How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Smoke Trees

Add a billowy, whimsical backdrop to any landscape with smoke trees that flutter in every breeze. Garden expert Logan Hailey digs into how to grow and maintain the fluffy, smoke-like puffs of this intriguing ornamental.

A close-up of Eurasian Smoke Tree featuring clusters of small, delicate pink flowers amidst vibrant green leaves. The background showcases towering green trees, adding depth to the image. The contrast between the pink blooms and the lush foliage creates a captivating scene.


One of the most intriguing landscape ornamentals, smoke trees have an ethereal aesthetic that evokes a sense of drama and mystery in the garden. The billowy hairs that dangle from the smoke tree’s wispy spent flower stalks resemble a smoke-like puff, giving this tree its iconic shape and name. 

This large multi-stemmed woody shrub or small tree grows to 15-30 feet and adapts to many landscapes, from poor soils to polluted inner city landscapes. While the smoke tree genus includes seven distinct species, the most common are the North American native smoke tree (Cotinus obovatus) and the non-native European smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria). Both species offer unique varieties and attributes and thrive with similar care. 

With proper site selection and moderate maintenance, these striking hazy-hued trees are perfect for borders, woodlands, and individual specimen plantings. Let’s dig into everything you need to know about this lovely ornamental.


A close-up of a smoke tree displaying fluffy, pinkish-purple blossoms against a clear blue sky backdrop. The leaves and branches of the smoke tree are intricately detailed, showcasing their unique texture. Other green foliage in the background complements the colorful display of the smoke tree's flowers and leaves.
These plants prefer partial shade to full sun exposure.
Plant Type Deciduous woody shrub or small tree
Plant Family Anacardiaceae
Plant Genus Cotinus
Plant Species 7 different species, dozens of cultivars
Hardiness Zone 5-8
Planting Season Spring
Plant Maintenance Moderate
Plant Height 15-30 feet
Fertility Needs Low to moderate
Temperature 60-80°F or 16-24°C
Pairs With Spirea, viburnum, ninebark, ornamental grasses
Soil Type Widely adaptable, alkaline to slightly acidic, tolerant of compaction
Plant Spacing 10-15 feet
Watering Needs Moderate
Sun Exposure Full sun to partial shade
Lifespan 20-30 years
Pests San Jose scale
Diseases Leaf spot, Verticillium wilt, rust

History and Cultivation

Smoke trees, sometimes called smoke bushes, mist trees, or cloud trees, are a group of large flowering shrubs or small trees in the Cotinus genus. The genus includes seven unique species, all sharing the distinctive wispy, airy-looking flowers that add exceptional fall color to the garden. When in bloom, the small trees look like billows of hazy smoke.

Where Does Smoke Tree Originate? 

A cluster of small, delicate pink flowers bloom on the branches of Cotinus coggygria, framed by vibrant green leaves. The branches, adorned with fluffy flower clusters, create a striking contrast against the backdrop of lush, green trees.
Native Americans utilized smoke tree heartwood for yellow or orange dye.

The iconic ornamental smoke tree has two main origins: America and Eurasia. The most commonly landscaped tree comes from southern Europe and central China, but a related species is native to Eastern North America. 

All members of the Cotinus genus have the signature fluffy, smoke-like dried flower clusters. They are known for their magnificently vibrant fall leaves and the fish-scaled appearance of their bark that stands out in the winter. In North America, the heartwood of the smoke tree was traditionally used by Natives as a yellow or orange dye.

American vs. European Smoke Tree

European Smoke Tree's elegant flowers are a blend of pink and cream hues, forming fluffy clusters at the end of each branch. Its lush green leaves add a vibrant contrast against the clear blue sky in the blurred background, creating a serene natural composition.
Cultivars feature diverse leaf and flower colors.

The common smoke tree, Cotinus coggygria, is native to Eurasia and widely cultivated as a landscape plant in the United States. This species was introduced as early as 1656 and remains commonly available in most mainstream nurseries around the country. 

Plant breeders have developed dozens of colorful cultivars with leaf shades ranging from golden, green, and purple, and flowers in hues of pink, mauve, red, purple, and bronze. Most cultivars transform to stunning hues of yellow, orange, or red in the autumn. The Eurasian species is dioecious, meaning male and female plant parts grow on the same tree. The smoke display is the same for both male and female flowers.

