Bonsai Enthusiast - Dorothy Koreshoff OAM


Interviewee: Dorothy Koreshoff OAM, born 1930

Interviewer: Frank Heimans,
            for The Hills Shire Council

Date of Interview: 30 Oct 2009

Transcription: Glenys Murray, Nov 2009

This interview represents the personal recollections, views and opinions of the interviewee

I wanted to be an artist and I met my future husband’s sister and she encouraged me to… if I wanted to be an artist why didn’t I learn to do embroidery, machine embroidery. So when I told my parents they reluctantly, eventually reluctantly allowed me to go and try it out for a year. By the end of the year they thought I’d be very happy to go back to school, but no, I loved it.

What was the name of the establishment that you worked for?

Lavak Embroidery. Lavak that was the initials of the family, L A Ludmila Alexandra, Alexandra was the other daughter, V for Vita, A for Alexander the father, and K for Koreshoff. It sounded very French which would have been the go in the rag trade.

The owner of the factory, was that Vita?

Yes it was, with the family they were all in together.

When did you actually meet Vita, when he came back after the war?

Yes when he demobbed in Sydney he turned up at the factory one day and the girls sitting next to me nudged me and said “don’t look up now but that’s the boss”. I ended up marrying the boss and it was the most wonderful thing that ever happened in my life. He was a man before his time. Invented things and his matriculation from Harbin in Manchuria was very high, the scholastic achievements they were required to do was very high. He was very close to the top in everything.

I got married in April.

That was 1948?

1949. I was nineteen coming on twenty.

It’s an amazing story?

Oh well I think it is. No there are lots of lovely stories he was such a romantic and caring person, treated me with respect, loving respect.

 Dorothy and Vita Koreshoff 1949

So how long were you married to Vita?

Until he died in 1985.

How many children do you have?

Two, two girls.

What are their names?

One of them is Deborah Ruslana and the other is Ruslana Ludmila.

Now the Koreshoffs, where did they come from originally?

They came from Harbin in Manchuria.

Russian origin?

Yes White Russian origin.

How long had the family been there?

Since they got married I think. Vita’s father was the administrator for the area of the Vladivostok… the railway that goes from Moscow down to Vladivostok. The Trans Siberian Railway, sorry and because it was frozen in winter time they didn’t have access to fresh foods. So they hired from the Chinese government or the Manchurian government in that day a forty mile wide tract of land from Chita in Mongolia through to Pusan in Korea. The port was warm from the gulf stream so therefore he had a cushy job as the administrator of the whole area.

Alexander Koreshoff with son Vitaly Alexander and daughter Ludmila Alexandra in Harbin c1912

I believe that Vita had quite an interest in Bonsai? Tell me a little about how that began?

Well the Bonsai. At their home in Harbin it was a government property of course. With it went a collection of Penjing they were called over there. He expressed to me that the gardener and it was only a gardener, he was doing garden work as well as trimming the Bonsai. They didn’t get trimmed very often because they were growing in pure clay and as clay expands when it is wet and when it is dry it cracks. So they filled the pot with water and set it on its side until it drained away. Apparently it grew very well. So the mother loved gardening. She used to tend the pretty things, flowers and cut them. But when they moved to Sydney the mother was very upset with the houses on stilts up in Brisbane. So to make her a little bit happy Vita thought “I know what I’ll do, I’ll make her some Bonsai”. I think they still called them Penjing in those days. She wasn’t at all interested but Vita became interested and he pursued the interest from then on. He had Bonsai when I met him. I would go to his parent’s place in Cooperoo, Shakespeare Street Cooperoo, his mother and I would sit on the back stairs and Vita would be fiddling around with the Bonsai. I became interested but as I’ve explained and I’ve written books. In those days I was more interested in the man than his hobby. So that’s how it was but I grew to love it as passionately as he did.

Now I believe that Vita and his family had been growing Bonsai since 1929 is that right?

No when they came here in 1928 by 1930 the year I was born he had the idea of making Bonsai. So I think maybe 1929 but his real passion became more evident in about 1930.

He grew his very first tree in 1930 and I think it was an Atlantic Cedar. Tell me about that. He discovered something in the process, what did he discover?

