink and red. The breeding these days has pushed colors all over the map. In the genus Oncidium and in the intergenerics, you can quite a lot of variability of color. ‘Sharry Baby’ is dark red with some white markings.

Q. These always attract attention when I am in the local nursery’s greenhouse. Now I’m going to put my nose in them and see if they smell like chocolate. [Laughter.]

A. I often tell people to smell anything they see in the marketplace, because even though it’s a small proportion of orchids that smell, most of what’s in production does have a fragrance.

Q. Number 3 on my list of things I am going out to adopt after I hang up from this call? [Laughter.]

63059_Dendrobium_Burana_Blue_Sapphire_Erdmann_Duane_Longwood_Volunteer_Photographer_A. What we call a Phalaenopsis type Dendrobium. This is the most common type. They have long-lasting flowers that come out from tall, skinny bulbs. This is often seen as an edible garnish, and is also the most common type of cut-flower orchid. They’re very attractive, and come in all types of colors, from green to purple to blue and white to pink.  These like to grow bright, warm-to-hot, and on the drier side. They want to dry out more quickly between waterings.

Q. “They want to dry out more quickly between waterings”—which doesn’t mean we deprive it of a thorough watering when we do water it, does it?

A. Right. When you water, you always want to water thoroughly.

Q. That’s important, I think, because when people tell us “drier,” we can get the wrong impression.

A. And there is a point in saying that orchids love water just like every other plant, but it’s just that the amount of water and how much they stay moist that is different.

Q. This is a Phalaenopsis type Dendrobium—and the flowers are long-lasting, yes?

A. Yes.

Q. Generally speaking, that’s one of orchids’ charms for the impulse purchase—to bring home instead of cut flowers, or for gifting—is that they do have such a long shelf life.

A. Phalaenopsis can last anywhere from three to five months.

Q. It’s pretty amazing. Now who’s next?

A. We’re going to cover our Cattleya group with a related genus called Brassavola, and  Brassavola nodosa is the ‘Lady of the Night’ [below]. It has white flowers, and they’re a little thin, but they have this big, white splayed-out lip, and they’re fragrant at night, especially if you live in a place that gets really nice warm summers or is semi-tropical, people often have big plants of these. At 8 o’clock at night during the summer when it’s really flowering, or really anytime of year that it flowers, it’s very fragrant.

76395_Brassavola_nodosa_Erdmann_Duane_Longwood_Volunteer_Photographer_Q. Were Cattleya the corsage-type orchids?

A. Yes.

Q. Does Brassavola look like that?

A. Brassavola doesn’t look quite like them—it has got a much thinner shape. But the advantages are that it grows easily and fast, and blooms easy.  It likes bright light and warmth, and can handle drying out a little more. So this is a good plant to put outside in summer—not in full sun, but a little shaded. Keep it from drying out too much and it can perform very well.

Q. Next?

A. Next comes one of my favorite genus, which is Paphiopedilum, the lady’s slippers. Ours is Paphiopedilum spicerianum [photo at top of page]. It’s quite an interesting flower. It has green petals and a green pouch, and a white dorsal sepal with a pink stripe down the middle.

Q. You’re talking all that botanical talk now, Greg. [Laughter.] I’m teasing you, Greg. Does this one have mottled green leaves or are the leaves green or what?

A. The leaves on spicerianum are usually green. Sometimes you might see a little maroon striping or stippling along the edges. It’s kind of a bizarre0looking flower, but the nice thing about it is that it’s easy to grow. If you want to know the secret to growing Paphs, here’s the secret:

They want to be evenly moist all the time—never sopping wet, and never completely dry. Now how you do that, that’s the trick.

Q. [Laughter.] Now are you going to tell us the trick, because that’s making me nervous, like I can’t handle this plant: “evenly moist.”

A. The good news is that orchids are generally forgiving, as long as you’re not too rough on them.  This is something that I judge by weight. I’ll feel that pot when it’s soaking wet, and I’ll feel it when it’s dry—and somewhere in the middle of that, when I am feeling like it’s halfway wet and halfway dry: That’s when I want to water it again.

Q. You’re going by weight. It’s the same way I pick winter squash at the farmstand, the one that’s heaviest for its size. You learn to feel things. Gardeners need to learn the relative weight by size of the pot with the particular medium in it.

