By Joan Waters
Posted on May 30
Photography by NinStudio.com
On a bright, blustery Saturday morning early this spring, Kifumi Keppler faced two formidable opponents for the attention of the 22 men and women in her orchid care workshop. As she divided and repotted a Dendrobium orchid in the courtyard of her Exotic Plants showroom on Howe Avenue, a feisty March wind repeatedly buffeted and finally toppled a bevy of choice Cymbidium, Phalaenopsis and Miltonia orchids lined up behind her. Just as she righted the upended pots, rescued the scattered contents and continued her demonstration, a Caterpillar driver working the construction site on the next lot began slamming his massive steel shovel onto the pavement and then scraping the giant armature across the asphalt, making a noise about as ugly as they come. Keppler carried on. Then the wind came again. The orchids were rescued and set back on the shelf (in heavier pots this time), and Keppler went back to ignoring the Cat as it roared and railed (but thankfully stayed behind a chain-link fence). The group, satisfied that the workshop would go on as planned, settled down and focused on Keppler as she deftly slid a wild mass of leaves and air roots from a plastic pot and placed the Dendrobium on the table before her. As her assistant gripped one end of the root ball, Keppler sheared through it until she cleaved one plant into two. A woman in a green sweater asked, “Is it going to bloom again?”
“Oh, yes,” Keppler answered, nodding her head and smiling. “It already has a flower spike, so it will bloom again, yes.”
Not to make too much of the wind and the Cat and the way Keppler dealt with them and kept doing what she had to do, the orchid workshop offers an irresistible metaphor for the way she meets the challenges that come her way. Wind and CAT notwithstanding, on that Saturday, Keppler gave the crowd what they came for: Orchid Care 101. “There is always something you can do about a situation,” she says later in an interview. “I just love this business. There’s something nurturing and therapeutic connected to plants. Just seeing them grow and change and bloom. People need that in their lives. I think we all have that innate need to grow something, whether it’s plants or children or animals.”
Keppler honored that need in herself by veering from the very career path that brought her to the United States. She was born in 1944 in Osaka, Japan, to a kind, gentle, encouraging mother and a father she describes as loving, but very strict and demanding. “He was a descendant of a Samurai family, and we were trained to be cultured and obedient,” she says. She arrived in Sacramento as a Fulbright scholar in 1967—a major accomplishment given prevailing ideas about what a dutiful daughter should and should not do. But she left home with the blessings of both parents. “I was a black sheep,” she says, explaining that as the youngest of four daughters, her father was more lenient with her than he had been with her sisters.
Her Fulbright project was television/film communication. “I was accepted to CSUS and studied TV and film, and then I worked for the news department at Channel 3.” In 1973, the station aired her Lasting Images of Japan, a 10-part film series she wrote and photographed. It was while she was working at Channel 3 that she gained her first experience with the interior plant business. She, her former husband and another partner set up a plant shop on Freeport Boulevard in Sacramento. It wasn’t too long before “life got complicated,” she says. “I got pregnant and it was too much at that time, and I said, ‘I can’t do all this.’ So I decided to leave Channel 3. It was always rush, rush, rush, and, you know, the news is hard and cold, and I always had to have the film ready by two minutes before 6 for the broadcasts. So I said, ‘No, I don’t like this.’”
After the birth of her daughter, Keppler threw herself full force into the shop, where she sold all the interior plants people went nuts over in the 1970s: ficus trees, grape ivies, scheffleras, spider plants, the whole bunch. She loved the business then and she loves it now. “It’s bringing the beauty of nature inside,” she explains. “A room comes alive when you have live plants. And they’re natural air cleaners.” Health benefits aside, what drew Keppler into her life’s work is the uplifting effect that green, growing, blooming things have on the human spirit. “It’s basically ‘what you put out, you get back,’ ” she says. “Do you remember that book, The Secret Life of Plants? Wow. That really fascinated me—that plants could sense what was going on around them. So I got more and more involved.” Some time later, when Keppler and her ex-husband started down what she calls a “rocky road,” she held onto the business. “I wanted to keep it. That was the beginning of my Exotic Plants.”
