Learn all there is to know about planting, harvesting and saving heirloom beet varieties and chard varieties as well as the cool history behind some of the rarest and oldest heirloom beets and chard.
Heirloom Vegetable Gardening by William Woys Weaver is the culmination of some thirty years of first-hand knowledge of growing, tasting and cooking with heirloom vegetables. A staunch supporter of organic gardening techniques, Will Weaver has grown every one of the featured 280 varieties of vegetables, and he walks the novice gardener through the basics of planting, growing and seed saving. Sprinkled throughout the gardening advice are old-fashioned recipes — such as Parsnip Cake, Artichoke Pie and Pepper Wine — that highlight the flavor of these vegetables. The following excerpt on heirloom beet varieties and chard varieties was taken from chapter 8, “Beets and Chard.”
To locate mail order companies that carry these heirloom artichoke varieties, use our Custom Seed and Plant Finder. Check out our collection of articles on growing and harvesting heirloom vegetables in Gardening With Heirloom Vegetables.
Hortus Third recognizes two categories of beet: the Cicla group, which includes leaf beets and chards; and the Crassa group, or root beets. It does not acknowledge the fact that Mangold is often used incorrectly by English and American seedsmen for a type of large-rooted fodder beet. In German, where this term first appeared in medieval herbals, Mangold is used exclusively for chard. Its etymological origin is unknown, but may stem from Gaulish. The Germans, as well as many other Europeans, do not adhere to Hortus Third, and as far as beets are concerned, they recognize four cultivated forms, not two. I mention this because many of the heirloom beets that survive today originated in Germany; thus it is important to understand how they fit into the European frame of reference.
The four cultivated forms recognized by the Germans are chards (Beta vulgaris var. cicla), common garden (Beta vulgaris var. esculenta), turnip beets (Beta vulgaris var. rapa), and sugar beets (Beta vulgaris var. altissima). These divisions are purely horticultural but deeply ingrained in European thinking due to the high level of importance that the beet has played in continental culture since classical antiquity, far more than in England or America. Regardless of the manner in which beets are divided by horticulturists, they are all variant forms of the same thing and thus will readily cross.
Chards are characterized by their large stems and leaves, just the opposite of what beet growers want in root beets. The leaf is the part eaten, both raw and cooked, while the root is minimal, at least during the first year. Second-year chards can develop roots of immense size, but they are woody and inedible. By stripping the leaves of second-year plants on a regular basis, it is sometimes possible to prolong the harvest into the late summer and thus produce flowers at a later time than other beets. This technique can be used to advantage by seed savers where there is more than one variety of beet being grown at the same time. It also strengthens slow-bolting characteristics in the plant.
The common garden beet used for culinary purposes has been perfected over the centuries to achieve a smooth rounded shape and small leaves. Small leaves mean that more plants can be crowded together in a limited space, a feature important to kitchen gardeners. The Chioggia or Bassano-type beet may be considered a standard for this class. Yellow table beets have been known since at least 1583 and may very well date from the Middle Ages. Many gardeners prefer them to red, since the color does not run.
The turnip beet is not much different except for its large leaves and exceptionally large root, which is usually coarse in texture even after prolonged cooking in a pressure cooker. This type of beet is generally treated as a fodder crop for livestock, and of all the beets, it is the one most threatened by extinction due to shifts in agricultural technology. Some gardeners of late have taken a fancy to these fodder heirlooms, such as the Pennsylvania Dutch variety called Deacon Dan’s. The difficulty with these beets is that they are the field pumpkins of the beet world and require large open fields with deeply tilled soil. Some of them can weigh as much as 15 pounds, but they need good, sandy soil to develop such a large size.
The fodder beet first appeared in Germany’s Lower Rhineland about 1561, where the soil is ideal for their cultivation. They became widespread as a farm crop during the following century under the general name Mangelwurtzel, from Mangold plus Wurtzel. The dialect corruption of Mangold into Mangel has been commonly misinterpreted as “scarcity,” when in fact Mangelwurtzel simply means “root beet.”
Sugar beets were developed in Upper Silesia (now in Poland) during the 1740s. By 1786 they had become an important commercial crop as an alternative source of sugar, an investment in progressive agriculture heavily financed by the king of Prussia. Sugar beets were intended to compete with cane sugar, not to serve as a table vegetable. In fact, the sweetness was considered repulsive to many cooks in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Today, some gardeners in this country enjoy raising sugar beets precisely for their sweetness. The American love affair with all things sugary has even crept into our taste for root vegetables.