A. And that doesn’t have to be a particularly intimidating thing. Most orchids if you water them once a week will be happy; that will do. But the more you get that weight down, the better your results will be.

130344_Garden_Highlights_Davis_Harold_Hank_Longwood_Volunteer_Photographer_Q. And lucky Number 6?

A. We went with a Cymbidium, and most commonly in the marketplace, what you’ll find is a cold-flowering Cymbidium. What you’ll find is that people have these big plants with grassy leaves, and they’re like, “I got it, it was beautiful—and it’s never flowered again and I don’t know why.”

Q. I know, I think I had one and it was fabulous when it came to me and not so fabulous later. I think I didn’t do the right thing about giving it the cool it needed at a certain time of year. Do these need to rest or something?

A. What they really need is a colder winter to tell them that it’s time to flower. Unfortunately you’re usually not told that when you buy one of these. So what you basically should do: It’s a good plant to put out in the summer, and then leave it till just before the first frost, even when the nights are down in the 40s. That’s just fine for it, and those cold temperatures will tell it to flower.

Q. Wow.

A. Then you don’t want to pull it in to a really hot environment. A lot of people will keep these on a porch that maintains an above-freezing temperature in the 40s, or another room that’s a little cooler if your house is in the mid-60s; that’s OK too. You want to leave them out till they get that beginning of a cold season, so that they know it’s time to flower.

Q. That’s interesting. I grow some big old pots of Clivia, and I make sure that they get that signal. I grow them in a mudroom. Of course with those I’m depriving them of water as a secondary trigger at that time of year. They really need that to say, “OK, it’s time to begin going about our other business now.” That would be a good spot for the Cymbidium.

A. They aren’t hard to grow. Just keep them moist all the time; they’re semi-terrestrial, so they grow in the earth and like the access to moisture. Grow them in bright light and feed them and keep them warm all summer long and they’ll grow like weeds—and hopefully you’ll get a real good flowering in the fall with that cold exposure.

Q.  With this trigger we need to provide.

We didn’t say anything about feeding, or about what to do with the remnant of the spike when the plant is done flowering.

A. Fertilizing can get really complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. Basically the rule is to use a balanced fertilizer. When you look on the package, 20-20-20 or 10-10-10 will do just fine.

And then you’re going to use it at a quarter-strength, and basically water three waterings in a row with fertilizer, and the fourth one use plain water to flush it out.

Q. So you don’t get buildup of the salts in the medium, I see.

A. They won’t tolerate that too well.

Q. My friend Andrew always used to say to me, “Margaret, it’s weekly, weakly.”

A. That is the exact thing we use.

Q. [Laughter.] Oh, you orchid people! It’s a cult.

A. [Laughter.] It very well might be.

Q. So we’re doing that three of four weeks, with a quarter-strength dilute fertilizer. Then what about the remnant of what held the flowers? What do I do with that?

A. In most cases, when the inflorescence is done, you can cut it back to where it came out of the plant.

But in the case of the Phalaenopsis, you kind of have two choices. On the Phalaenopsis stem there are little brachts, little papery sheaths that enclose the stem. Each one of those is a growth point.

If you would like more flowers, and you’re OK with maybe pushing or stressing your plant a little, you could cut back to right above one of those nodes. Usually we recommend to count up three from the bottom, and cut above that one.

Q. Three from the bottom.

A. Mostly that’s just so your stem doesn’t wind up being really long. That node should be fairly active. Most of the Phalaenopsis these days are so aggressive that they can handle a second flowering without a problem.

Now it doesn’t guarantee one, but it might help suggest to the plant that it does that.

Or if you really like the plant, and you want it to go back to growing so it’s nice and strong and healthy for next year’s flowering, you could cut it all the way back to the bottom.

Q. I always try to reassure myself the first year after I have had a plant that this is the first time it’s trying to get used to a year with me. It had different conditions, greenhouse conditions, in its earlier life, and so it might skip a year. Am I just deluding myself, or can that be a factor?

A. I think there is absolute logic to that, and there might also be something else going on there that you might not be aware of. If you get a Phalaenopsis in particular—the moth orchid—from the grocery store, we can control those and force them to flower whenever we want. So if you bought it at a time of year when it’s not naturally flowering, you might have to wait until its next natural flowering time.

Q. Oh! Because I have noticed that with the Phals—they don’t seem to be on the same schedule. But it might have been triggered into flowering artificially.