The American smoke tree, Cotinus obovatus, is native to the United States and grows wild in rocky soils from central Texas to Tennessee. It is more cold hardy and larger in stature than the Eurasian species, but its flowers tend to be smaller and less showy. The American species is also dioecious, which means there are separate male and female trees. The male plants have a “smokier” appearance.


Stem cuttings are the cheapest way to propagate smoke trees, but they can also be grown from bare-root trees or seeds.


A close-up of European smoke tree branches reveals dark purple leaves, adding depth to the scene. The thick brown branches contrast with the vibrant foliage, creating a dynamic visual composition. Blurred green foliage in the background enhances the sense of depth and natural beauty.
Using root hormones improves propagation success.

Propagation with cuttings is the easiest and most economical way to grow a lot of plants from a single specimen. If your friend has a smoke tree in their yard, ask if you can take some cuttings to grow your own. This method involves collecting sections of healthy fresh stems in the spring and encouraging them to root in a rooting medium.

Take semi-hardwood cuttings in late summer or fall. This wood from the current season’s growth is not the fresh, green new growth of spring softwood, nor is it the mature older wood closer to the center of the tree. Find semi-hardwood stems where a tiny twig meets a larger branch or the trunk. It should be somewhat pliable yet firm, with full-sized leaves and moderate woodiness.

  1. Find semi-hardwood twigs and use sharp, sanitized shears or pruners to cut where the twig meets the branch.
  2. Cut the stems about six inches long.
  3. Ensure there is a node or a set of leaves at the base of each stem.
  4. Strip away the lower two-thirds of leaves, keeping one to two sets of leaves at the top.
  5. Optionally, dip the cut tips in a rooting hormone.
  6. Fill small pots with a blend of vermiculite, peat moss, and sand.
  7. Use a pencil to poke a hole in the center of each pot.
  8. Plant the bottom two-thirds of each stem in the planting medium.
  9. Generously moisten the soil and maintain consistent moisture without letting the soil get soggy.
  10. Keep cuttings in bright, indirect light in a warm area like your home’s windowsill
  11. When you notice new growth on top of the cutting, gently tug it to check that it has formed roots.
  12. Transplant to a larger pot and plant outside the following year.

Scientists confirm that biostimulators and root hormones like auxin improve propagation success. You can buy powdered or liquid rooting hormones at most garden nursery stores. If using a rooting hormone, pour a small amount into a lid or shallow dish to dip your cuttings. You don’t want to contaminate the larger container.

Bare-Root Trees

A close-up of 'Royal Purple' European smoke tree showcases its distinctive leaves, a rich purple hue against the green grasses. The ground is covered in lush greenery, providing a vivid backdrop for the tree's colors. The combination of textures and colors creates a harmonious and captivating scene.
Stretch lateral roots horizontally for faster growth.

Most nurseries stock bare-root smoke trees of varying sizes. You can purchase a juvenile tree around two feet tall or pay more for a mature specimen. Either way, the plant will be shipped with bare roots wrapped in a bag. This means the soil has been removed from the root zone to make it lighter weight and easier to transplant. As soon as you receive a bare-root shrub, it’s important to rehydrate the roots by soaking them in a bucket. Then, plant it in the garden immediately.

Bare-root trees are the most convenient way to establish woody perennials, but they are more expensive than propagation by cuttings and trees. When planting, be careful to dig a hole at least twice as wide and the same depth as the root ball so the soil is loose enough for young roots to reach downward. You can also stretch lateral roots out horizontally to promote rapid establishment. 


A close-up of smoke tree foliage and seed heads against a blurred background of green trees and leaves. The smoke tree features delicate, feathery leaves and clusters of seed heads resembling wisps of smoke.
Seed coat toughness aids survival in the wild.

Growing this fluffy tree from seed is not as simple as you might think. While the process can be rewarding, it also requires extensive patience. Seeds can take weeks or months to germinate, and several years to mature. You can collect your own seeds from mature trees in the autumn, or purchase seeds online. 

Cotinus seeds have a very strong internal dormancy and a super thick seed coat designed to protect them from rugged conditions in the wild. This means they can germinate very erratically or slowly in domestication. Research shows that seed germination is higher if the seeds are treated with sulfuric acid or heat-treated in boiling water to break down the extra hard seed coat. 

