Artifacts Found at Rockcliff Farm Provide a Glimpse into North Carolina Prehistory

Bertram Whittier Wells was an accomplished and influential ecologist and botanist, and an important advocate for studying plants as parts of natural communities.  His book “The Natural Gardens of North Carolina”, published in 1932, is a classic work on the natural history of North Carolina.  He retired in 1954, and moved to Rockcliff Farm, which was 150 acres at that time, and located on a peninsula at a bend in the Neuse River.  He continued to study plants and wildflowers while also becoming an accomplished artist.  It was during this time that Dr. Wells collected artifacts, mostly stone projectile points, along the riverbanks of the Neuse River.  Zeagle’s Rock was a towering 55 foot outcrop with a projecting ledge that provided shelter from the elements.  This landmark is known to have been a  source of artifacts for archaeologists in the past.    The entire base and lower half of the rock is now underwater due to the damming of the Neuse River to create Falls Lake.  Jimmy Ray, whose family and home were Dr. Wells’ closest neighbors, also remembers finding stone points when plowing the large gardens at Rockcliff Farm.  Dr. Wells, known as Uncle Bert to the neighboring children, fashioned homemade bows and arrows for the kids, later buying sets for them, and supervising them closely as they practiced.

The following are photographs of selected artifacts that Dr. Wells collected at Rockcliff Farm and their approximate cultural time periods.

MacCorkle/St. Albans
Early Archaic

There are four general cultural periods used in the study of the prehistory of North Carolina.  These are The Paleoindian Period (12,000 or more to 9,500 years before the present), The Archaic Period (9,500 to 4,000 years before the present),  The Woodland Period (4,000 years to 400 years before the present), and The Mississippian Period (700 to 250 years before the present).  All of these cultural periods, except for the Paleoindian Period, are represented in the projectile points that Dr. Wells collected.  We are extremely grateful to Assistant State Archaeologist David Cranford, PhD, who identified the projectile points and explained the cultural time periods they represented.

The projectile points in the photo above are from the Early Archaic period and are most likely MacCorkle/ St. Albans points.  They are the oldest points identified in the collection.

Guilford and Other Bifaces
Middle Archaic

The projectile points above are Guilford and other bifaces from the Middle Archaic period.  The Guilford points are the longer, narrower points in the photo.  Not all of the points in this or some of the other photos are readily identifiable, but they are included to show the diversity of the points that Dr. Wells collected.  Bifaces are pieces of stone that have been flaked on both sides but have not been completed, either because they broke or because they were inferior or unusable and were discarded.

Guilford and Savannah River Stemmed
Middle and Late Archaic

Above are Guilford and Savannah River Stemmed points from the Middle and Late Archaic Period.  The Guilfords are the longer, narrower points; the Savannah River Stemmed are on the right.

Yadkin or Caraway
Late Woodland

In the photograph above,  pottery shards are located on the left and the bottom middle.  The top center triangular point appears to be a Yadkin or Caraway point from the Late Woodland period.

The photograph below is possibly a Randolf point, from the Mississippian Period to historic times.  As such, it would be the youngest stone point in the collection.  It is a beautiful piece and quite sharp!

Randolph ?
Mississippian to Historic

An excellent article about the cultural periods in the prehistory of North Carolina is:  “The Prehistory of North Carolina: A Basic Cultural Sequence”.  Newsletter of the Friends of North Carolina Archaeology, Inc, Summer 1984, Volume 1, Number 1 .   Here is a link: https://archaeology.ncdcr.gov/articles/the-prehistory-of-north-carolina-a-basic-cultural-sequence

There is also an excellent projectile point chart specific to the Piedmont of North Carolina.  Here is a link: https://archaeology.ncdcr.gov/articles/projectile-points-of-the-north-carolina-piedmont

A special thanks to Jimmy Ray and Brian Bockhahn for their insights into where and when the artifacts were collected.

