Seeds of Change

Seeds of Change

Today John and George were so busy putting the finishing touches on our upcoming Native Plants MOOC (yea, it’ll be mobbed).  We didn’t take much field time, except to look at something you see every day but ponder once a decade—native woody plants coming up seemingly isolated where you don’t expect to see them.

That led to some thought on why plants wind up growing where they do.  Oh, I know the answer!   The wind, or a bird, or a bear in the woods drop a seed, and the seeds grows.  Got it, but events aplenty happen between the bird ingesting the seed and a tree grows in Brooklyn.  Nature does not work in a human time and space.

For starters, that seed had to arrive from somewhere.  Maybe merely across the creek, or then again, perhaps from across the sea.  There are plenty of transoceanic examples, and the Bottle Gourd stands out.  The species has an archaeological history widespread in the Americas dating back 10,000 years and in Asia almost that long.   Botanists have debated for decades how this species could seem to be native around the ancient world so long ago.  It did not originate twice, on both sides of the Pacific.  Did very very ancient people move it thousands of miles?  One notion is that Easter Islanders took it westward to the Old World.  Another idea is that the first Native Americans brought it from Asia.  Or maybe it floated a few thousand miles.  To test the bobber theory, researchers floated some for about a year in sea water, and let them sit another six years;  the seeds sprouted like new.  Take home lesson:  seeds get around.

So then, the seeds arrived from somewhere near or far, and now they can grow.  Hold on, not so fast.  How long a delay between arrival and growth?   Maybe the season is not right this month.  Maybe conditions aren’t right this century.  How about another thousand years?  Seeds can be patient, and can await environmental cues, such as disinterrment.  In 1879 Professor William Beal at Michigan State University buried in glass jars seeds of several wild species, leaving a time capsule experiment that remains running.  The seeds are tested at intervals, and some remain willing despite attrition.  Going back farther, barley seeds from King Tut’s tomb reportedly sprouted in modern times, although the claim is disputed.

Free of dispute, Canna seeds 600 years old from an Argentinian grave spawned pretty new Cannas.  And their circumstances were weird.  The Canna seeds from the grave were inside walnuts.  Ancient biotechnicians understood how to insert Canna seeds into immature living walnuts, allowing the nuts to mature into rattles.  In 2012 30,000-year-old seeds of a Carnation relative buried (by squirrels) in Russia grew like Rip Van Winkle awakening.  That’s probably the all-time seed nap record.

Native Florida Canna.  Were its seeds 600 years old? (By John Bradford)

Native Florida Canna. Were its seeds 600 years old? (By John Bradford)

Right, so the seeds came from places unknown, then they waited patiently in the soil seed bank.  Now it is time to boogie!  The seed sprouts dutifully, and hello world!  Hello drought, hello shade, hello sun, hello frost, hello competition, hello drowning, hello bugs, hello fungi, hello hungry bunnies.  The perils facing a tender green sprout remind me of leaving home at age 18!

Obviously the conditions must be suitable—that goes without saying doesn’t it?  Probably, but even that boring observation gains interest if the seedling’s establishment requires relationships with other species.  (We’ll come back to this next week.)   It also becomes more interesting if the overall conditions are changing…oh for example, let’s say by Global Warming.  Just this year the Sunshine State figured in an eye-opening example.  In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, January 2014, biologist Kyle Cavanaugh and collaborators applied 28 years of satellite imagery to discern, as they say in their own title, “poleward expansion of mangroves is a threshold response to decreased frequency of extreme cold events.”   Where a mangrove might sprout has shifted in just 28 years.  That’s not my lifetime, but that of my son.

Mangrove headed north! (By John Bradford)

Mangrove headed north! (By John Bradford)

Today we looked at a lonesome Gumbo Limbo sapling with its secret history,  a single Pineland Pinweed 10 miles from any known others, and where did that baby Hercules Club come from?  A little imagination beyond “bird dropping” makes it more fun.  Maybe the guilty birds were the last flock of Carolina Parakeets in 1920.   Who can say it ain’t so?

Hercules Club (by John Bradford)

Hercules Club (by John Bradford)


Posted by on July 25, 2014 in Uncategorized


Orange-ya Glad for Wasps, Bats, and Potatoes?