Trial and error there was no information available. He could understand Japanese characters but he didn’t understand the words. When they were over there he just saw the gardener working which was very little. He was away in school in Harbin and they were all in Hialar(?). So only in periods of time when he was home in holidays and so forth, he would see the gardener going around. It was all trial and error. He didn’t realise that you had to have drainage so first things he lifted out. That’s what happened; in 1929 he started to lift out plants from the ground. Had no idea what they were, didn’t know that there were certain times of the year, season when you do these things. He put them in anything that would contain soil and of course they all died. So then he graduated onto putting some drainage in. So he put some sand in, well the sand wasn’t so good but eventually being down at Stanthorpe an apple growing area southwest of Brisbane. He noticed that they had a different sort of “sand” but it was diatomaceous earth or something. Exploded granite sort of thing. He started to use that and they started to grow. By this time he’d lifted out a seedling of an Atlantic Cedar and it grew. So it started with that one.

Atlantic Cedar Vita's first Bonsai in Australia

So he learnt how to do it by trial and error?

There were a lot of failures of course... when you're experimenting.

Putting Vita’s career in Bonsai in Australia in perspective, how much of a pioneer was he in growing Bonsai in Australia?

Very, very big, he has been classed as being possibly the first westerner to grow Bonsai. There were imported Japanese trees around the world in Europe and in England, having expositions at the time with Bonsai coming from Japan. In World War Two the American soldiers in Japan, the occupying forces. Either they or their wives that came over would undertake Japanese culture. Of course one of the things ladies could particularly learn was how to grow Bonsai. I think the first awareness of actually anybody researching and growing right from the start was Vita. To record that we’ve made with Central Australia red rock a bridge with two hoops and a stay in the middle with Australian figs on them of course. Port Jackson figs for Sydney and in Penjing trays of water. That’s considered a bridge between China and Australia. The American forces of course took Bonsai home with them. But they nearly all perished. The lack of information given to them, the nurseries that sold Bonsai, they didn’t speak English and it was more or less trial and error. I think some of them didn’t even really realise that you had to water the things. Some have prevailed over there but I just can’t remember. Some arboretum Arnold Arboretum I think they had some Bonsai that survived. I saw them twenty years ago in Boston.

Now how interested did he get in Bonsai Vita he was a pioneer in Australia you’ve already told me.?

Oh yes and he had connections throughout the world. He used to put out something called “Secrets”. Little ideas that he had and I’m very gratified in a way because a lot of the things he had pioneered he just corresponded with people. By letter of course, today they call it a network. New Zealand, England, America all over the place. The things that he had pioneered if I can use that expression the people are using them today.

Did he write articles?

Oh yes, prolific articles, yes my word he did.

He got them published did he?

Oh published articles yes wrote for many journals around the world.

Vita Koreshoff's Chrysanthemum dark room on rails 1951

I believe he scored a first in producing the blooming of a Chrysanthemum out of season at Christmas?

Your research has been very good. That’s correct yes. That went around the world as well. As I said he experimented with lots of things and he was very interested to know how photoperiodism, that’s the light and vernalization that’s temperatures affect plants. So he played around with that and found… The things that he loved very much, flowers he loved very much were Chrysanthemums. He considered those as the Asians do the queen of autumn in Japan and China. In fact he started the Chrysanthemum Study Club of NSW. It went on to become the Chrysanthemum Society of NSW. Some years ago as a founder's wife I attended their fiftieth anniversary. He started that I think in 1951.

How much awareness was there in Australia about Bonsai?

Very little, very little. There was a mystique about it. Possibly it was thought of as torture. People always said “don’t you have to cut the tap root or something”? Definitely not and when I asked people “what keeps a Bonsai small”? They usually say “cutting the roots”. That’s not correct, cutting the roots keeps the tree healthy, very healthy. It’s the eternal re-growth of young roots that make it to live into eternity. The only thing that keeps it small is pruning the top. But it has to be in conjunction with pruning the roots whenever it is necessary.

Can a Bonsai tree grow longer than a normal tree?

Absolutely I’m sure. I haven’t lived long enough to test it out. Provided it has plenty of air. We introduced a radical idea of potting mix and that’s using split gravel. It doesn’t matter which one it is. In fact even the pH is not limited. In fact you can grow azaleas. Everyone knows that they’re acidic. They like acid conditions but you can grow it in crushed limestone. With the aeration that goes on between the split stone it takes all the residue from the breaking down of the stone out. It’s when there’s not sufficient drainage. All these particles stay suspended or locked into the potting mix where the water can’t drain out taking that with it. That’s what causes plants to need either acidic or alkaline conditions.

You’ve really studied it haven’t you?

It’s a miracle for instance Don Burke thinks it’s a brilliant idea. The majority of people that have got locked into I call it “rotten potting mix” they can’t understand it. We’ve been termed as “the Koreshoffs have got rocks in their heads if they think anything is going to grow in that stone”. Vita said to me when I used to get upset he said “look you don’t need to be upset, let the trees speak for our success”.

