Arboretum News

Clarence White: A champion for roses

Remembering Clarence White, who worked in the Arboretum's rose gardens for the past 20 years.

Arboretum Assistant Gardener Clarence White and Landscape Gardener Ted Pew took a rare leisurely stroll near the Annual Garden at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in about 2013.  Photo courtesy of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum Staff.

By Sarah Jackson, Arboretum Media Specialist

Roses aren’t the easiest flower to grow in Minnesota — and certainly not at a level that’s impressive enough to showcase at an Arboretum.

But for the past 20 years, there was one man who showed a special passion for the challenge of these colorful, fragrant and thorny beauties — Arboretum Assistant Gardener Clarence White.

White died on July 16 at the age of 74 after a short illness. He had planned to retire when he reached the milestone age of 75 in April 2023. 

White had a variety of gardening duties at the Arboretum, but he was most well-known for taking care of the ground’s many roses along with other staff and volunteers. 

That included the plantings in the Palma J. Wilson Rose Garden and Nelson Shrub Rose Garden, which together hold about 400 varieties of roses.  

Nelson Shrub Rose Garden. Photo by Mark MacLennan.

“Working at the Arboretum wasn’t just a job for Clarence,” says Arboretum Operations Supervisor Susie Koepp. “He had an unbelievable passion for roses and the knowledge to go with it.”

White’s job included working with staff and volunteers to implement the painstaking “Minnesota tip method” involved in winterizing tender hybrid tea roses every fall in the Wilson Rose Garden, a popular stop for Arboretum visitors near the Oswald Visitor Center. In the spring, of course, those same roses had to be pulled back upright at just the right time with White’s help. 

Over the years, as White’s expertise grew, he became an unofficial garden ambassador, happy to discuss roses with the media and many Arboretum visitors, who often had questions and profound curiosity about the enchanting but difficult flowers. 

“He just enjoyed talking about roses to anybody who was interested,” Koepp says, adding that White never boasted about his depth of knowledge.

Arboretum Landscape Gardener Matt Horth says White’s generosity of spirit was what impressed him most about White. 

“He had the ability to reach anybody, and he would seek out to connect with people of all different walks of life,” Horth says. “He was also really genuine. He was always authentically himself. He meant so much to so many.”

Regular visitors grew to expect White in the rose gardens. They noticed when he was gone from them this spring. Some could even tell something just wasn’t the same about the rose gardens as the flowers began to bloom earlier this summer. 

KARE 11 TV gardening reporter Bobby Jensen in a recent on-air tribute gave kudos to White for his incredible knowledge, revealed in many news interviews over the years: “He forgot more about roses than I’ve ever known,” Jensen said.

Jensen had planned to do a retirement story about White in April: “God bless you, Clarence,” Jensen said. “Rest in peace.”  

Born in Laurel, Mississippi, White was a longtime Minneapolis resident and a veteran of the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division. The Army recognized Clarence for his honorable service with several medals, including the Purple Heart, Vietnam Service Medal with two Bronze Stars, a National Defense Service Medal and an Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal. 

White is survived by a daughter, Corrine White; his siblings, Anthony White and Theresa Washington; five grandchildren; seven great-grandchildren; and his former wife and friend, Mary C. White.

Arboretum Landscape Gardener Ted Pew, who has worked at the Arboretum for 43 years, says he and staff feel a real sense of loss with White gone. 

White certainly wasn’t the youngest gardener on staff, Pew says, but he was still a leader among his co-workers due to his strong work ethic. 

“Clarence was a hard worker and was very good at pushing the young people, trying to teach them to work toward a strong work ethic through his example and encouragement,” Pew says, adding that Clarence also enjoyed growing roses at home, especially the old-fashioned varieties.

Pew, as he was spreading granular fertilizer around the roses where White used to work in the Wilson Rose Garden, says: “He did have an especially strong passion for roses.” 

Sarah Jackson is the PR and Media Specialist at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

2 comments on “Clarence White: A champion for roses

  1. Marvel Eileen Kummer from Delano, Minnesota

    A wonderful ambassador for the Arb I so enjoyed talking with him when I visited.

  2. Arlene Marie Spiczka

    Work as a volunteer for Duane and always saw Clarence on the ground working. A huge loss.

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