Here is a practical method for at-home seed propagation of this unique tree:

  1. Soak the tiny seeds in hot water for about 12 hours before planting.
  2. Drain them and lay them out on layers of paper towels to dry.
  3. Prepare two to three-inch pots or germination flats with at least eight inches deep of sand and potting soil.
  4. Lightly press the dried seeds into the soil surface, ensuring they’re no more than ¼ inch deep.
  5. Dust with vermiculite or sieved compost.
  6. Use a mister bottle to water the surface so the seeds don’t get washed away.
  7. Place in an area with bright, indirect light and maintain moisture until germination.


The best time to plant a smoke tree is in the spring around your last frost date. This gives the tree plenty of time to adjust and establish before its first winter. If you purchase a larger container plant, it can also be transplanted in early summer. 

How to Transplant 

A close-up of plain smoke tree stems and branches with vibrant green leaves. The leaves exhibit a rich green hue, highlighting their health and vitality. Sunlight filters through the foliage, casting dappled shadows on the lush green grass below, enhancing the overall botanical composition.
It’s advisable to refrain from fertilizing during planting.

Cotinus species grow most abundantly in open, sunny positions. Partially shaded areas will alter the hue of the leaves. For example, purple-leaved cultivars may look more brown, while yellow-leaved varieties can turn lime green. If you want the smoky aura around this tree to appear like it does in the nursery catalog, be sure to transplant in an area that is not shaded by larger trees or structures.

To move the plant into its new home:

  1. Dig a hole about twice as wide as the root ball and the same height.
  2. If the soil is very hard, amend it with sand, perlite, or compost to loosen it.
  3. Gently remove the smoke bush from its container or bare root wrapping.
  4. Place the plant in the hole, elongating the roots down and to the sides.
  5. Backfill with soil, keeping the trunk elevated above the soil line.
  6. Avoid burying too deeply.
  7. Add a two-inch layer of wood chip or bark mulch around young trees.
  8. Water generously and wait patiently.

Avoid fertilizing at the time of planting. These plants grow slowly and do not require additional nutrients.


A close-up of Cotinus coggygria Royal Purple tree, showcasing its deep purple leaves. The branches are elegantly spread, revealing a graceful structure against a backdrop of lush green plants and grasses, adding to its natural beauty.
Ensure smoke bushes have enough space for growth.

Smoke bushes come in a diversity of sizes. Larger cultivars can grow over 15 feet tall and require at least 10 feet of space from neighboring plants or structures. If you want to grow the tree as a central specimen, provide a 12-15 foot circumference from the trunk. Smaller varieties can be grown in groups or hedges with four to five feet between them. 

How to Grow

These deciduous large shrubs or small trees are ideal for adding seasonal interest to your landscape. Their smoke-like flower clusters add the signature hazy backdrop to garden beds all summer long, and their stunning autumn show makes them stand out when leaves are changing. In the winter, smoke trees lose their leaves and display intriguing bark and wispy structural stems. Tending the trees is easy as long as you properly prepare the planting site.


A close-up of young red leaves on Cotinus coggygria Royal Purple tree, displaying their vivid red hue and delicate texture. The background features a blur of green foliage, enhancing the contrast and highlighting the youthful vibrancy of the red leaves in their early growth stage.
Deep shade causes sparse, leggy foliage.

Full sunlight is ideal for Cotinus species. Most varieties need six to eight hours of direct sunshine daily to grow to their fullest potential. Partially shaded specimens will still flower and add whimsical hues, but their colors may look different from the varietal descriptions, and the flowering abundance will be reduced. Avoid planting in deep shade, or the foliage will look sparse and leggy.


A close-up of rain-kissed Continus coggyria flowers, delicate and vibrant against blurred green foliage. Each petal captures glistening raindrops, enhancing their ethereal beauty. Nature's artistry in a serene garden setting.
Mulch helps retain moisture and curb weed growth.

Once established, these shrubs are moderately drought-tolerant but appreciate occasional watering during prolonged dry periods. If you don’t have available irrigation in the part of your yard where you intend to plant smoke bush, be sure to plant the native species, as it can withstand more dry weather. 

Water regularly throughout the first growing season to promote a deep, strong root system. The soil should be consistently moist but never soggy. Deep, infrequent watering is better than shallow, frequent watering. In other words, adding a lot of water slowly in one session is better to penetrate deeper into the soil profile.