A. They regularly flower in our wintertime. Late fall and early winter they start sending up their spikes; that’s the time of year they are developing. But if they were forced out of season, and say you got it flowering in the summer, it might skip that winter and you might have to wait until the next year [winter] to kind of get back in rhythm.

Q. Well, I’m on my way now to the garden center, Greg. [Laughter.]

longwood’s orchid extravaganza

32139_Orchid_Extravaganza_Albee_LarryLONGWOOD GARDENS’ annual Orchid Extravaganza, in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, runs through late March. Details and ticket information is at this link. For more about Greg Griffis’s online orchid class from Longwood, click here.

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Jan. 25, 2016 show using the player up top. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Judy P says:

    As I received this I noticed my two phalaenopsis orchid plants have a stalk with two buds but at the same time all the leaves are yellow and fall off when touched. I guess it doesn’t take much intelligence to guess what has happened. So sad. I make a real effort not to over water. Oh well, I’ll try again.

    1. Judy says:

      Hi Judy,

      Maybe not all is lost? Is there an indication of small new leaf growth.. and this is just part of the natural life cycle of the orchid? I’m new to this, so I’m no expert.. lol. I’m doing some googling. A good online site for orchid supplies and info is repotme.com. I’m not affiliated, but another commenter on this thread mentioned it. It seems to have good advice. Youtube has good tutorials on orchids, too. I’m looking into a good book about them. Good luck!

  2. carol long says:

    hi..i have the home depot variety..after the initial flowering was over, i just waited..and now i am in my third cycle of flowering. it’s been a great surprise. i have it in a cool but sunny window (here in vermont). i give it about a half cup of small ice cubes once a week. so far..so good. plan on getting some more…just don’t give up on it after all the flowers drop. it takes a while for the little buds to show up.

  3. Carole Edie Smith says:

    Thank You. this was extremely helpful. Plan a trip to Longwood hopefully before the orchid show closes. thanks again.

  4. Barb Hendren says:

    Thank you for a great article – I am putting Longwood on my list of things to see! I became addicted to orchids about 12 years ago and have had a collection ever since. The fertilizing info is very useful – thank you.

    Franni – I repot my orchids about every other year. Phaeleonopsis do not like to be too crowded in their pots so keep a close eye on them and make sure they have room.

    The biggest problem I have is with some of my orchids is that they just get too big to haul into the house for the winter. But how I love them – especially at this time of year, when I cannot get outside!

  5. Olivia says:

    Margaret
    I have never had this experience with orchids: I have a Phals in my office and after flowering, there is now a new orchid pushing off of one of the brachs in the long stem.
    It now has about 4- 2 inch leaves and about 3 roots. Should I remove this new plant? Let it be? Will it flower again?

  6. kate says:

    I have heard that cymbidium (and clivia) are day length sensitive and won’t bloom if there is any additional light. Have you found this to be true?

  7. I’m growing orchids in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in a house that is generally considered cold in winter, and was glad to see this article. Would like to hear more, especially about where to buy more unusual orchids and tips for northern climate blooming.

  8. Dawn Orza says:

    Great information. I have a large Cybidium orchid that I have had 30 years now. It goes out on the porch each summer and stays out until before the first frost in October. By the time I bring it in, it already has flower buds. It is usually coming into bloom by the end of November.
    What are some good mail order sources for the orchids and cultivars you discussed? I am aware of Logees Greenhouses, any others you can recommend?

  9. Kim Hawkins says:

    I wish I could find an orchid growing book as straightforward as this interview was! Can you or Greg recommend one or two?

  10. Sandra R says:

    I really enjoyed this. I struggled with repottingphobia for years. I had some lovely cattylea orchids that bloomed and survived for more than 5 years. But eventually I HAD to repot them and no matter what I did, after that they died. This made me less likely to repot on schedule, so the remaining plants suffered. I read books, studied, bought the right stuff, no luck. But then I found this website repotme.com. They sell pots and just everything you need for orchid care and they have videos on Youtube. Cured my phobia and helped my plants, I cannot speak highly enough of them. (I think one “secret” is orchid pots designed to help the roots breathe, which they have. And fresh good quality repotting medium. ) And Longwood Gardens, wish I could go for the show!

  11. Karen says:

    Hi Margaret,
    Thanks for covering orchids. I used to have ground orchids in South Florida that were super easy to care for. I miss having them and want to try one of these (zone 8 now).

