This is the latest in a series we call PLANT PPL, where we interview people of color in the plant world. If you have any suggestions for PPL to include in our series, tag us on Instagram @latimesplants.
Yunice Kang’s Sanso (Korean for “oxygen”) isn’t your typical plant shop. Forget low-maintenance pothos and trendy fiddle-leaf figs. Here, you will find persimmons strung above a bouquet of rosehips and amaranth, kokedama and rare, tropical beauties like Kohleria and hibiscus “Euterpe” pruned and displayed in a way that entices, just like artworks in a museum.
Feeling nostalgic for community after months of selling plants curbside from her studio in Lincoln Heights, Kang is again offering in-person shopping starting this week, with a holiday pop-up lovingly installed in an office behind Maru Coffee in Los Feliz.
“I want to focus more on the retail aspect of my business and create a space that is for visitors,” she says of the spot on bustling Hillhurst Avenue. “I wanted to create a plant and flower shop that is specific to that location.”
In her latest retail endeavor, Kang plans to offer rare plants, handmade stoneware vases, gardening accessories, bojagi wrap packaging made from Korean fabric and fresh flowers. But don’t expect elaborate arrangements. On a recent visit, Kang offered “fresh flowers that you can bring home easily” such as zinnias and dahlias, bundles of lemon balm and sorrel, orchids and lion’s tail.
Recently, I spoke with Kang about the new pop-up, why she doesn’t have a favorite plant and how the death of her father prompted the former photographer to seek solace in plants.
You’ve spoken of the grief you experienced after losing your father. Can you share how it influenced your connection to plants?
Plants gave me joy when I was grieving my father’s passing. During that year, plants were an impactful thing in my life. I was literally Google-searching “how to cope” because I didn’t feel grounded. I tried therapy and books about grieving and meditation. My mind was in such a different place because of the grief. I was absorbing and feeling things very differently. The connection to plants came about naturally by arranging flowers and traveling throughout California and seeing different landscapes. I think a lot of people are feeling that way right now because of the pandemic.
So it started with travel?
I took road trips to heal — my dad was a big explorer, and he showed me a lot of places. As I was traveling, I discovered so many different plants that were interesting. I was mesmerized. Then I’d go to the nursery, and everything looked the same. So I started researching plants and exploring different events. There’s a big horticulture circuit in San Diego. I started to visit a lot of gardens and annual plant shows where I met a lot of collectors and started collecting plants.
How has your Korean heritage influenced Sanso?
Sanso has always been a reflection and byproduct of my personal journey. Family, history and location are all a big part of what drives my curiosity and interest. I am Korean and American. I find it to be a privilege to move between the two freely and to have a sense of belonging and also not have to belong at the same time. It is truly incredible that the Sanso community at large holds a genuine enthusiasm for being a part of our cultural expression, and we feel completely supported in our desire to bring Asian and BIPOC business closer together in our L.A. community.
What prompted you to open a ceramics studio within your plant shop in Frogtown?
Ceramics came about because I couldn’t find planters that I liked. Everything had a high glaze or was decorated. If it was simple, it wasn’t quite right. I wanted to make the plants stand out. I have a photography background and I lived in New York for six years, and when I returned to L.A., I met artists who were making things in their studios with raw materials. I asked to visit some of these studios and did a photo series on people who were making things with their hands. Not sculptural fine art but functional things. I photographed a lot of the materials, the tools, the spaces, and I learned so much in connecting the two. I talked with someone who was hand-building motorcycles, stone carvers, woodworkers and ceramists working with clay. It just made the connection that you can take clay and build something like a planter. It wasn’t about ceramics for me but creating the environment and experience that you get from being around nature and growing something. I decided I was going to focus on pulling all of those things together. I found ceramists to work with to see if we could produce things together.
How do you design the pots?
We design specifically for the shapes and textures of each plant and what makes them look best.
Your plants are so unique. How do you choose them?
I handpick all of our plants, and my eye gets translated into the final piece. I work with a lot of collectors who grow at home or in small greenhouses. I drive to the greenhouses and talk with the growers as I’m picking things out. That’s how the transaction happens, and I feel like that is what translates in our shop — we showcase a lot of different plants in one place. We can never guarantee stock on any specific plant, just as the growers that we visit are not on a production schedule. There are so many variables that play into what I find. I try to find something that is striking to me and in good condition. Throughout the last three years, we have come across a lot of different plants, and quite a number of them are one-offs.
Do you have a favorite plant?
No. There are too many. I often give people this answer: It’s not the type of plant that I love; it is more about how I’ve spent time with it. If I have had a particular plant for a long time, the attachment grows. That relationship means more to me than something that is rare.
Why open a pop-up now?
There’s something different about going into a space in person and being able to see something. Our goal is to bring people inside. We’ve had to do so much online during the pandemic.
Tell me about the pop-up.
The concept is specific to the site. I want people to be able to stop by their neighborhood spot and pick up some fresh flowers for their homes. I hope it turns into a whole in-person experience. That’s how the Frogtown space felt. I want to create a space that feels really good and makes people feel rejuvenated. Plant life really jump-starts that feeling. We live in a city where many of us live in apartments. Having something from nature is super important. That’s not something I can design on my own.
Sanso, 1940 Hillhurst Ave., Los Feliz. Open daily, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. through December. (323) 798-9789. sanso.la