Lush Tropical Pacific NW Garden/Yard

poolmissyMarch 4, 2007

We are putting in a in ground swimming pool and I'm now planning the landscaping. Our yard already has a tropical theme and my hope is to create a lush tropical oasis. We have a large budget.

We need to build a privacy screen between the neighbors, but it can't be too high or will block my western sun. We will be using "Little Gem Magnolias" but I need another non-deciduois tree that won't get higher than 25' to go among them. Our landscape designer suggested Leyland Cypress - but I read they can get 60-70'. Is that true? Do you have any suggestions?

Our plant list so far includes:

Little Gem Magnolias

Banana Plants

Heavenly Bamboo

Hardy Palms various kinds


New Zealnad Flax

Evergreen Ferns

Mexican Orange

Japanese Snowbell

Various Grasses



Flowers include:


Bears Breech


Day Lilys

Calla Lilys

Caramel Heuchera

Would love any suggestions for additional tropical looking zone 8 plants and flowers.

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Ratherbgardening(PNW 7 or 8)

Clumping bamboos maybe?

    Bookmark   March 4, 2007 at 3:59PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

In Portland area you can see 'Zonal Denial' plantings at Cistus nursery. If you are closer to Seattle-Tacoma there is Jungle Fever Exotics, just south of the main entrance to Point Defiance Park. Both have plants for sale right there where the display gardens are.

Beware of using the 'Little Gem' as a background or screen where it would be a hassle if it become thin or part of it snapped out in snow. On many PNW sites it develops a foliage mildew that makes it gaunt. Like other Southern magnolia cultivars (and unselected seedlings) it may also break under damp snow loads (comparatively compact 'Victoria' and 'St Mary' seem significantly less prone to this than usual).

    Bookmark   March 4, 2007 at 4:05PM
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Thanks for the responses. I am adding some bamboos.

I am not familiar with the Victoria or St. Mary - are these of the magnolia family or another tree?

I am in the North Seattle area. These trees will be in full sun.

    Bookmark   March 4, 2007 at 4:20PM
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Mary Palmer

When adding bamboo around any pool, be aware that they do shed leaves and culm sheaths even though they are evergreen. I have given talks to the Water Garden and Koi society people and know that many of them do not like bamboo because of this habit. If the bamboo is to be a ways away from your pool, no worries or if you don't mind the maintenence of cleaning bamboo debris from the pool, no problem. As I told the Water Garden and Koi people, it's all part of gardening! And besides, bamboo will look fabulous near the pool!

    Bookmark   March 4, 2007 at 10:44PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Everything chosen for poolside planting should not give off small parts that will be a nuisance if they get in the water.

    Bookmark   March 4, 2007 at 11:04PM
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Cistus is a fun nursery. One can wander the extensive display gardens to see what the plants look like in bigger versions. In Tualatin a little south of Portland there's Hugh's Water Garden which has an excellent selection of pond plants and art and a helpful staff.

Sunset Western Garden Book has picture sections for all kinds of special planting situations, including tropical, ponds, pools, etc.

I like Leyland Cypress but don't have much experience with them. The ones that were here when we bought the house have shot up so much in the last 1 3/4 year that the previous owner couldn't believe his eyes. They're getting HUGE really fast. I planted a bunch of baby ones.

Some everygreen foliage that looks great here is varieties of miniature ivy and Stringleaf Japanese falsecypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Filifera'). These are good backgrounds for the tropicals with exotic big leaves and brilliant colorings. has Spider Web fatsia japonica as well as the straight green one. I've planted 3 and all 3 and happy and growing. Good luck!

    Bookmark   March 5, 2007 at 1:10AM
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daphnexduck(Z8 Tacoma, WA)

I've learned that if you look hard enough, you can find a variety of many 'tropical' plants that is hardy.

Hardy Fuchias
Hardy gardenia
Hardy jasmine
Hardy glads
Hardy geraniums

Lilies and dahlias give a wonderful, lush look, too.
Vines add a lot to a lush, tropical look, so consider clematis.

