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Archive for July, 2012

On Survivalism

Let’s call foraging a hobby, take it down a notch or two, a pastime in which the forager engages in an intellectual, physical, and largely recreational engagement with the natural world that feeds into a love of the outdoors, ecology and food. With some precious time off a job that is not as a forager, he or she heads off to gather this or that, a happily anticipated outing, solo, with family or friends, both applying and building knowledge. Living. Tapping into something more basic to our human nature than any other urge. Yes, any other urge, because foraging has its roots as the mainstay of existence, something upon which even reproduction is predicated. OK, so we are back up a notch or three, the forager is not just passing time, they are immersing themselves in the essence of their humanity, revealing it to be bigger than themselves, finding a perspective that reduces the inanities of society to an appropriate miniaturised perspective. Foraging is optimistic; it is good.

Let’s call survivalism what it is, take it down a notch or four, and leave it there. An unformalised creed of bunker-builders, canned food hoarders, weapons-cachers, kook-politics-militiamen, violent home-defenders who might be found wearing military green all too casually and leaning on some paranoid construction of an Old Testament style vengeful tribal god to validate a fear and hate of those beyond the walls. Survivalism is a paranoid exercise, too often a skill-build for an anticipated apocalypse predicated on the breakdown of society and embracing the arrived potentiality that your relationship with what was your community is now adversarial. Survivalism embraces an idea of the survival of the fittest as if that were something other than a community proposition for human beings, a fundamentally social species; not realising that the Darwinian theory alluded to condemns anything but a sizeable group of creatures like us to extinction. Survivalism is selfish, ill-informed and pessimistic; it is bad. Genuinely, witch-burningly, bad.

In my view of the wild food gathering world, foraging and survivalism are almost polar opposites, joined only by some coincident knowledge. Sure, I might be better placed as a forager than some, should the end of oil, catastrophic war or the mutant pandemic plague leave me battling for survival along with everyone else when the food trucks stop rolling into town and the supermarket shelves go bare. But if that were the case, I trust that I would take my speargun to the sea and bring the fish back to my neighbourhood rather than the other way around. The sort of utter end to civil society fear-mongered by survivalists  is a ridiculous hypothetical shit-spin in my view – paranoid, conspiracy-theory-like mental diarrhoea out of the faces of fearful sociopaths.

I am not a survivalist. I am a forager.

So that’s that off my chest.

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Beekeeping attire: A proper veil and the rest cobbled and sewn together as best as possible

I haven’t gone and stolen my bees winter stores out from under (or over) them in the dead of winter, I have just been slow to write this up – the first honey harvest, done back at Easter. To be honest I didn’t actually know that I was going to harvest at the time – I was really just making the most of the fact that my neighbour, who unlike me actually has some beekeeping experience, was available to come over and give me a hand.  I thought that at most we might perhaps grab a comb if possible, but there was more than expected and we are now stocked with honey to last right through until a hopeful future harvest next mid-summer.

The opening of the hive

The beautiful bees

With the pair of us kitted up, the hive opened and a little puff of smoke delivered, comb after comb was lifted with a few surprises:

  • First that the entire top box was pretty much full of stored honey and no brood. They had had a rough start as a colony in the spring with a lot of their delicate founding comb destroyed driving the hive in on our horrendous track and I thought they might have struggled to even get themselves set up with stores for the winter – but they had clearly done some great catching up.
  • Second was that our bees are calm according to my experienced neighbour, something that delights me in a way that I imagine it might to have a consistently well behaved child (the Boy is, let’s say, ‘strong-willed’, in a way that fills me with both admiration and exasperation).
  • Third was the recurrent surprise to look down at myself all kitted up above an open buzzing hive looking for all the world like something I hadn’t yet quite come around to perceiving myself to be – a beekeeper.
  • And finally, and very worryingly, I was surprised to learn that we have small hive beetle (Aethina tumida). I had hoped our remote highland setting might have saved us from this curse of lowland beekeeping, but I was wrong (in itself not a huge surprise from my position of some ignorance). With winter putting everything on hold in the hive, I can only wait with crossed fingers and hope that the beetle hasn’t destroyed the colony before it gets active again next spring and I can put some control plans into action.

