THAT GREAT FAT white blossom on the new gardenia that I wrote (and wrote and wrote) about last week?
It did what it gardenia blossoms always do for me: fizzled and fell off like a little bird dying on a branch and falling flat to the ground, little feet wriggling in the air. Not that I’ve seen such a thing except on cartoons, but you get the picture. This is very sad.
Therefore, I will not write about plants this week—it’s too upsetting. Anyway, there’s more to creating a beautiful garden than those pesky, needy flowers.
Let us consider the umbrella, for instance.
You can, of course, go to Walmart or some such and pick up a perfectly fine-looking market-style umbrella for the yard or table: Those giant spreading circlets of canvas in punchy colors like tangerine and aquamarine can be immensely cheerful. If your flowers are already half dead from some plant plague or other, they can be a jolly distraction. At somewhere in the vicinity of 50 bucks, they’re also cheap enough that you can change colors midway through the season with your stimulus payment and still afford the ramen.
But I’m thinking about those wondrous umbrellas of the 1930s, ’40, ’50s, mostly years in which I had yet to exist. You see them in movies—the best are somewhere in the tropics, Key West, Cuba, Casablanca; set around turquoise pools where white-coated waiters hoisting trays bearing infusions of rum circle tables serving ladies in wasp-waisted, wide-skirted sundresses and gents in loose linen trousers and Panama hats.
Heavy things they were, those umbrellas, with mammoth canvas canopies, scalloped around the border and edged with thick fringe. They were striped or flowered or some combination, finished inside and out. Magnificent.
While these are just a memory, there are still ways to cast some wonderful shade.
For years I’ve been noticing the fabulous wares of East London Parasols on star patios in the pages of magazines like Architectural Digest and Veranda. Pricy to begin with, at around $700, add the shipping and . . . maybe if I took the Queen Mary to England for vacation I could tote one back. The trip might cover the cost of shipping. Now they’re available in the US and delivery is free.
Accurately described as “flamboyant, luxurious and unique showstoppers,” these are hand-made in Indonesia and finished inside and out. Some are cool shades of white, others flamboyantly colored, but each silken and fringed beauty is one of a kind and utterly show-stoppingly fabulous. Called parasols, not umbrellas, they are for use in the sun, not monsoons, and demand a caftan and jeweled mules for full effect.
Etsy has an fine selection of garden umbrellas, mostly from Bali, ranging from around $135 to $500. For instance, a stunning $495 (with free US shipping) Balinese ceremonial umbrella, the white cotton canvas top intricately hand-painted in silver, the edges fringed. Many of the umbrellas on Etsy are, shall we say, sublimely tacky. But that might be just the finger in the eye your garden needs in July.
You’ve heard of burn-out velvet, right? I have no clue how it’s done, but the velvet undergoes a mysterious process to create a semi-transparent surface pattern. Just so, the 8-foot-wide Stuttgart Market Umbrella, white on white and semi-sheer, creating a dappled shade on the patio table or lounge—though hopefully not strange blotches on your bikini midriff. A little bird finial perches on top, as if he just finished artfully gnawing the umbrella’s edges. An unusually gorgeous piece, this appears to be. On sale at Wayfair for $305.99 with free shipping.
No room for a giant-size number? How about a petite parasol from New Orleans, where ostentatiously feathered and mirrored and fringed umbrellas are a fixture at celebrations, from Mardi Gras to bar mitzvahs and probably funerals? Stella Umbrellas on Decatur Street has a vast selection.
Useless in the rain, these can be delightful in the garden: Stick one over a statue (à la Tony Duquette) or in a pot to shade a fragile blossom from the heat of the afternoon sun.
Or, ask Alexa to play a little N.O. jazz and have yourself a parade. Laissez les bons temps rouler!
LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” is usually disappointed by gardenias but never by parasols.