A layer of mulch like shredded bark or wood chips conserves moisture, suppresses weeds, and adds a pleasant aesthetic. The mulch will prevent the soil from drying out too quickly. 


A close-up of peat moss soil, showcasing its rich, dark texture and organic composition. Peat moss creates a fertile environment for plant growth.
Smoke bushes require well-drained soil for successful growth.

Drainage is the main soil attribute these trees need. They are not picky about pH or soil texture, as long as the soil is well-drained and water can move through the roots.

Planting smoke bushes in compacted or poorly drained soil can lead to waterlogging, root rot, and plant failure. Amend with sand, compost, or peat moss to increase drainage. The trees tolerate slightly acidic to neutral pH between 5.5 and 7.0.

Climate and Temperature

A close-up of Cotinus coggygria 'Young Lady' with delicate light pink flowers in full bloom, adding a touch of elegance to the scene. The green foliage of the plants in the background complements the vibrant hues of the flowers, creating a harmonious and picturesque view in the garden setting.
Ensure trees receive ample moisture and partial afternoon shade.

Most Cotinus trees are adaptable throughout the U.S. in growing zones 5 through 8. Some varieties of the American smoke tree can grow in zone 4. The plants don’t mind hot summers and moderate frosts as long as they aren’t exposed to prolonged subzero temperatures. 

For cold climate gardens, you may need to wrap the trunks of non-native species in burlap and apply a deeper mulch to insulate smoke trees through harsh winters. In warmer regions, the trees need more moisture and appreciate some afternoon shade. Take advantage of microclimates throughout your landscape, such as south-facing walls that can provide more heat, or east-facing beds that receive cooler shade in the afternoons. 


A close-up of a hand displaying a yellow slow-release fertilizer, showcasing its texture and color. The hand also contains some black soil, suggesting the process of fertilizing plants in a gardening context.
Fertilizing in fall stimulates late growth.

These smoke-like ornamentals do not need a lot of fertility. The native species can get by on solely soil minerals and organic matter. You can fertilize in the early spring to promote more vigorous growth but a slow-release organic fertilizer is best to avoid fertilizer burn. Over-fertilizing is a risk because smoke trees with excessive nitrogen grow excessive foliage and fewer flowers, leading to a less smoky appearance. 

Avoid fertilizing in the fall, as this can stimulate trees to develop late-season growth. Newly grown twigs are subject to frost damage because they don’t have enough time to harden off before the harsh weather of winter.


A close-up of European smoketree glory blossoms with delicate pink and cream petals. The flowers are clustered together, creating a beautiful focal point. Green leaves provide a lush backdrop, enhancing the vibrancy of the blossoms.
Protect smoke trees in their initial years from harsh weather.

Cotinus trees don’t need much pruning or maintenance. It is helpful to cut back diseased or damaged branches in the winter or early spring while the plant is dormant. You can also use this opportunity to shape the tree or shrub in a desirable form. Pruning away lower branches can promote a more tree-like growth rather than the natural multi-stemmed shrubby shape. However, you should avoid heavy pruning, as it may reduce flower production.

Young trees may need to be staked to keep them upright in windier areas. The first years of planting are the most delicate for smoke trees, so be sure to protect them from harsh rains or extreme temperatures.


The Cotinus genus includes several species with dozens of varieties and cultivars in rainbow hues. Here are the most popular and striking for a home landscape:

American Smoke Tree (Cotinus obovatus)

A close-up of Cotton Candy American Smoketree in full bloom, displaying fluffy pink and white flower clusters. The intricate details of the blossoms are highlighted against a backdrop of lush green leaves. The vibrant colors create a striking and visually appealing image of nature's beauty.
The sap of this American cultivar has a strong smell.

Sometimes called Texas smoke tree or Chittamwood, this native species is ideal for low-maintenance landscapes where you want to support local wildlife. This species grows wild in parts of the Southeastern United States and tolerates limestone bluffs, slopes, and dry rocky soils. It is the most resilient of all the varieties on this list.

It has larger leaves than the Eurasian cultivar and usually produces 6-10” clusters of flowers that turn into airy purplish-pink hairs that make the tree look smokey. The sap has a distinctive, strong odor, and the wood produces a striking yellow dye. 