Herb Amyx

 

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The Enigmatic Dual Forms of Virginia Snakeroot (Endodeca serpentaria)

Virginia Snakeroot – Endodeca serpentaria –  is a common , low growing, native perennial that can be found in a variety of forest habitats in North Carolina.  It is a member of the Birthwort family (Aristolochiaceae) , a family primarily of tropical woody vines.  Virginia Snakeroot is a family outlier in that it is neither tropical, woody, nor a vine.  Its small size and low growing form make it very easy to overlook among other herbaceous plants on the forest floor.

Virginia Snakeroots are found in two different forms.  In this case, the form (forma) is part of its official taxonomic name.  Forma is the lowest taxonomic rank a plant can have and is rarely used.  It is the bottom of a descending rank of species, subspecies, variety, and forma.  Generally plants separated by forma differ only in minor characteristics like leaf color or shape.

Below are a series of photographs of Endodeca serpentaria forma hastata, which is the commonest one I see in Central North Carolina, but others may have a different experience.  These plants have smooth, narrow, spear-shaped leaves that sometimes have a flare at the base.  This shape is often called “hastate”, thus leading to the name.

Endodeca serpentaria forma hastata
Virginia Snakeroot
Plant Form

Endodeca serpentaria forma hastata
Virginia Snakeroot

Notice the small flowers on the ground near the base of the plant below.

Endodeca serpentaria forma hastata
Virginia Snakeroot
Plant Form

Endodeca serpentaria forma hastata
Virginia Snakeroot
Plant Form

The other form is called Endodeca serpentaria forma convolvulacea.  This form differs greatly from the preceding plants.  The leaves are more rounded and oval, and the entire plant is highly pubescent.  The plant below is a second year plant.

Endodeca serpentaria forma convolvulacea
Virginia Snakeroot
Plant Form

Seedlings are very tiny and are extremely slow to develop.  See below.

Endodeca serpentaria forma convolvulacea
Virginia Snakeroot
Seedling

The leaf margins are covered with fine hairs.

Endodeca serpentaria forma convolvulacea
Virginia Snakeroot
Pubescent Leaf Margins

The stems are covered with a dense pubescence in contrast to forma hastata, whose stems are almost completely smooth.

Endodeca serpentaria forma convolvulacea
Virginia Snakeroot
Pubescent Stems

Forma convolvulacea can form small colonies.  In the area around the largest plants, young seedlings and second year plants can be seen.  This small population is approximately 7 to 8 years old.

Endodeca serpentaria forma convolvulacea
Virginia Snakeroot
Small Population

It takes about 3  years before plants begin to flower.   They may then flower profusely, with clusters of flowers surrounding the base of the stems.  The flowers are also densely pubescent.

Endodeca serpentaria forma convolvulacea
Virginia Snakeroot
Cluster of Flowers

Several individual flowers are pictured below.  The location of the flowers in debris along the forest floor and the structure of the flowers themselves seem to point to pollination by small flies, fungal gnats and possibly carrion beetles.  But those facts may be deceptive.

Endodeca serpentaria forma convolvulacea
Virginia Snakeroot
Flower

Endodeca serpentaria forma convolvulacea
Virginia Snakeroot
Flower

The structure, color and location of Virginia Snakeroot flowers are somewhat similar to their relatives in the genus Hexastylis (Ginger Heartleaf), who are in the same plant family.  See the photo of Hexastylis virginica below.

Hexastylis virginica
Virginia Heartleaf
Flower

Descriptions of the pollinators of Ginger Heartleaf bear a remarkable similarity to those of  Virginia Snakeroot.  For many years the assumption has been that both flowers produce fetid odors that attract various flies and perhaps carrion beetles.  It is now known, through actual scientific experiments, that Ginger Heartleaf flowers have no odor, and that they are primarily self pollinated.

Here is a quote from an article by W. John Hayden in the Bulletin of the Virginia Native Plant Society, 2010:  “So, things are not always as they seem. Wild gingers look like they ought to be cross pollinated by flies but the best available evidence is that only some species are and then only some of the time; self-pollination, whether autonomous(in Asarum) or insect-assisted (in Hexastylis) appears to be the norm for these curious plants.”   It certainly makes one wonder if the same might be true of Virginia Snakeroot.  We will have to await further studies to know the answer.

The flowers of forma convolvulacea produce seed capsules very quickly, usually in about a week.  The capsules in the photo below are clustered in the same manner as the flowers around the base of the stems.