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks for the nice feedback, Karen. I so enjoyed my conversation with Greg, and plan to invite him back again to learn more!

  12. Joan Gillespie says:

    My daughter loves orchids. I always want to buy her one when I see them. We have gone to a few orchid shows in various places in Cincinnati.

  13. Melissa Grabau says:

    Oh, I am so pleased to get this guidance. I have never had an orchid but my heart takes a leap every time I see one. I am getting one at first opportunity. The photos in the article, as always, are mouthwatering. Thank you.

  14. Linda says:

    I love orchids but wasn’t sure if I was doing all the right things (despite my general good luck with most of them). This post/podcast was so interesting and helpful. I really enjoyed it.
    Thank you both!

  15. Lauren B says:

    I enjoyed your orchid conversation. I have a Lowe’s rescue that I bought last year for $3 and it has 2 spikes and one has 3 flowers open. It is a moth orchid. In another house I grew some kind of white Dendrobium that bloomed annually and effortlessly but they faded away in this house. Got them in a garage sale plus a Cymbidium too that would flower but I gave it away when I moved. Next house, hopefully…. After listening I decided that when friends of ours visit from overseas at the end of March I hope to take them to Longwood Gardens. Good excuse to go as I have never been there myself! I recently found your podcasts and am enjoying them greatly.

  16. Lauren B says:

    I drive a middle aged Toyota Corolla and if you put it on cruise it gets over 40 mpg if you do not speed. I live in the Lower Hudson Valley, maybe 2 .5 hours south of you, the gas is cheaper this year, and I can sit down the whole way! So why not?!

  17. Jenny says:

    Outstanding article. I am one of those people with a row of grocery store orchids in my laundry room waiting for a second bloom. I just can’t throw a plant away as long as it has life. Today I learnt a little more on how to be sure they come back into flower.

  18. Joe says:

    Thanks Margaret and Greg! A few years back I bought my wife an orchid for exactly the reason you mentioned: I wanted the flowers to last longer than cut flowers do. I’ve generally had really good luck with keeping houseplants arrived, so it was a real disappointment when the orchid gave up the ghost. I chalked it up as “orchids are hard” and decided they weren’t worth the effort. After reading this, I not only know why it died (My wife transplanted it into a decorative pot, we put it in a low light spot which is what we were told they wanted, and I watered it like all the other houseplants), I also am inspired to try again!

  19. laura says:

    LOVE LOVE orchids! Next to Pointsetia, they are the most popular plants. I can’t begin to tell you how many plants I’ve purchased and lost. Be careful if you go to orchid shows . . . that you don’t fall in love with the ‘difficult’ ones.

    The little Masdevallias look so cute, but in reality they grow high up on mountaintops, where it is foggy, misty and cool. The Miltoniopsis environment was also hard for me to replicate. My Cymbidium was so happy outside, loaded with branches of buds. When I brought it in, it blasted and all the buds just dropped.

    Just a heads up – you should consider the original habitat of the orchid – before purchasing.

  20. Mary says:

    Margaret – your podcasts are the best! It’s very clear that you have prepared thoroughly before recording them. Your guests are delightful, and the subjects unique and inspiring. Great job! Love, love, love the podcasts.

  21. naomi says:

    Now I know why my cymbidiums aren’t blooming. I’ve had some almost 5 years. They’re going in the ground – maybe tomorrow. Paphiopedilum seem to do well here. I have four – two are consistently reblooming. Now if I could get the Cattlelya – a beautiful deep orange with a vanilla scent – to do the same, I’d be fine without the others blooming. Maybe. Thanks for this info; it’s a big help.

  22. Andy says:

    Glad to see Sharry Baby on this list! It’s still my favorite after all these years – I gave mine away to my favorite teacher at the end of high school. She says it still blooms regularly in her classroom! I’ve gotta get ahold of another one someday.

  23. Rosella says:

    I bought a white cymbidium in the grocery store about ten years ago. It lives in an enclosed porch which is cool at night, warming through the day from the sun. The orchid has had to be repotted twice because it has split its plastic pot. It goes outside in the summer, in dappled shade and comes in late in the fall–late mostly because it is now so big that I have to move furniture to give it a good place to stand. This year it has ten spikes, last year it had fourteen. It is one of my treasures!

    Thank you, Margaret for all your articles and especially for this one! And repotting information would be welcome also!

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