Dorothy and Vita Koreshoff planting trees 1965

When did Vita and you start growing Bonsai on a commercial basis?

1965 when we moved from Pagewood out to Castle Hill.

How did you manage to make that move?

We opened it up as a nursery. Of course I was the only one home during the day because Vita was working at the University of NSW. He was head of the Fine Arts Department and he stayed longer than he should have. Instead of retiring at sixty he went on to sixty five or something. He started the Chrysanthemum Club in 1951 after working with the Chrysanthemums. He was always experimenting with one thing and another.

So when did he stop being involved with the embroidery business then?

Oh when we moved to Castle Hill, the Bonsai business which I was in was so successful that we bought four acres at Castle Hill. There was a house, we built onto the house, but then we built another house for the parents cause the father had died and the mother and the sister lived in the other house.

Did you grow the Bonsai yourself? Did you learn all about it from Vita?

Yes, yes so did Deborah.

Koreshoff Bonsai on raised platforms 2002

So how many plants would have been growing in the nursery at any one time?

How would I know? We became a primary producer and we had a lot of stock growing in the ground. Then we lifted them up when we thought they were suitable for young Bonsai and for older Bonsai. So it was a productive nursery with three quarters of it with the big shed nursery and the collection area. All the lovely trees that are growing, in fact I sit in the house now and look out the big windows. It’s just like a canopy above with all the beautiful trees in springtime.

How successful was the Bonsai business would you say?

It was successful, more successful spiritually to both of us. In a way I suppose it wasn’t the best thing but we weren’t interested in the money. We were interested in helping people and in giving them the right information. Vita tended to vet prospective customers by seeing how interested or was it just a passing fancy. What their lifestyle…were they away from a lot and all that sort of thing. Look he’d say “go and get a potted plant, your lifestyle it’s a responsibility so don’t even start”. So we turned a lot of people away. So many people came and said “oh my friend came here and you didn’t want to sell it to her…” but then they’d say “I’m prepared to do that”. So word of mouth built up our business not advertising which Vita said was the only way to go.

Original house on property was near the entrance 1965

Now tell me a little bit, you live in Telfer Road in Castle Hill? When you came there in 1965 who were your neighbours and what sort of things were they doing?

The street wasn’t occupied at all. There was a house next door to us Mrs Bolitho. She was involved in the horses and to do with Castle Hill Agricultural Show with the horses. Seven years later Judy Adam down the road, she’s now president of the (Castle Hill) Art Society. I spoke to her recently at a gathering for the opening of the Orange Blossom festival and she said “you were there first and I followed you seven years later. But Mrs Bolitho was the first one there.

Who were the other neighbours?

Nobody (ie nobody in suburban houses - the area had been mainly orchards).

You had no neighbours?

No it was paddocks and fifty seven acres that belonged to the Hastings from Hastings Deering. So we were surrounded by bushland.

Did you like living there?

Yes love it.

What were the attractions for you to be at Castle Hill?

I think the country side. When we moved from Pagewood which was just five miles from Sydney my friends said “oh we wouldn’t go out that far for our holidays”. I just loved the atmosphere, little village centre, theatre, a drapers shop, post office.

That was Castle Hill?

Yeah and the Council chambers.

It was just on the verge of development then was it?

Yes, yeah there was a Catholic School there St Bernadette’s, but I can’t remember whether that was there when we came or not. I have no idea, can’t remember. (The Catholic School, St Bernadette's was actually established in 1954).

Koreshoff treelined driveway looking towards entrance 2002

Now you said it was four to five acres of land that you had?

Just on four acres, just on.

That was enough to grow all your Bonsai trees?

Yes more than enough it was lovely.

What sorts of trees lend themselves to growing well as a Bonsai, any particular ones?

Well to make it easier trees that have naturally small leaves like Chinese Elms for instance. Whereas a Liquid Amber with large leaves, they are excellent with time and with pruning you will make the leaves smaller, they will come smaller. The larger leaved trees are better as a larger Bonsai, no the six inches, twelve inches, thirty centimetres whatever fifteen centimetres forty five I think about eighteen inches and bigger. The latest trend I’ve just recently heard is the Japanese now are saying the great big trees, the two man or the four man Bonsai. They don’t want those anymore. They’re looking more at reducing the sizes if they can. They’re leaving some for historical value. Not in private environments but public ones. They’re going for the smaller Bonsai, practical thing for people to look after.

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