Harvested honey, secreted into tupperware, hoping the bees hadn’t tracked us – they had and I spent the rest of the day shooing the recovery mission out of the cabin

Virgin comb (used only ever for honey and not previously for brood) separated for eating as comb

But back to the honey, extracted in the ultimate low-tech way (see here for Malfroy’s Gold / Milkwood’s low-tech and mid-tech options; high-tech honey extraction apparently not an option with this foundationless Warré-style comb). It was simply squashed up by hand and dumped in a colander to drip through over hours. At the end we had jars of beautiful honey, our very first, and a messy pile of squished comb that still held honey that had neither squeezed nor dripped out. To this was added four litres of preservative-free apple juice and the whole thing boiled until the wax melted. Once cooled, the wax and attached gunk (‘slumgum’) was removed and frozen for future use as swarm bait, and the honey enriched juice used to make a ‘wine’ (loosely speaking) with the addition of elderberries (sugars + yeast = alcohol + CO2, the honey, apple and elderberry providing the character). Not a bad concoction as it turns out: 50% cider, 50% mead, 50% elderberry wine; totalling, against all mathematical possibility, 150% of home-made hooch. This was then fortified with vodka to make something potentially leg-wobbling, but which is actually more safely warming when diluted with soda water and lemon juice.

Low tech honey filtering – all colanders and pots

Beekeeping is one of those things where when you jump you find that there is only a deep end and the most pressing thing that you learn is about how much you have yet to learn. For this reason, I find the Warré style a little forgiving because of the way that it sets out to provide the bees an environment in which they can ideally do their thing naturally. You can at least go some way towards acquitting yourself of your responsibilities to them just by letting them be. But the beetle issue goes beyond this. With beetle I have to act; for the bees, for my future honey and for the rest of the beekeeping public – harbouring a serious pest, my hive is a threat to others. So onwards and upwards on the rather precipitous learning curve, comforted at least by the succour of my own amazing honey and four and a half litres of pretty serious booze.

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Seven weed soup

Today, feeling the need for a healthy soup and having the time for a quick forage near home, I took a bucket and knife to the park to pick what might be best be called a mess of hot greens. There were seven of them, none picked further than 200m from the flat, and all considered to make at least some sense for a soup with onions, potato and buttermilk (or sour cream); the kind of thing where either spinach or cress might first come to mind. The mix was only partly planned, with some mind given to how much was peppery, how much could be bitter and how much plain spinach-like bulk it might need. Beyond that, any basket of wild greens this diverse would likely never be the same twice and end up always somewhat arbitrarily based on mood, location and season.

From left: Dandelion, watercress, mustard, nasturtium, sow thistle, chickweed, native spinach

I don’t know a lot about the different herbal healing and healthful properties of all the plants involved, but I do know that they are there in varying degrees. I also know that all of these greens are ones that you can overdo; in terms of flavour (bitterness most particularly), potentially unhealthy side effects (like excessive oxalates and saponins), or both. And I am absolutely convinced that all wild greens should be consumed in diversity, small amounts at a time, and fairly regularly. In Michael Pollan’s In Defence of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto  he offers one particular overriding piece of dietary advice: ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”.  To this I would add (if he hasn’t himself in the follow up Food Rules): ‘as many different types in small amounts as you can’.

When our Boy first went onto solids, and as parents busy with other jobs as well, we made up batches of baby food and froze it in muffin trays. As an ignorant first-time parent, there was only one thing that always went into every one of those mixes – a minimum of 6 species, preferably more. I’m certainly not suggesting I am a go-to-guy on baby feeding, but rather that I think diversity is a way to get by with limited detailed nutritional knowledge (in a culture still trying to find its way back from babies eating whatever they put in the jar). When your diet gets as diverse as a really good diet should be (double figures for contributing species number in every meal, as my guide), it is enough to know how to make it all come out tasty without being able to repeat its full nutritional profile.

In any case, here is what found its way into the ‘mess’:

Sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus)

Sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) is a plant I have little experience with, but it seems to have some popularity as a wild green in North America (see here, here and here) and in New Zealand (here) where a native species (S. kirkii) is a traditional Maori food known as puha.