Endodeca serpentaria forma convolvulacea
Virginia Snakeroot
Cluster of Seed Capsules

The capsules dry quickly and become very hard.  Each capsule has six valves, and six well-defined ridges can be seen on the surface of each capsule.  As can be seen below, they retain their pubescence after drying and detaching.

Endodeca serpentaria forma convolvulacea
Virginia Snakeroot
Seed Capsule

Below is another look at the dense pubescence, with the style still hanging on at the top of this particular capsule.

Endodeca serpentaria forma convolvulacea
Virginia Snakeroot
Seed Capsule

It would be of interest to know the distribution and specific habitats of the two separate forms, or whether they even have different habitats.  However, since they both appear in distribution charts simply as Endodeca serpentaria, those specific facts are unknowable.  We do know that only Endodeca serpentaria forma convolvulacea is found in New England, where it is rare and only found in Connecticut (  Allard, Dorothy J. 2002. Aristolochia serpentaria L. (Virginia Snakeroot) Conservation and
Research Plan for New England. New England Wild Flower Society, Framingham,
Massachusetts, USA. http://www.newfs.org)

The article on pollination mentioned earlier is :

Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover: The Curious Case of Wild Ginger Pollination  by W. John Hayden    Bulletin of the Virginia Native Plant Society, Vol 29, No 1, Winter 2010.

Here is a link to the article:  https://scholarship.richmond.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1143&context=biology-faculty-publications

Herb Amyx

A special thanks to Bryan England for convincing me that  forma convolvulacea is really Endodeca serpentaria, and not a distinct species.

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Spring Flowers of the Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)

The Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) is a native tree known for its formidable thorns and its long, twisting pods.  The pods contain seeds that are surrounded by a sweet, honey-colored pulp.  The thorns and pods are shown below.

Gleditsia triacanthos
Honey Locust
Thorns

Gleditsia triacanthos
Honey Locust
Pods

The Honey Locust is definitely not known for its spring flowers, which are somewhat obscure and can be lost in the tangle of thorns and emerging leaves.  Male and female flowers appear on separate trees, but all trees (that are flowering) also have some flowers that contain both male and female parts.  The botanical term for this is polygamo-dioecious.    The flowers appear as catkins, and in the photos below, started emerging the first week of April.  They arise from the tissue surrounding branch scars and from the tissue at the base of thorns, which are simply modified branches.

Gleditsia triacanthos
Honey Locust
Early Catkins

 

Gleditsia triacanthos
Honey Locust
Thorn and Catkins

The catkins did not open until warmer weather the first week of May.  This tree turned out to be a male, and the stamens, with the large anthers at the tip, can be seen in the photos below protruding from the flowers.

Gleditsia triacanthos
Honey Locust
Male Catkins

Gleditsia triacanthos
Honey Locust
Male Catkins

Honey Locusts are very tough trees, and survive environmental extremes and poor soils.  What they do not tolerate is shade or fire.  North Carolina is not part of their natural range, which is the central U.S., but they are found in most areas of the state as a minor part of  forest ecosystems.  Thornless trees do occur naturally, and have been adapted to cultivation to produce city plantings that tolerate pollution and meager soils without the inherent hazards that the thorns present.

Herb Amyx

Gleditsia triacanthos
Honey Locust
Colorful Bark Patterns

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Eastern Gray Squirrels and the Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra)

Early blooming trees like Elms and Maples produce a bonanza of high energy seeds, greatly coveted by Eastern Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis).  Their frenetic activity high in the trees is a common sight in early spring.  In some areas, they appear to have an affinity for Slippery Elms (Ulmus rubra), and can be seen selectively foraging there while ignoring neighboring Winged Elms and Maples.  In one such case, pictured below, the squirrels appear to be chewing off fairly long portions of the terminal ends of twigs, littering the road below with the pruned debris, and apparently wasting large numbers of seeds.