The beet itself is not sweet, at least in its wild state. It is native to the coastal areas of much of western Europe and the Mediterranean, inhabiting ground only a few hundred yards from the high tide mark. Beets were first gathered from the wild as a forage crop, mostly for the spring greens, then later brought under cultivation. It is known from archaeological evidence that they were grown in Northern Europe as early as 2000 B.C. by the Celts, long before the Romans entered the region.
The ancient Greeks and Romans knew both red and white varieties of table beet, as well as a Sicilian beet called sicula. This last variety has been identified as chard, and linguistic evidence suggests that it was disseminated throughout the Mediterranean by the Phoenicians. Chard did not originate in Switzerland, as many Americans now imagine, but the green variety known as “Swiss” chard does very much resemble the old sicula of Sicily and probably descends from it. The most common use for chard leaves in ancient Greece and Rome was as a wrapping for baked eel. Fish can be prepared in this same manner.
Roman military sites in several parts of Europe north of the Alps have yielded quantities of beet seeds, although it is not possible to determine from the seed whether they were for table beets or for chard. The earliest written record referring to beets in the Middle Ages survives from the A.D. 812 garden inventory of a royal estate at Treola (the present-day Triel-sur-Seine near Versailles) in France. Again, there is some ambiguity, since the term beta was used, and this was a word applied both to table beets and to chard.
The implication of this rather complex history is that the beet arrived on our shores in myriad highly developed forms during the colonial period. Because it was a root vegetable easily stored over the winter, many colonists considered it an essential winter food, especially during the infamous period known as the Six Weeks Want. This was a phase in the agricultural calendar running from the end of January through the middle of March when most stored vegetables were used up but planting had not yet begun. During this time, the sprouts from beets in cold storage were especially valued. Today we are not so pressed by these seasonal times of stress, but it is important to keep in mind that with a little planning, the kitchen gardener can maintain a well-supplied cellar and not rely so heavily on store-bought food. Boston seedsman John B. Russell listed the three most popular varieties of beet in his 1828 catalog: Early Blood Turnip, Orange Turnip Rooted, and the Green Beet for stews and soups. The last variety was not a true root beet but a type of spinach beet resembling chard. All three beets are also mentioned in the eighteenth century.
Beets are biennial and must be dug up in the fall anyway, since they will not overwinter where the ground freezes hard. The best beets should be selected for seed and stored in cool, damp sand until the following spring. They can be planted close together so that when they bolt, good cross-fertilization will occur. Beets in flower can stand as high as 5 or 6 feet; thus it is a good plan to stake them well to keep the seed from touching the ground. When the plants begin to die, the seed clusters can be collected and further dried on sheets of paper. When the seed clusters are thoroughly dry and brittle, they can be gently rolled to break them open. This will release the seed, usually 3 to 5 per cluster. Beet seed will remain viable for about six years.
But remember, all beets and chards will cross; thus it is best where small gardens are concerned to increase seed for only one variety a year, unless the plants can be brought to flower at very different times. Three beets and three chards can be maintained on a six-year cycle. For seed saving purposes, reserve at least eight to twelve plants for each variety. What are the best heirloom varieties to grow today? I have tried quite a few. The American Agriculturist (April 1870, 123) recommended the Bassano, the Early Blood Turnip Beet, and the newly introduced Egyptian Beet for kitchen gardens. These three heirlooms form a triumvirate of the best sorts for heirloom beginners. I have added a few others to round out a selection of colors and flavors.
I first encountered this Italian heirloom in an open market in Castelfranco many years ago. Several country women were selling it under the quaint name barbabietola di Chioggia, barbabietole referring to its diminutive size. Chioggia is a romantic fishing town on the Adriatic coast south of Venice. It is a place to which Venetians flee to escape tourists and relish real Venetian home cooking. For this reason, Chioggia has long been a symbol of authentic Venetian culture, and its name has gradually crept into the horticultural vocabulary of Italian gardeners as a stamp of culinary correctness. I mention this only to point out that the salt marshes of Chioggia did not produce this beet; in fact it was originally called the barbabietola di Bassano after the Venetian hill town famous for its grappa. The original Bassano beet was flatter on the bottom than the present-day Chioggia, and the skin was a duller red where it touched the soil, but otherwise they are the same beet.