Native spinach (Tetragonia tetragoniodes)

Native spinach (Tetragonia tetragoniodes) is something that I have written on before as having limits to its nutritional utility but would certainly still rate as an excellent inclusion in a ‘mess’ for its solid spinach-like reliability. There is quite a lot of bitterness and pepperiness in the other greens that might want some taming, so the whole mess is at least ¼ native spinach.

MixedWeeds

Chickweed (Stellaria media), the small leaves tucked in to the left of the sow thistle flower and above the native spinach

I have previously written of chickweed (Stellaria media) as the ‘the winter green’ – but obviously it is not the only one, particularly if cooked greens are included. The stuff I gathered almost got involved  incidentally, not being a first thought for soup, but it was growing in among native spinach and sow thistle and practically begging to be included.

Watercress (Nasturtium sp.)

Watercress (Nasturtium spp.) is doing really well at the moment and there are some good spots near us on the coast where clean water filtering out of sandstone seeps makes it easier to trust than where it might be in any old storm water runoff.

Nasturtium (Tropolaeum majus)

Nasturtium (Tropolaeum majus) you may notice has a common name that is actually stolen from the botanical name for watercress. It is Latin for ‘nose-twister’. Its other common name of Indian cress continues the obvious theme of the two plants being pretty similar on the palate, despite being unrelated. I have yet to test them out head-to-head and am happy enough with just a bet each way at this stage.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

I am not the fan of dandelion greens (Taraxacum officinale) that some foragers are, probably because I don’t like bitter very much. People say you just have to get it at the right time; just as it is unfolding at its tenderest (and even then it has some bitterness); but without an obvious enough spring here in Sydney, I have got it wrong just a few too many times to keep trying. Still, I have no doubt that it is good for me and have no problem with it cooked in a ‘mess’; diluted basically.

Mustard (Brassica sp.)

Wild mustard greens (Brassica spp.) can be bitter, except for a brief window in spring (according to Euell Gibbons in the American foraging bible Stalking the Wild Asparagus), so I have always gone pretty light on them as a leafy green. I will leave it to another occasion to go into the more interesting uses of picking enough of the little clusters of flower buds to have some peppery mini-broccoli, and the gathering of ripe pods to dry and extract mustard seeds from.

As for a recipe, I am just cherry-picking from the internet and suggest that you do the same if you feel inspired towards a wild greens soup. I have gone with a watercress soup recipe, advised by a few looks around at spinach and nettle soups as well:

Recipe: Onions (and leek if I had it) are sliced thin and cooked low until softened, garlic added for the same purpose but with a little less time; add a little spice (smidgeon of nutmeg, chilli, cumin, coriander – again, little skerricks of diversity) and some chopped potatoes (and other roots if you like – I had a parsnip to spare) followed by stock (or just water if you want to add miso later instead) and then the greens (keeping back a little bit of the cress); simmer for 20 minutes (yes this is a long time to cook your greens if you are going healthy, but some of the bitter ones want it and you are hopefully making up for any losses by there being so much of the stuff); let it cool slightly, blend (having added any cress that you previously held back) and stir in buttermilk or sour cream. Garnish including a sour cream dollop) and season as takes your fancy (this is actually where I add my sea lettuce and salted fish roe because the Squeeze is a seaweed disliking proper vegetarian); and serve.

7 weeds and potato soup, garnished with sour cream, sea lettuce and salted fish roe.

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Sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca)

Sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca) has an essentially pan-global distribution, is thoroughly palatable and very good for you. If you live near the sea you probably live near it and yet you probably haven’t eaten it. In Australia, it is not eaten now and the evidence is pretty strong that it was not eaten in any great amount by early settlers (despite a strong seaweed eating tradition in the UK and Ireland from whence settlers and convicts generally came) nor by Aboriginal people (for whom there is well-documented use of bull kelp (Durvillaea potatorum) in Tasmania but not much else).