Daphne in Tacoma

    Bookmark   March 5, 2007 at 4:32AM
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dottyinduncan(z8b coastal BC)

Do you have a large yard? If you do, so you can accommodate deciduous plants, Brugmangia is wonderful and my favorite tree - Silk Tree (Albizia julibrissin) looks very tropical, but does drop a lot of spent flowers in the summertime and leaf sections in the fall. I have an underplanting of epimedium which hide the droppings. Brugs are great because of the luminescence of the white flowers and the marvelous scent. They come in other colours too.

    Bookmark   March 5, 2007 at 4:20PM
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You've got some great suggestions in these answers. Gardeners are just the best people, aren't they? Mimosa trees (aka Silk Tree), Dotty's great Albizia suggestion really seem tropical to me.

If you like big honkin' bold foliage, you might want to think about growing a paulownia/Empress tree and hacking it back each spring so it maintains the enormous, flopping juvenile form of foliage (see pic at link below). They're very easy to grow and make crazy-large, lightly felted, truly tropical-looking leaves. The only "trick" is that if you don't prune them, they become a tree (with nice early summer blooms) but as a tree they start producing smaller and smaller leaves, so cutting it back to just a couple of feet each late spring maintains the gigantic foliage (pic at link below).

If you've got a wet area, Gunnera might give you what you seek. It can have car-sized foliage when mature and truly happy, but it does have spines etc., so read up on it or ask a nursery person before taking the plunge. :)

In any case, everyone's suggestions are all great ideas. Things like canna, or coleus, would be nice for some tropical looking foliage, and most cannas don't need to be dug in autumn (coleus is easy to replace yearly, or easy to keep year-to-year via stem cuttings rooted in water and then potted up indoors before nights get chilly in fall).

Keep us posted on what you select, and how it works out. And take (and share!) a lot of pictures.

Best of luck,

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   March 5, 2007 at 7:06PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Apart from being the primary basis for a tropical look, plants with oversize leaves aren't as likely to clog pool filters (unless they have other parts that are small and get scattered around).

    Bookmark   March 5, 2007 at 9:55PM
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silver_creek(z8a WA)

Some of the pittosporums will get 10'-12' tall and could work for your screen (Pittosporum heterophylla, or Pittosporum 'Tall n Tough'). For the large leaf deciduous, I like Golden Catalpa (similar growth to the paulownia), pollard pruned for huge golden leaves.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2007 at 10:02AM
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daphnexduck(Z8 Tacoma, WA)

Did you know that there is a hardy pawpaw. Asimina triloba seeds can be found at Whatcom seeds (Oregon).

Here is a link that might be useful: Whatcom seeds

    Bookmark   March 6, 2007 at 12:47PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Asimina triloba grows natively all the way up to S Ontario. So, yeah, there's a hardy pawpaw. I've seen it fruiting at the Seattle arboretum and on the Capitol campus in Olympia.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2007 at 2:19PM
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Thanks for all these wonderful suggestions! I'm going to be busy looking them all up. I've got to go now, but when I have a chance I'll post my design layout.

FYI - The pool will be about 8' from the back fence line and the trees I'm planting will be behind the fence (our property goes 30' beyond the fence so I have quite a bit of room to work with) so I don't have to worry about some debris getting into the pool. We will also have a pool cover that will help tremendously.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2007 at 2:25PM
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mary_pnw_7b(Oly WA z7b)

There are some great Canna Lilies, dwarf or tall and many colors to fit you color scheme. If you have some shade, elephantÂs ear is a great tropical too.

Please share come pictures when it is all done.


    Bookmark   March 6, 2007 at 10:20PM
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grrrnthumb(z8 WA)

If you have a big budget you can probably afford to have a large hedge like Leyland Cypress pruned every year. I've seen a very one kept at 20' tall and only about 4' thick. Very, very impressive hedge. Smooth, dark green, evergreen, & private. Also will allow a relatively thinner hedge than most other evergreens, to get the same privacy. This gives you more usable yard space.
- Tom

    Bookmark   March 7, 2007 at 2:42AM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Or you could plant Italian cypress and not have to shear.

    Bookmark   March 7, 2007 at 12:05PM
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daphnexduck(Z8 Tacoma, WA)

Inspired by this posting, I stopped in at Jungle Fever in Tacoma yesterday (I go there when I need a Southern California 'fix') and purchased a passion flower vine (passiflora).