Two Leaf Nightshade (Twin Leaf Solanum)

Solanum diphyllum (FL Exotic Pest Pant Council Cat. II invasive exotic)


Today John and George enjoyed the mangrove swamp at Peck’s Lake near Hobe Sound, a short boardwalk long on biodiversity, including wasps.  We had one of those wasp experiences I sorta like—wasps can be our pals.   (Stockholm Syndrome.)  We somehow riled up the hive, and 133 (I counted) wasps stormed out with gusto and buzzed our heads in a friendly but earnest warning.   We took the hint with equal gusto, and nobody got hurt.

All plant photos today are Solanum diphyllum by John Bradford.

All plant photos today are Solanum diphyllum by John Bradford.

As I arrived at the parking lot, John was already photographing the plant of the day…Two Leaf Nightshade, a member of the genus Solanum, with several additional species in Florida, including spuds.  With odd mismatched leaf pairs and highway-worker-vest orange fruits in pretty clusters, Solanum diphyllum gathers a lot of “likes” on its Facebook page.  You could spot those clustered little oranges from a helicopter.

John was shooting this photo as I arrived on the scene, July 18 at Pecks Lake.

John was shooting this photo as I arrived on the scene, July 18 at Pecks Lake.

The species is native to Mexico and Central America, and like a good weed (and as a garden species) it is scattered elsewhere in the warm climate world, maybe with a helping hand from Global Warming and gardeners in addition to wild creatures.  Today’s invasive exotic decorates the shores of the Intracoastal in Hobe Sound and likewise decorates the shores of the Nile in Egypt, where it fascinated Egyptian biologist Fatma Hamada of the South Valley University  as much as it fascinates us.  Hamada’s 2013 doctoral dissertation is a monograph on Solanum diphyllum, looking into everything from its beautiful internal anatomy to its cytotoxicity against human cancer cell lines. (so, no, those fruits are not for us to eat).

The "orange blossoms"

The “orange blossoms”

One of her findings was particularly intriguing.  Many plants of arid or salty places protect themselves from drought and salinity by accumulating extra dissolved materials in their tissues.  This is true of our Solanum, and here’s the good part: adjustably.  Apparently, and in need for more research, the plant build ups anti-drying compounds when dry, and later secretes the stuff from the leaves when dry times abate.  Maybe.  Another “maybe” is what seem to be patches of natural “sunblock” embedded in the leaf surface.  This little weed has some stuff goin’ on!   Now back to those fruits oranger than an orange.  Univ. of Miami bat expert Dr. Theodore Fleming described (citing earlier work in South American tropical forest) bird-dispersed fruits to be mostly white, black, red, blue, or purple in contrast with mammal-dispersed fruits predominantly orange, yellow, brown or green.  (Please no e-mails:  These are broad perceived trends—with overlaps and exceptions.)

So is Solanum diphyllum mainly a mammal berry?   Probably, although its dispersal in Florida with almost no fruit-eating bats implicates helpful birds and maybe a quadruped or two.  Research in the shrub’s native Mexico proves fruit eating bats to carry the seeds, not necessarily to the exclusion of birds or others of course.  Quibblers may raise a hand, and say, “bats are blind as a bat, so ixnay on the orange uit-frays.”  But recent research reveals increasingly sophisticated vision in bats, including living color.  Here is a quote (2001) from bat biologists Jorge Ortega and Ivan Castro-Arvellano on the Jamaican Fruit Bat widespread in the native haunts of the Two Leaf Nightshade:  “A. jamaicensis uses vision and olfaction to find fruits with brilliant colors and strong odors.”  By the way, bats don’t like getting tangled in twigs at night.  Note how the fruit clusters are presented for EZ access. Now back to Egypt, where as we already know, the Nightshade grows up and down the Nile.   Guess what was first discovered at the Great Pyramid of Giza, and flutters nocturnally up and down the Nile (and far beyond).   The Egyptian Fruit Bat.   Could it be that the corresponding Nile distributions of the Solanum and the bat are mere coincidence?   A connection might seem tempting to contemplate if Egyptian Fruit Bats go for orange-colored fruits.  Who knows?