There was a time nearly twenty years ago on an 11 day wilderness walk on New Zealand’s Stewart Island when on very light rations (due to a food packing glitch we discovered 2 days into the walk but pressed on through) that a lone Japanese tramper in the same back-country hut as us brought in seaweed that he had foraged to help us through. Lone Japanese outdoorsmen really do pop in the strangest places. It was sea lettuce, I recognized it, I knew it from home, and I hesitated because I simply didn’t yet know it as food. Only briefly though – I was really hungry (foraged mussels came to a more substantial rescue a couple of days later). I didn’t know at the time that the carbohydrates in seaweed are largely indigestible by people, and that I was mostly getting a huge serve of vitamins and minerals rather than much energy, but I was converted. I have nibbled at it when I see it on clean shorelines ever since. And more recently I have been making a fantastic dried condiment from it.

Where the Ulva grows

Because rock fishermen targeting blackfish (or ‘luderick’, Girella tricuspida) use it as bait, and perhaps because they will take it regardless of regulations, sea lettuce is specifically the only intertidal thing that may be collected in the Marine Reserve near my place.  Out on the headland, there is  a fairly consistent flow of seawater essentially like a river fed by surging waves on the higher side of the rock platform, and in it grows some of the best sea lettuce to be found anywhere. My son now expects to snack on it when we are out there on the miniaturized safaris of searching in rockpools, and I will always chew down a few ‘leaves’ whenever I am there fishing. And sometimes I will harvest a bowl full, to be dried and tucked away as a surprising delicious condiment.

Fresh sea lettuce

Last autumn, going crazy on saffron milk cap (Lactarius deliciosus) harvesting, I bought a dehydrator. Just a cheap and probably inefficient one (a better option described here), but it has already earned its keep on dried mushrooms that we are still using 4 months later. It turns out that it does an equally grand job on sea lettuce. Previously I have oven-dried it, but I am now convinced that dehydrating is better.

Sea lettuce on the drying racks

Dehydrated sea lettuce

Oven dried sea lettuce

Dried sea lettuce falls somewhere in between being a salad green, a condiment, a health food supplement or something as everyday as a sandwich filling (see here for the partner condiment of salted fish roe). You may be familiar with having a few strips in miso soup – although this is usually with wakame (Undaria pinnatifida), sea lettuce works very well too. It is easy, it is delicious in its mildness at best and inoffensive at worst, and as a result it is just plainly and simply odd that it is such a relatively unknown food. That said, it probably couldn’t bear too much popularity on city shores where heavy harvesting might make it suffer. So perhaps I should throw some active discouragement into the mix and warn you – there will be amphipods; like little alien spawn of fleas and prawns hopping about on your food, burrowing down away from the light and out of sight, somehow defying the capture of every last one before you might eat it. Or you could just see them as some extra protein, or very very very small lobsters perhaps.

Amphipods commonly found on sea lettuce

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Eastern grey kangaroo (Macropus giganteus)

You may well have heard of kangaroo (Macropus spp.) tail stew, but chances are you have never eaten it, because it is unfathomably hard to get a hold of the key ingredient. It is shame, being in my opinion far and away the most delectable part of the animal. The only places I have seen it sold have been in the Northern Territory and South Australia, in both cases near Aboriginal communities – where people have very well informed preferences when it comes to kangaroo cuts (and buy tails with the skin on so that they can better cook them in the coals of a fire). I have no idea where the rest of the tails of the one and a half million kangaroos commercially harvested every year go other than a few that end up as dog treats.  All I know is that it is a shame that none of them seem to go to a butcher or supermarket near you.

A kangaroo is in effect pentapedal (five-legged), using the tail like a limb while walking and a counterbalance while running – it is no meagre appendage

The alternative to buying a kangaroo tail is of course to go out and get one from a kangaroo yourself. But you are not allowed. If you own land you can probably get a permit to shoot some as a culling exercise and ‘pest control’, but these cannot be eaten and must be tagged and left to rot in the field. If you accidentally hit one with your car, you are not allowed to subsequently cut the tail off and be ‘in possession of it’ – something that applies to all native fauna.  And you cannot (with the exception of some wallabies in Tasmania) hunt one. This one peculiar fact and its passing almost entirely without protest from the carnivorous public says all too much to me about the sad disconnectedness between most Australians, their environment and their food:

Alongside the government supported shooting of some one and a half million kangaroos a year, the world’s largest terrestrial wildlife harvest, it is illegal to take one for your own pot.