Le Bon Jardinier (1841) described the introduction of the Bassano beet into France from Italy, where it was already well known in most of the northern parts of the country. Charles Hovey’s notice of the beet in his Magazine for Horticulture (1843, 99) brought it to the attention of American gardeners. However, it was not until the late 1840s that the Bassano was cultivated to any extent in the United States, and at that, mostly as a specialty beet for urban buyers. There seems to have been some initial resistance to it due to the fact that it was not a true red, which was preferred for pickles.
The root of the Bassano is flattened like a turnip. The skin is bright crimson red, and when sliced, the interior reveals white flesh veined with rose rings. The mature beets measure 2 to 2 1/2 inches in diameter and are very delicate when cooked. The baby beets are also quite delightful. They are so tender that they may be eaten raw or, if somewhat larger, after the merest blush of steaming.
'Bastian’s Extra Early Red Turnip' Beet
Beta vulgaris var. crassa
In Italy the Bassano beets came to market in June because they could be planted in the late winter and develop during the cool moist weather that characterizes northern Italy that time of year. Here, we must plant them in the early spring or in the late summer, depending on when we want them to crop. The market gardener with the earliest beet was always ahead of his competitors, and Bastian’s Extra Early Red was developed to capture that advantage. This large, olive-shaped red beet was introduced in 1871 by seedsman Henry Dreer of Philadelphia. It proved quite popular, although The American Garden (1889, 57) noted that in spite of its dark red color, the beet tended to blanch to a yellowish shade when boiled, thus losing its fine appearance. Cooking it, however, does not diminish the flavor. Bastian’s beet was further improved and released in its present form in 1886, according to a notice in the Farm Journal (1886, 29).
'Crosby’s Improved Egyptian' Beet
Beta vulgaris var. crassa
This is a beet that has undergone several major alterations to better acclimatize it to American growing conditions. Its parent was the Egyptian Beet first introduced commercially in Germany, then introduced into this country in 1869 by B. K. Bliss & Sons of New York. The Germans claimed that the variety could be traced to Egypt and replicated features of an ancient Egyptian beet. This assertion cannot be supported by archaeology.
New York seedsman Peter Henderson trialed the Egyptian Beet in 1869 and 1870. Based on those field tests, he recommended the beet to the readers of the American Horticultural Annual (1871, 119). Since seed was extremely scarce and expensive, it was several years before the beet came into general use in the United States. However, market gardeners were intrigued by its earliness 50–60 days and its excellent, rich flavor. But there were problems with its gross, uneven shape, which resulted in waste when submitted to the cook’s paring knife. This valid complaint was not taken lightly, for within ten years an improved strain appeared that has now become a standard among beet growers. Enter Crosby’s Egyptian Beet in 1880
This new strain was perfected by Boston market gardener Josiah Crosby and introduced by James J. H. Gregory of Marblehead, Massachusetts. The beet underwent further alteration and was introduced as Crosby’s Improved Egyptian Beet by W. W. Rawson & Company of Boston in 1888. Rawson was successor to B. K. Bliss of New York and the author of Success in Market Gardening. Thus, having been perfected by many hands, the beet received a glowing endorsement in the American Garden (1889, 321). Ever since then this beet has been a perennial favorite with American kitchen gardeners and more or less replaced the old Blood Turnip Beet. It has also been used by European beet breeders to create many additional subvarieties, and it is not rare to see Crosby’s piatta rosso-nera d’Egitto or Crosby’s betterave rouge noir d’Egypte in European seed catalogs even to this day.