Egyptian Fruit Bats at the midnight buffet. (From

Egyptian Fruit Bats at the midnight buffet. (From


Posted by on July 19, 2014 in Two Leaf Nightshade


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The Long Deteriorating “Fishing Ground of Presidents,” St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

George Rogers:

This deserves to be distributed.

Originally posted on Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch:

Harold R Johns, posing with a large tarpon, early 19920s, Stuart, St Lucie River. (Photo from Stuart on the St Lucie by Sandra Henderson Thurlow.)

Harold R. Johns, posing with a large tarpon, early 1920s, Stuart, Florida, St Lucie River. (Photo from Stuart on the St Lucie by Sandra Henderson Thurlow.)

When the pioneers permanently opened the St Lucie Inlet in 1892, it killed the freshwater grasses that filled the waterways creating a brackish estuary that due to the convergence of tropical and temperate zones, and the nearby warmth of the Gulf Stream, became “the most diverse estuary in North America.” (Gilmore)

After a short period of time, sportfishing thrived in the area, and fishing guides called Stuart the “fishing grounds of presidents” as US president, Grover Cleveland, vacationed and fished the area in 1900 and years after.

In spite of long standing issues with the health of the estuary,  as late as the 1970/80s Dr Grant Gilmore of Harbor Branch documented over 800 species of fish living and breeding in the then healthy seagrasses around…

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Posted by on July 14, 2014 in Uncategorized


Willows to the Rescue?

This week John and George sacrificed the usual Friday field work in order to work on our upcoming on-line native plants class to be in play as school starts.  Related to that, I’ve been fretting my second Florida outdoor interest—or let’s say nervous preoccupation—groundwater contamination.  The native plants connection is that millions of landscapers and homeowners who could use native plants with minimal chemical demands, instead spew mind-boggling (perhaps literally) herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides all over the ground, to percolate into the ground-water, which we later call tapwater.  (No, they do not get everything out.)

Salix caroliniana in flower by John Bradford.

Salix caroliniana in flower by John Bradford.

The situation is substantial and worsening, and in my humble opinion is under-publicized.  Somebody ought to start a blog (or a consumer revolution).  It is a joy to see an occasional piece in the PB Post and other Florida papers on this topic.  Yet hardly anybody cares, and a fine chemically tended lawn is a sign of responsibility and solid social status.  Just ask the HOA.  Okay, this paragraph could fill a book.  And such books exist, recently “What’s Gotten Into Us” by McKay Jenkins (2011).

Environmental author Steven Lerner—who has his own books on toxic stinkholes with depressing Florida examples—took a special interest in Tellevast, Florida near Sarasota.  The problems there are not pesticides, but rather defense industry wastes and spills, especially the chlorinated organic solvent called TCE (trichloroethylene) as well as beryllium and varied additional organic solvents.  Chlorinated organics turn up often on lists of carcinogens, for instance, the insecticide DDT, the herbicide 2,4-D, and dioxin.  They are the main rascals in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

TCE is one of the worst U. S. groundwater contaminants.  (The likewise chlorinated herbicide Atrazine is a rival.)   TCE causes mutations and apparently cancers.  It deteriorates into even-more-carcinogenic vinyl chloride.  Sources of TCE pollution include defense-industry factories and aviation facilities.  My first known exposure was in Dayton, Ohio where TCE and additional solvents from Wright Patterson Airbase had visited the local groundwater.  The city erected air-strippers, which are water ventilation towers to transform water pollution to air pollution.

The citizens of Tellevast reportedly suffer disproportionately from cancers and medical troubles ascribed to TCE and other contaminants in the water beneath their feet.  The defense contractor Lockheed Martin owns the facility and is on the hooks for dealing with it.

Well, that’s all nasty, scary, debated, and politicized.  But this is a native plants blog, so, how ‘bout it?   Right!  This all brings us to the Willow Family, the Salicaceae.  The main Florida members of this family are poplars, cottonwoods, and a few willows.  The species in our local area and native to Tellevast is Carolina Willow (Salix caroliniana).