A kangaroo (or wallaby) tail – the best meat is not the obvious thick butt of the tail but the small nuggets in under the wrapping of tendons; with the unctuousness that comes out of these tendons, and the bone and cartilage of the vertebrae, they aren’t just tender but also lip-stickingly silky

I will own up to having hunted kangaroos and having harvested parts from fresh roadkill (backstrap and tail), and do so with a completely clear conscience. But I will leave it to yours as to how you might get yourself in possession of a kangaroo tail. Truth be told, I haven’t sought them out to buy with much ardour and when (not if, trust me, people will eventually catch on) the market knows enough to ask for it, the wild game processors will respond. I am not suggesting the lack of roo tail in the shops is some cruel conspiracy; it is simply a product of a non-Aboriginal culture in most parts of Australia only a decade or so into the rediscovery of the culinary delights of its national emblem.

Browning the sections of tail gives some caramelised glutamate edge that combines with the sweetness of the ‘vegie juice’ stock

There are probably more roo tail stew recipes online than there ought to be given how rarely it must actually be cooked and you could alternatively adapt something from an ox-tail, ossobuco, or other shank recipe where you are trying to draw out the unctuousness of bone, marrow and/or cartilage. You might well do better than using my recipe (for example I am going here for my next tail), but here it is if only to explain what is in the pictures:

Recipe: The aim is to have the tail and nothing else (except some garlic cloves) as far as solids go so that when you share this with people likely never to have tried roo tail before they get to focus on it. I think that this still needs a rich broth and for this I do a ‘vegie juice stock’: 2 onions, 4 carrots and a half bunch of celery through the juicer. A bunch of parsley, 5 bay leaves and a few sprigs of thyme simmered (or just steeped like a tea in boiling water) for 5-10 minutes. I might also put the juicer pulp in with the simmered stock, but it does make it cloudier in the end. (If I were to buy a stock in, it would probably be beef, possibly with some stout poured in). This time I also put in 140g of tomato paste but might otherwise have deseeded some whole tomatoes through the food mill (or just used passata); all together it is about a stock that ends up sweet and with a bit of a tang. Brown the chunks of roo tail, pour in the liquids and pop in 5 cloves of garlic. My view on browning is that it is to cook a little caramelisation onto it that gives some sweet glutamate / umami flavour without it becoming a burnt bitterness. Stew for a very long time (4-12 hours). Serve with some of the broth, cracked pepper, bread and good supply of napkins.

Stewed kangaroo tail: Strips of tender light meat infused with the silky unctuousness of long-cooked integument and bone

It is perhaps true that I make a bigger deal of a good roo tail stew than many would because other than hunted meat, I don’t actually eat mammals or birds; no ox tails, veal shanks, bacon or fatty duck, nothing that has been farmed against which to compare this native delicacy. But I have shared it with enough people who do eat that stuff to know that I am on some fairly solid ground when I rave about it. It is hardly likely that you will be able to knock one up tonight, but if the opportunity ever presents itself, you should really give it a go.

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Flathead (Playcephalus sp.)

Despite a rough run of weather leaving many Sydneysiders missing the stormless drought, crisp, sunny winter’s days with gentle westerlies flattening out the sea were always going to make an appearance at some stage; it’s just La Niña after all, not the apocalypse. The Pacific Ocean is all too often a dreadfully misnamed body of water, but occasionally it lives up to its promise. With the cool water, trolling lures for pelagics like summer and autumn bonito doesn’t yield so well; but long relaxing drifts across the deep offshore sand for flathead (Platycephalus spp.) and the occasional other interloper (like leatherjacket, flounder or rays) comes into its own.

A calm winter sea, held flat with offshore westerlies

We motored in the tinny (aluminium dinghy) to the north end of a surf beach, stopped and threw out the drift anchor (like an airstrip windsock on a rope) to slow the wind’s westerly push. An offshore current pushing southwards did the rest of the work – setting us off on a long relaxing 2 hour drift to the southeast. We’ve done this often enough not to worry if the fish aren’t biting because soon or later on a 3 kilometre journey ending 2 kilometres out to sea they always eventually will. As the shore receded, the quiet solitude of the open ocean started to envelope us. On the edge of a huge city, bobbing in a seemingly endless calm, fishing heavily weighted paternoster rigs in inky blue depths of around 50 metres.

