White House Florist Bids Farewell After Three Decades

florist

Nancy Clarke oversees nearly every blossom to grace the White House. From state dinners and the family residence to the Oval Office and even Air Force One, the 64-year-old makes sure that each arrangement has the proper color, shape and feel.

"I think flowers add a special warmth to a room, they sort of set the mood, set the tone, and I just think it helps the people coordinate better, get along better," Clarke said on a recent afternoon from her station at the White House flower shop.

Click to Watch Nancy Clarke's Tutorial on How to Craft a Floral Arrangement

She and her staff of three work with flowers shipped in from around the world. She said they try to buy locally grown varieties, but have access to gardens globally.

At the White House, everything must be fresh and silk is a bad word. For a florist, it is the ultimate post.

"I can't even begin to tell you how wonderful it is to have had this job," Clarke said.

It's a job that has carried her through six presidents and soon, it will come to an end. After 30 years at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Clarke will leave to spend time with her family, which has just welcomed a new grandchild. May 29 marked her final day in what has been an extraordinary career.

Clarke began as a White House flower shop volunteer in 1978. She joined the staff a few years later, and eventually rose to chief florist. She has worked closely with each first lady along the way.

"Every first lady has her selection, her choice, her look," Clarke said.

Roslyn Carter often chose flowers from her own backyard.

"Her favorite flowers seemed to be white camellias from her garden," Clarke said.

Nancy Reagan preferred brighter flowers, particularly peonies.

Hillary Clinton enjoyed tropical flowers, like birds of paradise.

Clarke worked closely with Laura Bush on her selection of the Bush White House china. With Clarke's help, Laura Bush chose a green pattern because it would match any and every flower.

As for Michelle Obama?

"She seems to, as far as I can tell, really enjoy everything," Clarke said.

Nancy Clarke's Top Tips

After thirty years serving at the pleasure of the president, Clarke has developed her top three most valuable tips.

1. Cut stems at an angle -- to expose as much of cut stem as possible.
2. Criss-cross the first few stems to create a base for the arrangement.
3. Use a few drops of a diluted bleach solution (3 parts water, 1 part bleach) to keep the water fresh.

Clarke also showed us how to design an arrangement fit for a state dinner, click HERE to watch the tutorial.

Working With Presidents Past and Present

Apparently, President Barack Obama also enjoys Clarke's work. The first time they met, Clarke remembered, "He said to me, 'My favorite thing about living in the White House are the flowers.'"

Flowers in the Oval Office tend to be more subtle. A small collection of roses in a vase on a side table is preferred over large arrangements because "it's a place of business," Clarke said.

In that place of business, President George W. Bush made clear that he enjoyed coral colored roses.

Clarke remembers changing them to red.

"That lasted about five minutes," she laughed.

In working so regularly with the first ladies, Clarke said she has grown incredibly close with each of the families to come through the White House.

She recalled one particularly moving moment when President Ronald Reagan sent a special request for his wife after her breast cancer surgery.

"They asked if I would prepare a bouquet of her favorite flowers and meet him downstairs so he could take them to her," she said.

Politics can also come into play when it comes to floral presentations. Clarke has received briefings from the State Department on foreign flower protocol.

"Oh, yes," she said, "because in some countries, like Muslim countries, for example, you wouldn't have white flowers. Those are very funereal flowers. So, you're very careful."

Clarke will especially miss Christmas time at the White House. The flower shop is responsible for all of the elaborate decorations, such as wreaths, ornaments and trees.

Planning for the December holiday usually begins right after Easter. Preparations already are underway for the Obama's first holiday season.

Even after three decades, the majesty of working at the White House has yet to fade.

"When I come in and I drive past the outside of the White House, because it's dark when I get here, and I can see the flag with the lights on it, I mean, it's overwhelming," she said, "It never gets old."

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