Willow leaves by JB

Willow leaves by JB

How do you oust chlorinated organic chemicals from groundwater without merely redistributing the poison?  There are several approaches but no silver bullet.  The approach of interest in our botanical blog is using poplars and willows for “bioremediation,” to disarm, alter, remove, and sequester the poisons.  It is all experimental, and truly promising at least under controlled conditions.  Poplars and willows are diverse, worldwide, resistant to toxins, easy to propagate, fast-growing, potentially deep-rooted, and able to suck up a lot of water.  They do nuke chlorinated organic pollutants.

Researchers are looking into the comparative efficacy of different species and hybrids.  The cast of species is important because different species flourish in different regions.  One size does not fit all. Poplars outshine willows, yet our own Carolina willow has made the defense team.

Trees detoxify water in multiple ways.  For starters, our green helpers suck up the polluted water through their roots and then alter and imprison the evil molecules in woody tissues.

More remarkable tools in the tree toolbox are enzymes called dehalogenases (dee-HAL-oh-jen-ase) able to clip chlorines off of organic molecules.  That’s almost magic, and to make more useful proteins there’s genetic engineering.  There are already GMO poplars engineered for various growth characteristics, so enzyme enhancement is no huge stretch. In fact, one poplar hybrid is already bioengineered specifically to degrade TCE and other organics.  And get this:  the gene engineered into the trees is a human gene, producing an enzyme to metabolize the carcinogenic molecules.

Risks include the possibility of sequestered toxins re-escaping from products made later from the trees.  Would you want to mulch your veggie garden with their chips?   Surprise chemical breakdown byproducts could emerge, and maybe even ecological misbehavior by the bionic trees.

Similarly armed with dehalogenase enzymes are bacteria, and they are partners in the clean-up and are targets for genetic engineering, which is occurring relevant to TCE.  Bacteria are easier and faster to engineer, incubate, and establish than trees.

Time to wrap this up.  In short, our groundwater is full of bad stuff.  Some of it comes from landscape and turf products where a shift to native species and less lawn would diminish the uckies. Most Florida shallow groundwater and some deep groundwater carries more contaminants than we’d like to know…or drink…even after “purification.”  The solvent TCE is a chlorinated organic goblin.  Tellevast floats 6 feet above TCE-laced water.   We’re not quite ready to plant the town with GMO willows.  But there’s hope for green remediation down the road.  So what the heck, we can load the groundwater up with carcinogens today and let our mutated great-grandchildren plant magic willows.



For an early in-depth look at the Tellevast situation:

For about bioremediation and TCE:


Posted by on July 13, 2014 in Carolina Willows


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Winged Sumac for the Perfect Tan

Winged Sumac

Rhus copallina


The wing on winged sumac.  All of today's photos are of winged sumac, by John Bradford.

The wing on winged sumac. All of today’s photos except the tanned hide are of winged sumac, by John Bradford.

If you moved to Florida from points north and miss fall color, winged sumac offers a little reminder of North Carolina in October.  Fact is, you could even know winged sumac from northern exposure, as it grows all the way from Cuba (probably cultivated) through Florida into Canada.  Northern plant nurseries sell horticultural cultivars of it.  The species is a small tree or a shrub with distinctive compound leaves having a wing running up the middle.  They make pyramids of small white flowers, usually but not always on separate male and female individuals.   The fruits are small red “berries” for the birds.

Around our area we mostly enjoy winged sumac in sandy areas, often at an interface between grassy meadow and woods, and that may not be entirely coincidental, as sumacs serve as steppingstones in ecological succession: Limited research shows winged sumac to specialize in bullying  low grassy vegetation by poisoning the competition with natural herbicides, and altering the habitat in ways that favor woody plants, especially itself.    Winged sumac can form massive clumps, as it smites its foes and spreads by underground rhizomes.

Fruiting tree

Fruiting tree

Sumac bioactivity isn’t limited to squelching weedy competitors.  Species of sumacs around the world have big histories in traditional medicines for more ailments than Uncle Tree could shake a twig at.  And out of that medicinal swirl comes a current point of interest.  Extracts from Sumacs can induce apoptosis (cell suicide) in human cells.  This is the sort of reason I’m no fan of gobbling the wild plants.  Yes, a lot of people in varied cultures make spices and beverages from sumac fruits.  As a Boy Scout, 1960-something, I drank Sumac “lemonade.”  Of course that lemonade comes from the same genus as poison sumac, and some botanists at least historically classified poison ivy in the same genus as Sumac.   I do not know the chemistry but would not be 100% surprised to learn that Winged Sumac might contain a little urushiol, the transdermal irritant so familiar to poison ivy victims.  In the same family, mangoes and Brazilian Peppers are allergenic to some victims.  Here we find also poisonwood.