Slippery Elm
Ulmus rubra
Cut Twigs Scattered on Pavement

However, a closer look through binoculars revealed a possible motive for this seemingly senseless activity.  Most of the Slippery Elm seeds seemed to be concentrated on the terminal portions of the outer twigs; the squirrels could not reach them safely, as the twigs were too thin and unstable to support their weight.  So some of them were chewing off the twigs at a spot that they could safely reach and then attempting, usually unsuccessfully, to grab the cut twig.  One squirrel was observed to hang on to a cut twig, only to mishandle it a few minutes later after eating many of the seeds.  Below is a closer look at one of the cut twigs.  Notice the white pith bared  at the end of the twig where it was chewed off by the squirrel.

Slippery Elm
Ulmus rubra
Cut Twigs

Slippery Elm seeds (called samaras) are round or oval shaped and have smooth wings that surround the central seed.  See below, with samaras on ruled notebook paper to gauge their size.

Ulmus rubra
Slippery Elm
Seeds

Below, the Slippery Elm samaras are contrasted with those of the Winged Elm (Ulmus alata).  Clearly, the Winged Elm samaras are much smaller and are more difficult for the squirrels to handle, with a smaller energy reward for the effort expended.  Notice their fuzzy margins and the hooks or claws at the end of the samaras.

Slippery Elm and Winged Elm
Comparison of Seeds

A closer view with better contrast shows the very fuzzy margins of the Winged Elm samaras compared with the smooth margins of the Slippery Elm samaras.

Slippery Elm and Winged Elm Seeds
Comparison

Most of the year, Eastern Gray Squirrels are obsessed with stashing  acorns and nuts in caches.  However, the abundant Spring tree seeds allow the squirrels the opportunity to increase their energy stores early in the year.  They eat the small seeds where they find them because they do not have cheek pouches to carry the seeds for storage.

Herb Amyx

 

 

 

 

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The Developmental Stages of the Smooth Coneflower – Echinacea laevigata

Echinacea laevigata – the Smooth Coneflower – is among the rarest plants in North America.  It is not mentioned in the B. W. Wells classic The Natural Gardens of North Carolina.  More significantly, the historic habitat of the Smooth Coneflower (Piedmont Prairie or Piedmont Savannah) is not among the eleven natural gardens listed in his book, undoubtedly because these historic habitats existed during his lifetime only in tiny pieces.  The Smooth Coneflower is now found almost entirely in small, disconnected patches in four states: North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia.  It is federally protected under the Endangered Species Act and is state protected by the North Carolina Plant Conservation Program.

Echinacea laevigata
Smooth Coneflower

Conservation of the Smooth Coneflower depends greatly on habitat management, which emphasizes restoring the sites where the coneflower exists by thinning  trees (especially loblolly pines), and  utilizing a program of prescribed burns.   Some sites have unsustainably small populations; less than ten plants.  Augmentation of these sites, by growing plants from achenes specific to the site, is a helpful management tool and affords the opportunity to observe the biology and development of the Smooth Coneflower throughout an entire life cycle.

Achenes are technically a fruit, and those of the Smooth Coneflower look like little dry, wooden spear tips.  They require stratification to break down the woody shell and release the embryo to germinate.

Echinacea laevigata
Smooth Coneflower
Achenes

Echinacea laevigata
Smooth Coneflower
Achenes

The achenes germinate by releasing small, rounded embryonic leaves (cotyledons) in late February through April, with most germinating in March.  In field conditions, the small cotyledons are very difficult to find.

Echinacea laevigata
Smooth Coneflower
Cotyledon

In several weeks, a single true leaf emerges.

Echinacea laevigata
Smooth Coneflower
First True Leaf

More leaves come forth as the small plants grow.

Echinacea laevigata
Smooth Coneflwer
Young Plants

By late August, most of the coneflowers are fully developed.  Typically, they do not bloom until the second year of growth.

Echinacea laevigata
Smooth Coneflower
Mature Plants

In the second year, early flower buds begin to form in late summer and early fall.

Echinacea laevigata
Smooth Coneflower
Early Bud Formation

 

Echinacea laevigata
Smooth Coneflowers
Young Bud Maturing

The late stages of bud development can be as interesting as the mature flowers.

Echinacea laevigata
Smooth Coneflower
Late Bud Development

Full bloom shows the characteristic narrow, drooping, light pink petals of the Smooth Coneflower.