C. obovatus ‘Flame’

A close-up of Cotinus obovatus 'Flame' leaves with vibrant red and orange hues. The leaves are rounded with serrated edges, creating a fiery appearance. In the background, a soft blur of a small hill and a clear blue sky complements the striking foliage.
This smoke tree produces large, puffy spent flowers.

This domesticated cultivar of the American smoke tree has been bred for fiery orange and red fall colors. The spent flowers have the signature large, puffy appearance. 

C. coggygria ‘Royal Purple’

A close-up of Cotinus obovatus ‘Royal Purple’ showcasing deep purple leaves. The leaves are glossy with a hint of red, adding richness to the color palette. Brown old branches provide contrast, while in the background, green leaves and a brick wall create a natural setting.
Dark purple foliage characterizes this widely favored landscaping variety.

‘Royal Purple’ is probably the most popular landscaping variety. Developed from the Eurasian species, this cultivar has dark purple foliage that turns scarlet-red in autumn. The wispy flowers have a tinge of pink that looks really beautiful in the backdrop of a white and pastel-themed flower garden.

C. coggygria ‘Golden Spirit’

A close-up of Cotinus coggygria 'Golden Spirit' reveals delicate, feathery flowers in shades of gold and cream, clustered in elegant panicles. The branches of this shrub are gracefully arching, adorned with glossy, ovate leaves, creating a striking visual contrast.
Unique foliage shifts from yellow to red-orange in autumn.

Another Eurasian cultivar, ‘Golden Spirit’ has bright yellowish-gold leaves that turn red and orange in autumn. The contrast of creamy white flower clusters looks unique against the golden foliage backdrop, almost like an angelic aura surrounding the shrub

C. coggygria ‘Grace’

Cotinus coggygria ‘Grace’ stands out with its striking purple leaves, contrasting elegantly with the surrounding greenery in the garden. The deep hues of the leaves create a focal point, drawing attention to its unique beauty. Other green plants alongside Cotinus coggygria ‘Grace’ enhance the visual balance of the garden.
The ‘Grace’ bush thrives in urban settings.

This popular urban bush has greenish-blue leaves with a striking diversity of fall colors, including orange, gold, yellow, and red. The pink flowers are delicate, and add a Dr. Seuss-inspired fluffiness to the landscape. ‘Grace’ is tolerant of pollution and does well in urban or suburban yards.

C. coggygria ‘Daydream’

A close-up of Cotinus coggygria 'Daydream' reveals a cluster of delicate, cream flowers amidst vibrant green leaves. The intricate details of the flower petals showcase nature's beauty in full bloom. Surrounding the Cotinus are other green plants adorned with their own colorful flowers, creating a lively garden scene.
Prune this bush to grow as a single-trunked tree for perfection.

The peachy-yellowish hue of the hybrid ‘Daydream’ smoke bush is whimsical and mysterious. This hybrid variety grows densely and produces maroon-hued flowers. The fall foliage ranges from gold to orange to reddish-purple. This is the perfect specimen and can be pruned to grow as a single-trunked tree.

Design Ideas

A close-up of Weigela pink flowers captures their charming pink hues against a backdrop of lush green leaves. Each flower boasts a unique blend of delicate petals, adding a touch of elegance to the plant. The Weigela's vibrant foliage complements its blossoms, creating a harmonious and visually captivating display.
Smoke trees thrive alongside compatible plants.

Many plants grow well in the same conditions as smoke trees, complementing their form without overshadowing their hazy glory. Great companions include:

Pests and Diseases

The Cotinus genus is relatively problem-free, but these issues occasionally pop up. Here is how to deal with them:

San Jose Scale

A close-up of a San Jose Scale insect on a leaf. The San Jose Scale appears as a tiny, round, and brownish scale insect. Its presence creates visible markings on the surface of the green leaf.
Scale insects vary in mobility and appearance.

If you notice the sap-sucking pest forming scale-like colonies on the branches of your smoke tree, it’s important to take action. San Jose Scale is a major pest of fruit trees and can kill entire limbs with large infestations

The mobile scales are small and yellow, while the immobile scales anchor in place and turn tannish-white. They look like an unfortunate outbreak of hives or pimples on the tree branch. Unfortunately, they develop a thick waxy layer to protect themselves, so they can’t just be wiped off. On the bright side, their lack of movement makes them easier targets for beneficial predators like ladybugs and lacewings.