The most interesting bioactivity of sumacs is their tannins.   Tannins are natural substances present in many or most plants, but some plants are more endowed than others.  Tannins are plant defender compounds that bind up proteins.   If you want to stop a bug from bugging you one approach is to tie their oral-digestive proteins in knots.  You get a taste of that medicine when you bite a green apple—loaded with tannin–and your spit turns to glue.   Plants sometimes produce tannins in response to insect attack, and plants also produce galls in response to attack, or in response to eggs laid by insects into the plant tissues.  Galls are thus sometimes rich in tannins, including the “Chinese Gall” marketed as a medicine and perhaps for leather-tanning. It grows on Chinese sumac in response to aphids.

The fruits

The fruits

Tannins tan leather primarily by binding the collagen proteins in the skin, improving the texture and making the protein resistant to decay.  Sumacs have served or tanning leather in varied cultures from Asia, through Europe and in North America.  Before the day of blogs, sumac-tanned leathers were preferred by bookbinders.  They are still in use, for example CLICK HERE.  I heard a teacher say the name sumac to come from “shoe-make,” which makes fun sense but is probably not the case, as the name more likely dates to ancient Arabic origins.  The species Rhus coriaria owes its name to shoe-makers, as coriaria comes from the Latin term for leather.


Posted by on July 5, 2014 in Winged Sumac


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What Do Gilgamesh,  Rachel Ray, and My Yard Have in Common?

Answer: Capers

Jamaica Caper Capparis jamaicensis

(Caper nomenclature is a jungle.  Even the family assignment is unstable.  Good luck on “the” definitive names to use for capers.  Jamaica Caper goes also as Quadraella jamaicensis, and is widely mis-dubbed  Capparis cyanophallophora— a similar but separate species in the Caribbean and Bahamas.Those who mine the books and Internet will find even more names.  The taxonomy has been mildly “unsettled.”)

Limber Caper Cynophalla flexuosa (aka Capparis flexuosa)

Spiny Caper Capparis flexuosa

John and George were unable today to undertake our usual Friday wilderness encounter, so, staying home, I spy Jamaica Caper in the front yard.  It is a popular local landscape species, usually encountered as a shrub around here.  In our former carefree lives in the Caribbean John and George, who lived simultaneously on separate heavenly islands known for offshore banking, enjoyed the species as a front yard shade tree up to 15-20 feet tall having a trunk 6 inches or more in diameter.  Anything able to flourish on a  limestone outcrop in the middle of the Caribbean is tough, which is one of the selling points of this species in landscaping: sun yep, shade ok to a point,  drought-tolerant,  hurricane-adapted,  pruning-tolerant, fertilizer-free, pest-shunning, low maintenance, and yet always pretty and with color-changing blossoms in spring or early summer.

All of today's photos are Jamaica Caper, by John Bradford.

All of today’s photos are Jamaica Caper, by John Bradford.

Changes in flower color are common in the floral world.  The changes are generally interpretable as signals to pollinators concerning nectar availability.

Few shrubs are easier to recognize: The leaves have a brownish-silverish scaly sheen beneath, the leaf buds resemble butter knives, the flowers are pretty big, bowl-shaped, wiskery with long stamens, and transition from white to pale pinky-purple.  The pod looks like a bean, opening to reveal a red interior with blackish seeds.  Hey, that came up recently in this blog.    An added bonus of this species and Limber Caper is hosting  the Florida White Butterfly.  But this is not a how-to-garden blog, horto-info is available in spades by Google, so to avoid reinventing the caper let’s move on to other stuff, after a little geography.

Capparis cyanophallophora close

Jamaica Caper grows naturally from coastal central Florida through the Caribbean and Mexico to Central America.  Limber Caper has a similar distribution, including in Florida.  Limber Caper is, yep, limber-er, sort of a vine-shrub, and its leaves lack that silvery sheen beneath.

