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Shirley Foxglove: Digitalis purpurea ‘The Shirley’

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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.

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‘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.

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Next post: Yes, even more D. purpurea cultivars.  A list of four, with pithy commentary. I hope.

{ 11 comments… add one }

  • jodi February 3, 2009, 2:41 pm

    These are awesome–I never met a foxglove that I didn’t love, though some grow better for me than others, of course. Pomona, in your foxglove explorations, have you seen many where the interior of the flowers had no speckles? I had a couple a few years back, dug from a friend’s garden, but I think they’re gone now. They looked so unusual (they were just standard D. purpurea, as far as I know).
    My current favourites are the little chocolate foxgloves; they’ve done well for me the past couple of years and I hope they’re going to spread.

  • Frances February 3, 2009, 3:25 pm

    Hi Pomona, what a fantastic foxglove. I didn’t realize the Shirleys did this twisting thing. The D. purpureas here have all mixed with each other so there is no telling what is who after many years. I have started seeds of the D. parviflora Jodi mentions, it sounds like a good one. Pithy, always.
    Frances

  • Sylvia (England) February 4, 2009, 3:21 am

    Pomona, I see Chilton seeds has a this in mixed colours, on my shopping list it goes! I have just the place for it, against a tall fence.

    I do like your net, brings back memories of people making nets in their homes. I live in a town that has a long history of rope and net making. Not sure if people still make them at home. I especially remember my step-grandmother making all sorts of nets, draped around the table.

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)

  • Pomona Belvedere February 4, 2009, 3:38 pm

    The only official foxglove I’ve heard of with no spots is the white ‘Snow Thimble’; mine have never sported to spotless, but given the infinite variety of D. purpurea I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. I think one of the things this series and everyone’s comments has shown me is that D. purpurea loves to sport and play.

    I’m not sure if all Shirleys twist in this way or whether it was garden conditions. I bet you have an incredible variety of D. purpureas, Frances. I always start out with intentions to avoid unintentioned crosses, but really it’s pretty tough to do and besides, who knows what great surprises could be waiting in the DNA wings?

    I wondered if anyone would notice the net. I actually crocheted it (and a few others) out of twine, since I don’t know the traditional net-making methods. I think rope making and net making are amazing sciences: how did people think this stuff up?

  • Frances February 4, 2009, 4:18 pm

    Hi Pomona, I just wanted to add about the netting, it is exquisite! I have heard that the ones who first invented knitting and crochet were fishermen with their nets.
    Frances

  • Sylvia (England) February 5, 2009, 3:26 am

    The method used here (I never learnt by Step-Granny refused to teach me!) is to wind the string around a cylinder shape. This cylinder (wooden) could vary in thickness and was about 2-3 inches long. The size of the cylinder and the number of twists determine the mesh size. Then each is knotted to hold it, the string is held on a long spool – I don’t know the names of these tools. But I remember several women in the villages making nets in their homes. I can also remember the fisherman making and mending nets on the beach.

    Best wishes Sylvia

  • inadvertentfarmer February 5, 2009, 9:34 am

    Ohhh I just discovered your series on foxglove. They grow wild here in the Washington state. Everytime trees are cut foxglove come popping up. I can’t tell you how much I adore them. Your series and photos are marvelous!!! Kim

  • Pomona Belvedere February 6, 2009, 4:20 pm

    I had never thought of netting skills turning into crocheting or knitting, but it makes sense. Crochet in particular is a sort of macrame using a tool to make it easier. And I’m intrigued to hear more about the traditional net-making methods: again I wonder how did people get inspired to work this out? Maybe someday I will learn how to make a real net.

    Kim, my best memories of foxgloves are from the Pacific NW, they look so happy and thriving there, I suppose because the climate’s so similar to their native haunts. And maybe partly because of how vivid the greens in the background are. Glad you enjoyed the posts.

  • cheryl February 9, 2009, 1:35 pm

    Okay, you’ve convinced me! I don’t have one foxglove but I will seek it out! I’m sure there is something that will work here in Austin! I love your enthusiasm, and your photos.

  • Judy Shirley June 2, 2010, 8:24 pm

    I would like to start a Shirley garden consisting of tulips, foxglove, and poppys. How can I get started?

  • Pomona Belvedere June 3, 2010, 10:32 am

    What a great idea, Judy, I think that questions deserves a post to itself. Watch this space. (I wonder if you should have something referring to Anne of Green Gables in there?)

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