Echinacea laevigata
Smooth Coneflower
Blooming Flowers

Seedheads (technically achene heads) form, and the achenes mature over a wide period of time during the fall.  The achenes can be easily seen within the seedhead in the photo below.  Within a population of Smooth Coneflowers, the entire process, from the germinating of achenes to the ripening of seedheads, averages about seven months, from March through September.  From the perspective of an individual plant, the cycle from germination to ripe seedhead takes a year and seven months since they don’t bloom in the first year.

Echinacea laevigata
Smooth Coneflowers
Seed Head

The  federal Endangered Species Act requires that the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service review the status of each listed species once every five years.   The five year review for Echinacea laevigata was just announced.  The Fish and Wildlife Service basically wants any new information about the species that has been observed or collected since the last review five years ago.  The hope is that management and protective measures are helping to stabilize and even expand the studied populations.

Echinacea laevigata
Smooth Coneflower
Mature Flowers

The common name of the Smooth Coneflower is derived from the very tall blooming stem that tends to be smooth and leafless, although small leaves can occur on the stems of some plants.

Herb Amyx

For information about the detailed rationale that  management uses to decide on augmentation, and the permits required, see the link to a previous article:

https://bwwellsassociation.wordpress.com/2015/03/25/saving-the-narrow-leaved-smooth-aster-symphyotrichum-laeve-var-concinnum/

 

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Winter Tree I.D. : A Few Easy Examples

Winter identification of trees usually includes examining the bark, twigs and buds, and sometimes the general form of the tree in question.  Branching patterns are seldom used for identification, and are often either non-specific or common to a number of different trees.  The Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica) is an exception, with its unique horizontal branching easily seen from the ground.  The upper branches and twigs come off the main branches at right angles, creating an antenna-like form that is striking in its regularity.  See the two examples below.

Nyssa sylvatica
Black Gum
Branching Pattern

Nyssa sylvatica
Black Gum
Branching Pattern

For contrast, the branches of a Willow Oak (Quercus phellos) are shown below.  Typical of most oaks, the branches reach upward and are often curved, with few if any right angles to be seen.

Quercus phellos
Willow Oak
Branching Pattern

Not totally unique but distinctive is the bud and twig patterns of the Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra).  The twigs, with their large, red buds, form a zig zag pattern that appears almost electrified when viewed from below.

Ulmus rubra
Slippery Elm
Branches and Twigs

The Box Elder (Acer negundo) is another tree that is usually easy to identify in winter.   As Box Elders mature, they produce a copious number of branches and shoots.  Even older trees produce clusters of shoots, sometimes directly from the trunk.  These shoots are smooth and are a distinctive green color, which causes them to stand out against the browns and grays of winter.  The new branches of a young tree are pictured below.

Acer negundo
Box Elder
Green Twigs and Shoots

Below is an older, mature Box Elder with clusters of new green shoots coming out in several places along the main trunk of the tree.

Acer negundo
Box Elder
Green Shoots

The Sweet Gum, Liquidambar styraciflua, is both common and abundant in Central North Carolina.  And it is very easy to identify in winter due to the high numbers of new, yellow-brown branches and twigs displayed by young, growing trees.  Below is a group of young Sweet Gums.  In the second photo, the large buds stand out even at a distance.

Liquidambar styraciflua
Sweet Gum
Twigs

Liquidambar styraciflua
Sweet Gum
Twigs

As Sweet Gums age, and developing bark begins to cover most of the branches, the distinctive large, terminal buds remain conspicuous.  They are colorful and shiny, almost as if they had been waxed.  And the overlapping bud scales are easy to see.  They display a large range of colors that are often not mentioned in the bud identification guides.  The yellow-brown bud below is the most common.

Liquidambar styraciflua
Sweet Gum
Yellow-brown Bud

Shiny, reddish buds are seen occasionally.

Liquidambar styraciflua
Sweet Gum
Reddish Bud

And buds with a green tint are also seen.