What’s that about the Western Wall?   Plants sprouting from unlikely places are always fun, and the Western Wall in Jerusalem hosts a vertical flora of roughly half a dozen indestructible crack-dwellers.  The prettiest is Spiny Caper,  with flowers remarkably similar to our own Florida species, including the color change, and pod with that trademark red lining.  Spiny Caper is the main pickled caper so heavenly on chicken picatta and salmon with lemon and caper sauce.  My second-favorite food on earth after microwaved tofu is an anchovy wrapped around a caper.

Capparasis cyanophallophora frt

Capers are flower buds, although the Capparis spinosa pod has a culinary life of its own. You can see similar buds on our own Jamaica Caper, but please when whipping up Pasta Puttanesca, visit the Piggly Wiggly and buy a jar of the real McCoy.

Spiny Caper has the confused taxonomy and unclear original distribution standard for plants with histories in prehistoric human commerce,  dating back in archaeology, in ancient records, and in the Bible at least to varied ancient Mediterranean and Mesopotamian civilizations.  It grows from the Mediterranean all the way to Australia and Pacific Islands.  No doubt the earliest boats to criss-cross the Mediterranean had capers aboard.

Butter knife buds on Jamaica Caper

Butter knife buds  ans silvery-browny under-leaf scales on Jamaica Caper


Posted by on June 27, 2014 in Capparis


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Puncture Vine

Tribulus cistoides




Puncture Vine (by John Bradford). The opposite (paired) compound leaves look ferny.

Puncture Vine (by John Bradford). The opposite (paired) compound leaves look ferny.

Friday John and George searched Halpatioke Park in Stuart Florida for botanical treats. They abound, including the parking lot weeds.  A striking non-native presence on the hottest driest sunbaked weedy sand is the botanical misfit known as puncture vine.  We’ve all seen it sprawling from a pavement crack across the asphalt with opposite ferny leaves and cheery yellow buttercup blossoms.  It is related to Vera Wood trees, similar in flowers and foliage.  Some may know Tribulus (terrestris) as a commercialized botanical “remedy” in a jar.  Others may know puncture vine from a foot stab mishap, the painful burr fruits similar in size, shape, and sensation to those from the sand spur grasses (CLICK).    An example of convergent evolution, as sandspur and puncture vine are unrelated despite superficial burr similarity.

Ouch.  Puncture vine fruit

Ouch. Puncture vine fruit

The puncture-prone fruits are armed to the teeth with teeth.  Another an apt name for the plant is caltrop.  A caltrop is an old fashioned device to hobble horses.  Anti-chariot technology. The puncture vine fruit is a little green caltrop.   It can poke a sneaker or a bicycle tire.  Even worse—the things you learn from Wikipedia—some warriors smear lethal arrow poison on the burrs and leave the deadly little booby-traps for unshod foes.

Caltrop (Google Images)

Caltrop (Google Images)


Let’s change the subject to something prettier. The attractive blossoms track the sun, all aligning toward the rays just like digitally coordinated solar collectors.



Why?  Explanations of floral solar tracking include the heat vaporizing floral fragrances, or to provide an attractive warm haven for pollinators.  Most solar tracking flowers live in cool places where such cozy advantages are obvious.   But why a solar-powered warm-climate weed?  I do not know.  Maybe extra heat helps at times even in warmer climates. It is not always hot year-round 24/7.  And maybe the species evolved in a cooler time or place. Or maybe the direct sunbeams somehow help bees orient to the flowers.   Yellow flowers commonly have UV patterns in the petals; bees see the patterns but we can’t—maybe those sun rays make the patterns pop to a busy bee.

tribulus Solar Dish Systems

The compound leaves and their leaflets track the sun too, ostensibly to maximize sun exposure for photosynthesis.  The entire ferny leaf orients toward the orb, and as a step further, the individual leaflets “cup” like tiny curved linear sun collectors.  In the image below the brown tilted stick tilts at the sun.  The leaves have the same inclination.

Leaves tracking the sun.  The stick (and leaves) pint to the sun.

The stick, flower, and leaves point to the sun.



tribulus pills


Posted by on June 21, 2014 in Puncture Vine, Tribulus


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