At first, Keppler says, people laughed at her. “I didn’t know anything about business then. People said, ‘Yeah, sure. Good luck. You don’t know A, B, C about business’ and they were right—I had a lot of challenges.” She plunged ahead anyway.
Today, the little shop on Freeport Boulevard is just a memory. Exotic Plants at 1833-A Howe Ave. (exoticplantsltd.com) is a $1.2 million business with 22 full- and part-time employees. But much more than that, it’s a world of tropical contrasts—brilliance and serenity all under the same roof. Flashy red, yellow and tangerine-colored bromeliads mix with stately 8-foot palms. There are manicured bonsai with tiny orange fruits, braided ficus trees and bamboo plants woven like lattice in lacquered pots. Orchids—hundreds of them—are massed at the center of the showroom. Epiphytes (species that take nutrients and water from the air) and terrestrials (the ones that grow in soil) are gathered in glorious displays and clustered here and there around the showroom perimeter. They’re yellow and cocoa-colored and white. They’re spotted and speckled and orange and lime-green and so purple they’re almost black.
Each of the plants is hand-selected and perfect. It’s easy to see how they attract retail customers who want small- and large-scale plants in their homes, and commercial clients who want to green up their restaurants, lobbies, shopping malls and offices. Exotic Plants offers design services, plant sales and rentals, retail and residential maintenance service and commercial maintenance service as well. “We do plants for weddings, graduations, all kinds of events,” Keppler says. Among her patrons are some of Sacramento’s most best-known families and interior designers.
“She’s very sensitive, intuitive and certainly knows her stuff,” says Bruce Benning of Benning Design Associates. “She helps us with office projects, commercial projects and restaurant projects, and she is excellent at interpreting the settings. When we work with her, we have suggestions and then she makes suggestions, and her suggestions are usually better than ours.” Keppler not only picks the right plant for the right spot, Benning says, she also knows how to present it for the best effect. “There’s a lot to decide about what works with the plant,” he says. “It’s got to be ‘dressed’ and potted. She sees plants as less of a commodity to fill space. Some people think as long as it’s green and alive, stick it in there. But Kifumi takes it up a notch because she cares.” And not just about the plants, but about the people and the projects she’s working on. “Sometimes, it can get pretty frantic, but working with Kifumi is always so easy,” Benning says. “She resonates with a calmness . . . there’s a calmness about her that I always appreciate. We recommend her every time, all the time, in any situation from beginning to end—from installation to maintenance.”
When asked to name her clients’ favorite plants, Keppler immediately says “orchids.” “We sell more orchids than anything else. I do bonsai and orchid workshops, and orchids are definitely more popular. People want to know how to grow orchids and have them rebloom. There are more than 100,000 varieties and 20,000 species. The sky is the limit. You can collect and enjoy many, many different colors and shapes and forms.”
As she talks about her life, her happiness and success, Keppler credits her 28-year marriage to her husband chiropractor James Keppler, her relationship with her daughter, Miki, who is now 32, and the Church of Scientology. “It’s an applied philosophy that helps to improve your life,” she explains. “It’s all about dealing with life. I’ve used the philosophy in many ways. Although my first husband and I are divorced, we have a very good relationship. [Scientology] is all about dealing with life, whether it’s animals or business or relationships with your kids, your husband, employees … At one time, I was a basket case. I would say to myself, ‘How do I deal with this? What do I do?’ But I learned the tools that I needed to improve my viewpoint and to change the conditions in my life.”
One of her strongest beliefs, Keppler says, is that there is always something she can do to put things right—in other words, where there’s a will, there’s a way. About two years ago, she learned she was going to have to move Exotic Plants because the lot was slated for a fast-food restaurant. ‘It was sad, very sad,” she says. She started to scour the city in the midst of a white-hot real estate market. “It was pretty scary finding a new place. I drove around and looked far and wide. I wanted to be near where we were, and I also needed high ceilings and good light, and that was very difficult to find. Finally, someone said to me, ‘How about the Odd Fellows building next door? So I went to take a look.”
What she found was potential. She revamped the dark former office building into a paradise for people and plants, and moved Exotic Plants late last year. She can see her old location from the doorway of the new showroom, where the walls are bright with fresh white paint and sunlight pours through newly installed skylights. “I’m tough,” Keppler says simply. “I do persist.”