Liquidambar styraciflua
Sweet Gum
Green-brown Bud

Oaks have alternate buds that occur in clusters at the tip of the twig.  Bud scales are obvious and the bud color is usually a shade of brown or red.  Determining the exact species of oak using the bud and twig can be done, but is somewhat of a specialty.  Many twig and bud identification keys simply end with “Oak” or “Quercus sp.” and don’t try to go any further.  Below is the twig and bud from a Southern Red Oak (Quercus falcata).

Quercus falcata
Southern Red Oak
Twig and Buds

There are many on-line winter twig and bud identification keys.  Here is a good one by Jon Stucky of North Carolina State University:

https://projects.ncsu.edu/cals/plantbiology/ncsc/TwigID/

Herb Amyx

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Searching for the Elusive “Slippery” Elm – Ulmus rubra

Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra) is a common native tree in North Carolina, with most populations found in the Piedmont and Mountain regions.  Surprisingly, Slippery Elms do not appear on the plant lists from many of our major state parks.  This includes the Jordan Lake and Kerr Lake State Recreation Areas, which have thousands of forested acres in the very heart of Slippery Elm territory.  There are several possible explanations for this disparity.

Along with American Elm (Ulmus americana), Slippery Elm populations were devastated by Dutch Elm Disease starting in the  1930s and continuing even today.  As a result, Slippery Elm has a patchy distribution, often occurring as solitary  individuals and almost never in single species stands.  Thus the isolated nature of their occurrence makes them easier to overlook.

Another important factor is the difficulty distinguishing Slippery Elm from American Elm.  They are physically very similar and both live in similar bottomland habitats.  Therefore  it is very possible that Slippery Elms are mistaken for, and  recorded as, the more familiar American Elm.  It follows then that the most important factor in identifying Slippery Elm is to understand the field signs that distinguish  it from American Elm.

Differences in the leaves are a major factor in telling the two species apart.  The leaves of both species are large, have strongly serrated margins, are double-toothed, and have asymmetrical bases.  But the leaf tips of Slippery Elm have an extended tip that arises suddenly and abruptly  from the leaf margins, as seen in the two photos below.  While American Elm has an extended tip, it arises smoothly and evenly from the leaf margins.

Ulmus rubra
Slippery Elm
Leaves

The photos above and below also illustrate another important field sign.  The leaf blades of Slippery Elm often rise upward from the central leaf vein, giving the leaf a partially folded appearance.  The leaves of American Elm appear flat.

Ulmus rubra
Slippery Elm
Leaves

The fall and winter buds of Slippery Elm are distinctive in their reddish color, which often stands out brightly in the winter sun.  The red buds are the inspiration for the scientific species name “rubra”.  The two following photos were taken at the end of last November.

Ulmus rubra
Slippery Elm
Fall Buds

Ulmus rubra
Slippery Elm
Fall Buds

The photo below was taken in early January.  The reddish color of the buds varies.  The bud seen below has scales that are very dark , almost purplish red.  The buds  are also frequently a rusty color, and can be hairy.

Ulmus rubra
Slippery Elm
Winter Buds

Slippery Elm winter twigs (seen below) have a heavy, gray, fuzzy pubescence that is most pronounced at the terminal end of the twig.  American Elm has smooth twigs.  While this is a dramatic contrast between the two species, a drawback is that it requires magnification to be seen clearly, and varies in intensity from one twig to another.

Ulmus rubra
Slippery Elm
Hairy Twigs

The bark of Slippery Elm is too variable to be of much help with field identification.  The trunk shown below has a grayish color with long vertical ridges and some weaving.  Other trunks are dark brown and have intermittent or obscure ridging and weaving.

Ulmus rubra
Slippery Elm
Trunk and Bark

And finally, the small, round American Elm seeds (called samaras) have a distinct notch at the top, while Slippery Elm seeds have no notch at all.  This can be a helpful field sign, but the seeds are limited to a brief period in the spring.  The seeds are highly valued by birds, who feast on them while still on the tree, and clean them up  quickly when they hit the ground.

In summary, a condensed recipe for distinguishing Slippery Elm is:

In spring and summer, watch for the folded leaf with the sudden and abrupt extended leaf tip.  In fall and winter, look for the red buds.  When in doubt, look for pubescent twigs and seeds with no notch at the tip. 

Herb Amyx

 

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