The beet is characterized by smooth skin of a reddish slate color, bloodred flesh, and a small size that guarantees tenderness. It is extremely early, ready for harvest in June or July. Harvesting is easy because most of the root forms above the ground, thus requiring no digging. But the beet must be brought into storage before the first frost, because it cannot bear hard freezing. This is also true of the original Egyptian Beet, as well as the Egyptian Flat Beet, a late variety with a top-shaped root similar in form to the Milan turnip. These last two heirloom varieties are available from the German seed house of Carl Wilhelm Garvens of Sarstedt, but are not readily available in this country. It is my intention to offer the Egyptian Flat Beet through Seed Savers Exchange within the next two years because this type of flat beet, shaped like a Lady Apple, was never popular outside of Germany and may soon become extinct. Fortunately, Will Bonsall of the Scatterseed Project (which supplies seed through Seed Savers Exchange) has been maintaining the beet for a few years, so hopefully as more gardeners grow it, its benefits will become better known. It is difficult to understand why this beet has not been more popular; it is not only remarkable for its shape and color but also easy to slice with little or no waste.
For beet soups or any recipe where a truly bloodred color is wanted, this beet will supply that need. For pickling eggs the Pennsylvania Dutch way it is excellent, and for staining aprons inevitable. I keep on hand a much-battered “beet” apron to avoid purple splatters on my best ones. Also, it is a good idea to wear rubber gloves when cooking with large quantities of red beet, since the beet juice will stain the fingers and turn the fingernails brown.
'Early Blood Turnip' Beet
Beta vulgaris var. crassa
With this beet we enter the eighteenth century, for the Early Blood Turnip is one of the oldest surviving varieties from that period. Furthermore, it was also one of the most popular with early American gardeners, because it did well in a wide variety of climates. A handsome picture of it appeared in the Album Vilmorin (1855, 6). The root is round, about 4 to 4 1/2 inches in diameter, and when ideally formed, it has the shape of an inverted onion dome, the sort seen on Russian churches. The skin is violet-red, the flesh red with paler red rings. The leaves are almost black and have provided chard breeders with a source of color for many varieties of rhubarb chard. The beet can be planted early for summer harvest or late for a fall harvest, and is best when pulled before fully grown.
Its name is due to the fact that when cooked, the beet exudes a thick juice, similar in consistency to blood. This rich texture was particularly well liked by colonial cooks, especially the Pennsylvania Dutch. Christopher Sauer's herbal, in the installment for 1774, dealt with the blood beet as prepared among the Germans in Pennsylvania and Maryland: cooked in red wine and honey, pickled by baking gently in crocks of vinegar, and served as salads with oil and vinegar.
A related variety called Bull’s Blood is equally red and as rich. It has purple-red leaves, but is only good as a spring beet harvested young. If allowed to mature too much, it becomes woody. Old Sturbridge Village has undertaken to maintain the Early Blood Turnip Beet, but seed is also available from a number of small seed firms. Seed for Bull’s Blood is scarce.
There is also a yellow form of the blood beet generally known as Yellow Turnip-Rooted or Orange Turnip-Rooted. It is sold today under the name Golden Beet. Its leaves are yellow-green, with yellow ribs and veins. The flesh is dense and sweet. I prefer it to many red beets, even though its brilliant color fades to a dull yellow when cooked. It is excellent pickled with strips of lemon rind, fresh bay leaves, and garlic. Vinegar seems to restore some of the intense color and enhance the sweet flavor of the beet.
'Red Castelnaudary' Beet (Betterave Rouge de Castelnaudary)
Beta vulgaris var.crassa
The Castelnaudary is an old French beet about 12 inches long that is more or less carrot-shaped. Fearing Burr mentioned both the red and the yellow varieties in his Field and Garden Vegetables of America (1865, 14–15 and 17–18), although at the time they were completely unknown in this country, except among a few connoisseurs. Burr wrote a highly descriptive piece promoting the beet in the American Horticultural Annual (1867, 133), and the following year James J. H. Gregory listed the beet in his 1868 seed catalog. This is considered its official date introduction on this side of the Atlantic.
This beet has always been rare in the United States, even though seed is still readily available among seed savers. Its merits, aside from the unusual shape, are its fine, delicate flavor and its usefulness in winter salads. The carrot shape allows for quicker cooking and easier slicing, and it can be pared like a carrot before cooking. Its major drawback, if it can be called that, is that the beet requires deeply tilled soil to develop a good shape. It seems to thrive best in loose, sandy soil and therefore should be cultivated like a carrot.
The following recipe was intended for the yellow Castelnaudary beet. It is taken from A Handbook of Foreign Cookery (1845, 123–24).
Boil it in water. It is eaten as a salad or as a fricassée; if the latter, when boiled cut it in slices: put it into a saucepan with butter, chopped parsley, chives, a pinch of flour, a little vinegar, salt and pepper: let it boil a quarter of an hour. It may also be eaten with a white sauce.
