Emily Louisa Merielina Rogers was born probably on 1 May 1839 at Beyton, Suffolk, England, the daughter of Emily Eliza Blake and her husband, Michael Edward Rogers, an Anglican clergyman. Emily's first 24 or so years were spent in various manors and rectories owned by her clerical and gentry East Anglian family. Her mother was determined that she would 'grow up quite natural', which she 'naturally did', as she later reminisced. When not in the schoolroom she roamed through the countryside with her brothers, getting into mischief and acquiring a great love of the natural world.
Emily's father died in 1848 and her mother in 1859. As a result she lived with her mother's sister and her husband at Bury St Edmunds. She completed her formal education here, and also began to take an interest in garden plants, encouraged by her botanically inclined relatives. Among her ancestors were several notable botanists including Sir Thomas Gage, after whom the bulb Gagea was named, and Sir William Gage, who introduced the greengage plum into England.
On 6 August 1863, at Bury St Edmunds, Emily Rogers married John Hannath Marshall, a tutor at King Edward VI Free Grammar School. The couple were to have four sons and a daughter. John took holy orders in 1864 and the family subsequently moved often, occupying various livings in East Anglia and Cambridgeshire. John's deteriorating health from tuberculosis eventually forced moves to the warmer climate of coastal Devon and Cornwall. Emily gardened avidly throughout these years, developing an interest in the more exotic plants that could be grown in the region.
In 1876, seeking a cure for John's advanced tuberculosis, the Marshall family emigrated to New Zealand on the Waimate. They settled near Motueka, on a farm adjoining Kaiteriteri beach. Here Emily made her first New Zealand garden, of necessity a mainly utilitarian one. With five children, an ailing husband and no domestic skills her life was hard. However, she had an indomitable spirit, and a neighbour, Hamilton Blanco White, gave practical help. John Marshall died in 1879 and was buried at Motueka. Emily returned to England with the children, followed by Blanco White who was pressing her to marry him. She failed to resettle in England – most of her family were gone – and she decided that New Zealand held more promise for her children. On 6 July 1881 she married White at Ixworth, Suffolk.
After returning to New Zealand in 1882, Emily purchased 13 acres of land on St John's Hill, Wanganui. There she built a large family home called Grove House, and began to create her dream garden. Her second marriage was unhappy and brief. Blanco White left for Australia after two or three years, dying on the goldfields at Kimberley in February 1888. They had had no children. Although legally Emily's surname remained White, she preferred to be known as Mrs Marshall-White.
Her garden became a showplace of rare native and exotic species, becoming so famed between 1883 and 1905 that it attracted visitors from around New Zealand and overseas. A consummate plantswoman and discerning gardener, Emily White came across plants with delight and grew an impressive number of exotic species. She introduced several species into New Zealand including the scarlet gerbera, G. jamesonii, from South Africa, and the climbing buddleia, B. dysophylla. She and her son Patrick Marshall planted the gum, Eucalyptus ficifolia, and other trees along Wanganui's streets long before the establishment of the town's beautifying society.
In 1902 Emily White published her reminiscences and garden story in My New Zealand garden, by A Suffolk Lady, modesty causing her to seek anonymity. At least three New Zealand editions of the book appeared, all dated 1902 and produced by A. D. Willis of Wanganui. The book had no illustrations and Emily revised the text each time it was printed. In 1905 an English edition was published, accompanied by black and white photographs. Her book is not only a chronicle of the making of a garden but also a commentary on contemporary colonial life.
As a member, and eventually patron, of the Wanganui Horticultural Society, Emily White exhibited and held displays at the regular shows and raised funds enthusiastically, gathering £700 single-handedly towards the building of a new hall. She vigorously promoted the ideals of the SPCA, being sickened by the treatment of working dogs and horses at the time. She was active in the New Zealand Women's Christian Temperance Union from its inception, and with her friend Ellen Ballance promoted women's rights and participated in welfare work. Together they helped found Wanganui's first orphanage, with Emily purchasing and donating the land. In 1913 she endowed a playroom for a new orphanage. An active church worker all her life, she made numerous donations to the Anglican church.
Following the sudden death of her son Joy Marshall in 1903, Emily subdivided the grounds of Grove House and in the garden built herself a smaller house which she called The Bungalow. In poor health, she travelled back to England with her youngest son, George, seeking solace in her childhood haunts and arranging the English edition of her book. She returned to New Zealand in 1905, sold her Wanganui property and moved to Marton with her daughter Jessie to help George at his farm, Greenbank. Here she created a beautiful garden which included trees imported from Melbourne: the Queensland frangipani, Hymenosporum flavum, the firewheel tree, Stenocarpus sinuatus, and flame trees Brachychiton populneus and B. acerifolius.
In 1909 Emily White sold all her English holdings. George was married the following year, and Emily and Jessie moved to nearby Marton Junction where Emily built a house she called Elmswell. Here she continued her usual tireless garden, church and community activities, selling bunches of violets at the station to raise funds for local causes.
After the First World War Emily and Jessie moved to a smaller property in Wanganui East, where Emily created her fifth and final garden. Granny White, as she was now known, became a familiar figure in the area, remaining active and alert in her old age. She died in her late 90s at Wanganui on 18 September 1936 and was buried at Turakina cemetery. A woman of outstanding individuality and vitality, Emily White made a significant contribution to community and horticultural life in New Zealand, and was her adopted country's first woman gardening author of note.