I also picked up the March issue (daff on the cover) of NorthWest Garden News, and thought of you the second I opened it. The inside cover has a wonderful photo of a lush, tropical garden, and the whole issue is scattered with articles and ads for tropical plants.

Ideas from NWGN:
hardy orchids
hardy watsonia
waterfall without a pond
Pineapple broom (Cytisus battandieri) from North Africa

NWGN is free and available at most independent nurseries and always has excellent articles.

Daphne in Tacoma

Here is a link that might be useful: NWGN

    Bookmark   March 7, 2007 at 2:56PM
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mdvaden_of_oregon(NW Oregon)

Be sure the Bears Breech is in shade - especially from 11am to sunset.

I installed for someone once, who had a design already done by someone else, and this lady was very insistent that every plant go exactly where the plan indicated.

A month later she tried to blame me for giving her bad plants.

So I got a garden book, and that's when I first learned the Bears Breech should go in the shade.

And this lady's plan had them in full sun in the Portland area.

A few years later, I happened to be driving to Seaside, and noticed that a lot of Bears Breech were wilted after a warmer than usual day, on the edges of the shaded areas. They were under trees, but got some afternoon sun.

Ever since I worked for that lady, the Bears Breech has been stuck in my head.

I like your plant list.

It spreads, but Lily of the Valley is one that I enjoy, even Bergenia if the soil is good.

    Bookmark   March 8, 2007 at 3:59PM
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JeanneK(z8 OR)

Lots of great suggestions! I have Acanthus Mollis(Bears Breech) and it does wilt in the hot, dry weather we get in Portland sometimes. Keeping it in shade with lots of water does help but it is much happier with our cool springs and warm autumns. How about lilies(lilium), oriental, asiatic or trumpet? Also,hardy hibiscus with its huge flowers is great for the tropical look.

    Bookmark   March 8, 2007 at 11:07PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

That last would be Hibiscus moscheutos.

    Bookmark   March 9, 2007 at 3:30AM
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skeptus(Salem OR 8)

Hello poolmissy,

If you like the idea of Leyland Cypress, there is a compact version, aproximately 1/2 size, called "Emerald Isle" which is distributed by Monrovia Nursery.

Good luck with your big project!

    Bookmark   March 9, 2007 at 11:59AM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

If that cultivar really does grow significantly smaller - I have seen indications it does not - that would make it something like 60 ft. tall instead of eventually over 100 ft.

    Bookmark   March 9, 2007 at 2:24PM
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Wow, I'm overwhelmed by so many great suggestions. It will take me days to sort through the ideas. They've been very, very helpful. I'll be incorporating many of them.

Also thanks for the Bears Breech tip, as I had placed them in the direct sun - I'll move them to a shady location.

Current Yard Photo - Except we've cut down all the trees.

Landscape Design Layout Right side is facing West.

    Bookmark   March 13, 2007 at 7:51PM
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Paw paws are another plant that I've planted at each of my Seattle gardens. They're fun trees. Mine made ripe fruit probably 3 out of 5 years once they started bearing. It's delicious so if you want to give them a try, go for it.

I've always read to plant named, proven-fruiting varieties which are grafted on to seedling rootstock, so that's what I've always done (you need two varieties for pollination). I've planted either 'Sunflower' or 'NC-1' either with eachother (first garden) or just 'NC-1' with a seedling (which was an excellent pollinator for NC-1 but didn't bear its own fruit when I owned the place). In my current new-for-me garden I've again planted an 'NC-1' and a 'Sunflower'. I purched my current plants from Molbak's out in Woodinville, WA, but bought my previous ones from the West Seattle nursery and/or Raintree Nursery (via mail order).

I never did try planting seed from my own fruit, so if these two current ones ever fruit (no time soon) I'll give that a try.

Another fun tropical-looking plant to grow is pomegranate. It grows and flowers beautifully, and in my gardens sets fruit just fine, though mine have never had enough heat to make edible fruit. Still, the look is great. You can get the popular culinary type 'Wonderful', or some of the minis and ornamentals (some with double, and/or double pink flowers).