'Red Crapaudine' Beet (betterave Crapaudine)
Beta vulgaris var. crassa
The Crapaudine beet is known to date from at least the seventeenth century and may be much older. A “black” swollen-rooted variety of chard was known as early as 320 B.C. in Greece and may in fact be the ancient progenitor of this distinctive black-skinned beet, according to food historian Andrew Dalby (1996, 83). In any case, it was raised in this country during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by wealthy individuals who could afford to import seed from France at their own expense. Beyond that, the beet was not generally available from American seedsmen until James J. H. Gregory began offering it in his seed catalogs during the late 1860s. Gregory noted in his 1868 catalog that the “French esteem this as best of all for table use,” which was entirely true. Its flavor is unmatched.
However, the outer skin of the beet is remarkable, since it resembles tree bark and is about as easy to remove. While epicures in the dining room extolled its exquisite taste and its proverbial French-ness, American cooks railed against the Crapaudine with ax in hand. If the barky skin can be said to have a benefit, it is clearly in the protection it affords the beet while in the ground. I left a row of Crapaudines in the garden over the winter one year, and they were not only undamaged by a hard freeze but actually sent out leaves under deep snow. I would therefore recommend the beet for its hardiness. On clay soil it tends to be tough, but on sandy ground the beet grows more round in shape and less dense. And, happily, the skin seems to slip off easier after prolonged cooking.
The leaves of this beet are also quite distinctive, being a dark metallic purple, “mulberry color,” as it was called in the 1600s. They make perfectly stunning salad greens, but they are much subject to leaf miners during hot, dry weather. I suggest keeping the plants well watered so that they are not weakened. Insecticidal soap applied regularly to the leaves will eliminate the leaf miners.
Here we have problems with terminology; as Eleanour Sinclair Rhode noted in her Uncommon Vegetables (1946, 55), chards are the blanched stalks of young globe artichoke leaves. These are prepared in cookery, like cardoons. This should not be surprising, since chard is a corruption of the French word for cardoon. So it is in England, but in this country, chards are the leaves of a certain type of beet that British gardeners refer to as the Silver Beet or Sea Kale Beet. Americans have long since forgotten that “Swiss chard” originally meant Swiss cardoon, one of those curious euphemisms like “Jerusalem artichoke” that has little to do with botanical reality.
The Silver Beet or Sea Kale Beet (the chard of America) is mentioned by John Parkinson in his Paradisus (1629). This is a variety of chard with a thick white stem. As I have already mentioned, this type of beet has been known since classical antiquity, and its ancient name, cicla, is of Punic (Phoenician) origin. In old garden books it is often referred to as a “white beet,” which can be confusing since there was a white-rooted variety of common table beet. Ottavio Targioni-Tozzetti referred to chard in his Italian botanical dictionary as beta cicla or bietola bianca (white beet); this ambiguity was not limited to English alone. Furthermore, the French added their own layer of confusion by referring to chard, especially the red and yellow varieties, as Chilean beet (poirée à carde du Chile).
Richard Bradley, in his Country Housewife and Lady’s Director (1732, 2:110), called chards beet chards, which appears to be the usage that came to America. Under the beet chard, Bradly supplied a recipe for a pie consisting of one-third part chopped chard, one-third part chopped spinach (orach may be substituted), and one-third part chopped French (round-leafed) sorrel. This was made sweet with sugar very much like the old Pennsylvania Dutch sorrel pies of the last century. Many cooks in this country (and in France) still throw away the chard leaves, using only the stems. This is because most chards, especially the red varieties, turn black after they are cooked, one reason, I think, why the Pennsylvania Dutch used dark brown sugar in their chard-and-sorrel pies.
This discoloration can be avoided altogether by resorting to a little kitchen secret called a blanching stock (blanc). For a typical recipe serving four to six persons, the chard should be blanched in 3 quarts of well-salted water into which about 4 tablespoons of flour has been sifted. This is whisked smooth to remove all lumps and then gradually brought to a boil. Once it is boiling, the heat is reduced, and lemon juice or vinegar is added. Then add the chard and cook uncovered only long enough to tenderize it (10 to 15 minutes). Drain immediately and use in casseroles, in microwave recipes, or with mixed vegetables. Due to a chemical reaction it undergoes in the starchy water, the chard will retain its color and not blacken after cooking.