As soon as you notice an issue with scale, apply insecticidal soap or horticultural oil to the affected branches and monitor for several weeks to ensure the pests die back. In smaller infestations on smaller trees, pop them off the tree with a cotton swab or Q-tip soaked in alcohol.

Leaf Spot

A close-up of vibrant red smoke bush leaves with intricate patterns. The leaves exhibit yellow-colored leaf spots, adding to their visual appeal. The combination of red and yellow creates a striking contrast in the leaf's overall appearance.
Prune the tree for better air circulation among branches.

In rainy, warm climates, smoke trees can be prone to a fungal infection called leaf spot. The rusty-looking blotches are unsightly and can inhibit the tree’s ability to photosynthesize. The best solution is to prune the tree to improve air circulation between branches. Avoid overhead sprinkler watering and ensure wide spacing between plants.

Verticillium Wilt and Rust

A close-up of withered flowers of the perennial garden shrub Cotinus coggyria young lady. The leaves of Cotinus coggyria are oval-shaped and have a distinct green color, typically turning red or orange in the fall. Unfortunately, they are also covered with Verticillium Wilt, a fungal disease causing wilting and discoloration.
Consider transplanting the smoke bush to a well-drained location.

Brown or scorched-looking leaves on a smoke bush are usually a sign of another fungal infection called Verticillium wilt. The wilting or browning is sometimes lopsided, with only one-half of the tree displaying symptoms. Smoke trees growing in poorly drained soils are the most prone to wilt disease, so it is very important to loosen the soil and mend it thoroughly at the time of planting. 

Once the roots succumb to wilt and the branches are noticeably drooped, there isn’t much you can do except remove affected branches and dig into the ground to loosen the soil. You can try transplanting the smoke bush into a better-drained area and prune away infected roots while the root ball is above ground.

Rust is a fungal disease that causes dark brown spots that lead to light brown leaf tips. The pathogen Pileolaria cotinicoggygriae remains in leaves that fall off the tree. The best treatment for smoke tree rust is the removal of fallen leaves. Outside of that, experts recommend systemic fungicides, but the issue may not be severe enough to require them.

Plant Uses

A close-up of German garden. The garden showcases a variety of plants with different colors, sizes, and shapes. From tall, slender green bushes to small, round flowering plants in vibrant hues, the garden creates a visually stunning and diverse landscape.
These trees have historical use in producing bright yellow dye.

Smoke trees are primarily used as landscape specimens or border plants mixed with other perennial ornamental shrubs and grasses. The fluffy appearance makes them a great screening hedge throughout the growing season, but they lose their leaves in the winter. They are most often planted for their dazzling fall color. 

Historically, the bark and wood were used as a bright yellow natural dye. The plant is not considered edible.


Are Smoke Trees Easy to Grow?

Smoke bushes are easy to grow and don’t need much maintenance once established. As long as you plant them in well-drained soil and provide supplemental irrigation in the first year, the small tree will develop a deep root zone to help it access water through dry months. The native American smoke tree tends to be more resilient than ornamental cultivars, but may be harder to find.

Do Smoke Trees Like Sun or Shade?

Smoke trees prefer full sun and don’t perform as well in the shade. These trees need six to eight hours of direct sun per day to put on their prettiest hazy floral display. Specimens grown in too much shade may have paler foliage colors, leggy growth, and fewer flowers.

Can you Keep a Smoke Tree Small?

Cotinus shrubs are easy to shape with regular annual pruning. Dwarf varieties like ‘Young Lady’ and ‘Winecraft’ grow just four to six feet tall and wide, making them ideal for smaller gardens.

Final Thoughts

Smoke bushes are very unique specimens for any garden and they don’t require much maintenance. Be sure to plant in full sun and thoroughly loosen the soil. Don’t over-fertilize and water deeply during establishment so the roots can anchor in place and become drought-tolerant for years to come.

A close-up reveals a bountiful Diospyros virginiana fruit tree, adorned with vibrant orange fruits ready for harvest. The lush green leaves, intricately arranged on the branches, add to the tree's overall picturesque beauty. In the blurred background, additional green leaves create a harmonious natural setting.


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