A modest but legal-sized flathead in the net

Often distracted by tending my line, bringing up or netting the occasional legal-sized keeper and releasing back the equal or even greater number or undersized ones, I would sometimes look up like someone waking surprised in a wilderness. Whales, seals, penguins and albatross (in addition to the usual shearwaters and gannets have all been seen in these winter outings, like the great cold south has come visiting (even though the penguins are local). This time a Wilson’s Storm Petrel (Oceanites oceanicus), landing by our lines and ducking its head under to see what was going on down there, diving and underwater flying for any skerricks of bait within reach. Then a Great Skua (Catharcta skua), a strangely fat mongrel-brown maritime scavenger from the south, sitting like a feathered stray dog waiting for cast-offs, not begging nor even hardly acknowledging our existence; just waiting with the patience of an opportunist.

A scavenging Great Skua (Catharcta skua)

Over time we lost count of the number of keepers in the box, muddled by the calm rhythm of the fishing, the numbers of undersized returns and the hypnotic slap of water on the metal boat. But we knew we were doing well enough, with enough to need to open the freezer for, and the catches only getting more consistently legal-sized with either distance offshore or the light fading towards sunset or both. Keeping just enough time to do the boat ramp thing before darkness we reluctantly headed in: 12 good flathead (bluespotted I think; Platycephalus caeruleopunctatus) and 1 flounder (Pseudorhombus sp.).

Back in the kitchen, each fish is carefully opened rather than quickly gutted, each time a 50-50 party game with the prize being a female’s roe. I have a peculiar love of these, buried in salt in a bowl and put in an oven on as low as it goes for however many hours it takes to suck it dry. The salt dusted off it can be simply chopped finely and sprinkled as a garnish (particularly if mixed with dehydrated sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca) given the same treatment) that tastes deeply of the sea; of the deep sea no less, of fish hauled up from 50 metres below. Problem was, from my cut of 6 fish, only two females, one very light with roe. That said, this stuff goes a long way.

Salting flathead roe

Salted flathead roe – the taste of deep water in a condiment

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Chickweed (Stellaria media)

When most of the wild greens are gone for the winter, chickweed (Stellaria media) will always provide. You can’t stop it if you try. To be honest, like a sterotype child I sometimes have to be forced to eat my greens, even if it is me who does the forcing. So here is how it works: I make a sandwich and head out the door, grab a handful of chickweed from the current wildness of the shared apartment block herb garden and throw it in. In the picture below it is with burningly garlicky hummus and marinated roast capsicum made on the weekend. The Squeeze bakes the bread. Time out of my day: 15 seconds. Foraging is in the spare time; now it’s time to get a kid to daycare and me to a desk, but 15 seconds I can obviously do.

Hummus, roast capsicum, chickweed and sorrel sandwich

Chickweed is yet another one of those surprisingly under-utilised foods. Many vegetable gardens would have more of this taken out as a weed over winter than conventional vegetables (at our community garden there is something of an unwritten rule that at least it goes to the chickens – who adore it). It is juicy, tender and mild, with a favour from close to nothing to having a little tart edge to something that does somehow manage to be an undefined taste of a weed. Or perhaps that is just the taste of raw greens – like I say, I’m no connoisseur. Richard Mabey (in Food for Free, the indisputable British wild plant food bible) prefers it simmered and finished with butter, lemon juice and seasoning including a little nutmeg, as an accompaniment to rich meat. The Cribbs (in Australia’s equivalent bible Wild Food in Australia), also describe it as mild and benefiting from butter and lemon. Earthwise Herbal will tell you that is close to a heal-all. Ted Manzer, botanical font that he is, will tell you just about anything you might need to know about it (here). Me, I don’t know much, except that if I can bring some very healthy fresh greens to my diet with it, most people can.

Chickweed flowers are usually given as the best way to identify it – 5 deeply notched petals that look like 10

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