All chards and spinach beets are biennial. For seed-saving purposes, they must be lifted and moved into winter protection in regions where the ground freezes. They are too tender to overwinter in the open garden. I pot mine up and put them in my greenhouse. A cool greenhouse is best; otherwise the chards will bolt before they can be moved out of doors the following spring. For seed saving, always plan on a minimum of eight plants; twelve is preferable for genetic diversity. But even eight plants will yield so much seed that it will be difficult to use all of it up, so share it with friends.
Spinach beets differ from chards in that they are hardy and can be overwintered under salt hay in most areas of the country where winter temperatures do not consistently push below 0° F. Spinach beets will produce heavily until a hard frost and then revive quickly the following spring. They will cross with beets and chards; thus precautions must be taken if they are to be raised for seed in the same garden.
'Sea Kale' Beet or 'Swiss Chard'
Beta vulgaris var. cicla
This was grown in America in the eighteenth century and was the most common sort of chard found in our gardens. It is characterized by very white stems, often 1 1/2 inches broad, and short, spreading leaves resembling spinach in color. Of all the chards, this is the hardiest, although it cannot be overwintered like spinach. Some American seedsmen referred to this as Green Chard or Green Sea Kale Beet to distinguish it from the Silvery Sea Kale Beet, a broad-stemmed variety grown in England but seldom seen in the United States.
Beta vulgaris var. cicla
Developed in the 1830s, this variety of chard was definitely known to American gardeners by 1848, although it was often grown more as an ornamental than as a vegetable. This is the case in France even today. There are three distinct varieties or subvarieties, the red, the yellow, and the crinkled-leaf. American seedsmen usually refer to the red variety as rhubarb chard. The yellow type is generally called golden chard, the name that appeared with it when it was first introduced. The yellow is by far the rarest in this country, although Seeds Blüm offers a fine strain with very rich coloration.
Since all of the colored chards were created by breeding them with beets that had exceptionally striking leaves, there are all grades of color and intensities available. There are coppery leaves with pink veins, rust purples with metallic splashes, vibrant reds, and pumpkin oranges with olive-green leaves. Some of these are shown in color plate 14. The crinkled-leaf chard, called White Curled Swiss Chard by Vilmorin (1885, 280), was introduced into England in 1828 as a “new” French variety. It appeared shortly thereafter in this country, although it remained a specialty vegetable until later in the century. A selection called Lucullus was introduced in the 1890s and is still popular today. The leaves of this type of chard are characterized by curling and crimping, much like a savoy cabbage. This adds nothing to the flavor. There are colored versions of this, both in red and in yellow.
'Spinach' Beet or 'Perpetual Spinach Leaf' Beet
Beta vulgaris var. cicla
The American Horticultural Annual (1869, 128) remarked that this was “not altogether a new variety” and that it “deserves to be better known.” I repeat these words because they are as true now as they were in 1869. The beet was well known in England in the eighteenth century and was consistently listed by our seedsmen from 1800 onward, yet no amount of recommendation seems to have increased its popularity. Its hardiness in our climate certainly has its benefits. On the other hand, if the plants are not kept well watered or clear of leaf miners, they can present a discouraging appearance. Leaf miners on beets are one thing, but when they riddle luxuriant greens with so many tunnels that the leaves look like ferns, it is no wonder our gardeners give up. Leaf miners have their season, and if the spinach beets are planted early enough in the spring, they will be large enough in June to withstand the attack. Insecticidal soap will kill the miners, and removing infested leaves only encourages the plants to produce more.
Eleanor Sinclair Rhode noted in Vegetable Cultivation and Cookery (1944, 65) that the outer leaves must be picked on a regular basis anyway; otherwise they grow large and coarse and draw off flavor from the young ones. A 20-foot row will repay itself handsomely with a constant supply of greens from May through November. They can be eaten raw or cooked like spinach, which they resemble in taste. The stems have an earthy quality that I do not find objectionable. It can be modified with a little lemon juice or zest of orange. In raw salads, nuts are more compatible with the flavor, as are mushrooms.
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Photos and Illustrations Courtesy William Woys Weaver.