Oh, and very nice pics/plan Missy. Keep us posted!
Take care,

    Bookmark   March 13, 2007 at 8:05PM
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dottyinduncan(z8b coastal BC)

My daughter and sil put in a pool 2 years ago and it is an absolutely wonderful thing to have. Their 2 teenage daughters are at home and friends love to come over. So do I. Like you, they have a large deck and they put in a gazebo with an outdoor kitchen which they use year round for bar-b-qing in the rain. Add a gas heater and they get a lot of use out of the pool. It opens in May and is used right until October. They are in the process of adding more landscaping so I am going to share all of these suggestions with them. It's a great thread guys!

    Bookmark   March 14, 2007 at 9:25PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

You cut down all the trees behind the fence? Too bad, they would have made a convincing rainforest-like backdrop for the new plantings inside the fence. The rainforest is mostly skinny broadleaf trees. Tropicalesque gardens are mostly a summer feature here in the North, so the leaves falling from the native trees in winter wouldn't have detracted much.

    Bookmark   March 15, 2007 at 1:38AM
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Sorry about the trees....they were all Alders. I can't have 70' of fence line of alders dropping their leaves in the pool. Not to worry - I'll replace them with beautiful evergreens, like magnolias, laurels and bamboo.

If you could see what is beyond my fence you'd understand. When I get a chance I'll take a new photo cause it looks like heck right now. You wouldn't think it the same yard (The neighbor's house behind burnt down a couple of weeks ago) I'll post pictures when I get a chance.

    Bookmark   March 15, 2007 at 8:14PM
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We still have so much more to do - but this is what we got accomplished this summer!

My perennials will have to wait till next spring.

Here is a link that might be useful: Construction Photos

    Bookmark   September 22, 2007 at 3:21PM
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catkin(UDSA Zone 8)

That's just beautiful!

So, how tall do the Emerald Isles get?

    Bookmark   September 22, 2007 at 9:08PM
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grrrnthumb(z8 WA)

Congratulations! Very nice job. It's only going to get better as it matures. :)
What's the tree in the sixth picture?
- Tom

    Bookmark   September 22, 2007 at 9:17PM
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Thats a Big Leaf Magnolia. I have another one in my front yard thats about 50' tall.

The Thujas or Aborvitae's get about 20' tall.

    Bookmark   September 22, 2007 at 11:56PM
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Beautiful indeed. Could you tell what the name of the palm is and how tall it grows here? I lose my tree ferns every year and I am starting to think I should replace them with a palm--as you can tell I love tropicals too. Thanks

    Bookmark   September 26, 2007 at 5:54PM
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Patrick888(z8 SeaTac WA)

Your project is shaping up beautifully. I can really envision adding a specimen brugmansia, as suggested by Dotty, and some cannas, as suggested by Mary.

A mature brugmansia in a nice container could really add a punch to the tropical look. They typically bloom in flushes of many flowers at once, then rest a few weeks before flushing again. Most are quite fragrant, perfuming the air around them in the evening. They perform best with lots of water and fertilizer and require dormant winter storage where they won't freeze.

A canna that I think looks very tropical is Peach Gigantum. A mature rhizome can push up a stem that flowers about 9' in the air! The leaves are long, narrow & pointed...sort of put me in mind of bird-of-paradise plants, for the way they stand upright. The pretty blooms are the smaller species-type and are loved by hummingbirds. Of course, Tropicana, as it's name suggests, also adds a tropical look. Stuttgart has beautifully variegated green & white foliage, but the white areas can sunburn if they get more sun that they like.

Click on the following images to see them in a larger size. Hold your cursor in the lower right corner of a pic & click on the icon that appears to sharpen the image further. These brugs were photographed in my garden in late August.

    Bookmark   September 27, 2007 at 2:56PM
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Am wanting to design and plant a tropicalesque garden, live in Washington state. Will be getting a satellite 10' mesh dish and putting columns under it for the center, as seen at another local you know of a magazine or book that specifically addresses designing a tropical garden? Have others of plants, flowers, etc...would like more detail on preparation, etc. Site will have a fence behind it, will be Southeastern location of my property. Am thinking 30-40 foot cirle including the dish.

A great nursery that sells/shows tropical displays is Shortys in Vancouver, Wa; I believe also one in Ridgefield, Wa.

Love the info I am finding on this site.

