Who could forget a plant with a flower stalk as long as your leg?
I tried and tried to photograph the way this stem of flowers twisted and turned like a huge arm of artistically-shaded pastel flowers bent at the elbow, never breaking (well, I did tie it up at the top, so it wouldn’t topple of its own weight), and opening blooms from shoulder to tip for weeks.
This was in the beginning of my photographic career, so I had even fewer ideas than I do now of how to capture the personality of The Shirley, curled and crowded with flowers. In my garden notebook, I noted that I’d read somewhere that this variety has more flowers gong all the way around the stem than other purpureas. Mine certainly lived up to that claim, even when the flowers at the lower end were past their prime.
‘Shirley’, by the way, refers not to a woman, but to Shirley, England, home of Rev. William Wilkes, who did such a fine job selecting Shirley poppies. I love both his poppies and foxgloves, bred the old fashioned way, by years of selection. Considering all the fine varieites of foxgloves and poppies available, it’s saying something that, a hundred years after he developed them, Rev. Wilkes’s plants are still going strong.
His foxgloves aren’t as well-known as his poppies, though, and they should be.
JL Hudson describes Shirley foxgloves as “one of the finest, a giant variety to 5 feet, sometimes towering to 9 feet (3 meters), with long, dense spikes to 2 feet (61 cm) long.”
This is gross understatement, in the case of The Shirley I grew. Since it was curved, I had a hard time measuring the flower spike, but you can see for yourself that it’s a lot longer than two feet. It was probably longer than my leg. It was certainly as big around as the calf of my leg. People who actually stake their foxgloves will have an impressive plant towering gently over their gardens – if they have stakes tall enough.
More than any other foxglove, The Shirley delights with the tasteful color change of its flowers from bud to pollinated bloom, creating an ombre-dyed effect as the color flushes up the stem. And it is the densest-flowering digitalis I have ever grown. Words and pictures cannot do justice to The Shirley. You must grow it in your garden.
Next post: Yes, even more D. purpurea cultivars. A list of four, with pithy commentary. I hope.