    Bookmark   December 29, 2007 at 1:15PM
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There's several texts that might be helpful. Hot Plants for Cool Climates: Gardening with Tropical Plants in Temperate Zones by Dennis Schrader and Susan Roth should be useful - one part of this book deals with designing a tropical garden. Others that are less how-to but a great source of tropicalesque inspiration are the books by Thomas Hobbs, Shocking Beauty and The Jewel Box Garden.

    Bookmark   December 30, 2007 at 10:30AM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

Amongst the best palms for the PNW would be the Windmill Palm, Trachycarpus fortunei, which is the palm in the pool photo. Other species of this genus to look for would include the more refined leaf form of T. wagneriana or T. takil. A smaller growing fan palm that is also perfectly hardy is the Mediterranean Fan Palm, Chamaerops humilis. There is also a lovely silver leafed version, C. humilis var cerifera. You might also be interested to try growing one of the hardier feather palms, such as Butia capitata, the Pindo Palm.

Other subtropical plants that are often used in PNW gardens for a tropical effect would include the various Phormium hybrids, Cordyline australis hybrids and cultivars, and Beschorneria yuccoides. The silvery foliage of Astelias, which much resemble Phormiums in habit, are also quite hardy for Seattle, and would include the larger growing Astelia chathamica 'Silver Spear', and others such as A. nervosa 'Red Gem' or similar. Fatsia japonica is always a reliable tropical looking foliage plant. Usually not quite hardy as year round perennials in all but the mildest PNW locations, but great as temperennials, the Abutilons of all colors are great filler plants. Bergenia was already mentioned, but this is a great foliage plant that also blooms in late winter, and is fully hardy, coming from Russia.

Winter deciduous subtropicals such as the various Hedychiums are also great, such as H. gardnerianum, H. flavescens, H. greenei. Cautleya spicata is also quite nice, and is quite colorful with summer blooms of red and yellow, and will even bloom in a fair amount of shade. My favorite Canna varieties for tropical flair would have to include the very tall growing C. ehemannii, which can get 10 feet tall, and has smaller rose red pendant flowers that cleanly drop off when done blooming.

If you want dramatic foliage that is the equal of a Gunnera, you might also consider planting the Rice Paper Plant, Tetrapanax papyriferus, but this will probably be killed back to the roots in winter in most PNW locations. Melianthus major is another great foliage plant, but will often be killed back to the roots outside USDA zone 9a conditions.

As to Acanthus, you should also look for the attractive A. spinosus, which has distinctive looking leaves. Acanthus does perfectly well in full sun in more coastal locations that don't get the baking summer heat of interior Oregon, but in its native Mediterranean habitats it will also quite willingly grow in full sun locations as well. In dry summer locations, it will go summer deciduous, and come back into growth with fall rains. In irrigated gardens, the yellowing, heat damaged foliage can simply be pruned off, and it will often push new foliage immediately if watered and fertilized, or can be allowed to wait until it cools off and starts raining again.

    Bookmark   January 4, 2008 at 1:16PM
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kkaren_marie(SW coastal Cana)

At our last garden I had two koi ponds with a tropical theme. The paulownia (cut back yearly) was an eye grabber all wanted to know what it was. I also used a catalpa aurea, treated the same way, to get lime green huge leaves.Evergreen magnolias are wonderful plus some bamboo a must. Heychium add that incredible fragrance plus over winter in the ground no problem.Farfigium japonicum is also large leaved,unusual, evergreen.Lots of fragrant big lilies- casablanca, stargazer etc. I also bring into a greenhouse cannas, taros, bouganvilla.... As you can see large and tropical just kind of grows on you. oh don't forget big strapping grasses.

    Bookmark   January 6, 2008 at 4:50PM
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kkaren_marie(SW coastal Cana)

Forgot the most important- passion vine. After a few year it will send up lots of vines from one plant and definately gives that jungle idea. Also the fruit look amazing. Don't forget vines of differnt kinds on the fence to really close in the look. Keep us posted and have lots of fun!

    Bookmark   January 6, 2008 at 4:58PM
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Update??? :-)

    Bookmark   May 10, 2011 at 6:24PM
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nightnurse1968 (Suzy)

I think Darmera Peltata has a lush and somewhat tropical look to it - very large round leaves. And it does well here.

    Bookmark   May 24, 2011 at 11:39PM
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