Bonsai Enthusiast - Dorothy Koreshoff OAM - Part 2


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

Did Bonsai originate in Japan?


So the Japanese took it from the Chinese? How old is it the art, any idea?

Master Hu Yun Hua from China he was with the Shanghai Administration Bureau. While he was there he searched the archives to find… For three years he told me, personally told me took him three years to find evidence. That there was a mural which has now become quite well known around the world. A mural of the Tang Dynasty I think they call it now. The Tong Dynasty where the emperor’s maid servant is carrying a bowl with a rock, a flowering plant and water. That’s on a mural in a tomb in China. So it started then.

So what’s the extent of the Bonsai collection that you and Vita cultivated? How big did it get and what sort of plants?

Too big people say. I had in excess of three hundred Bonsai that I could show at any time. You see you don’t keep Bonsai in pristine condition you have to allow them to grow. If you keep on trim, trim, trimming to keep them looking nice and tidy you’re slowing the tree down. Eventually it’s stunted because it’s not growing. It’s got to have growth in order to survive. You always have to have some trees that are trimmed and others you just let grow riot for a year or so then trim them back.

Did you exhibit your Bonsai at exhibitions?

Oh yes of course I did, never for competition no. Didn’t really believe that it was a good thing, it brings out the worst in people when it’s competition. But at the same time I have allowed it in the Bonsai Society as long as it’s used as a means to not call it a critique, but to help people to know where the next step is.

Where is the collection now?

Huh it’s in three different places. I have a little bit at my place at Castle Hill and another third is up in Quarrabalong. The other one I’m never prepared to say where it is because there is security but they are vulnerable let’s put it there. It’s in a private garden that’s open to the public once a year. They will never see the Bonsai there because when I get settled somewhere I’ll have them all back together again.

Did you win any awards with your Bonsai?

Never tried to, no.

Never entered them in competitions?

No, never.

Inside shed at Koreshoff nursery 1993

Why was that?

Vita used to think that a competition was going to bring out the worst in that… But it’s also very subjective. You’ll think yours is the very best but somebody else doesn’t agree with that. If you know the judge then you can put in for competition according to whether they like flowers, whether they like small leaves, like red leaves, divided leaves. You get a preference for a particular style. There are five basic styles of Bonsai and then it goes on infinitum sort of thing. The different styles you can develop.

I believe that you and Vita both had positions in the Bonsai Society, what were those positions?

The Bonsai Society yes, president, secretary. Vita was secretary, always preferred to be secretary rather than any other position. I happened to be the first Australian in the Bonsai Clubs International. First international from Australia, I was ineffective because being a woman and men they have their own agendas so I was a pussy cat. But now they they’ve got an Australian third vice president. He was in the army so he knows how to conduct meetings he’s very good.

You’re still the President aren’t you of the Bonsai Society?

Yes but I might not be after Tuesday, it’s the election. (Actually she was re-elected).

How many years have you been President?

Since 1976.

That’s a long time?

They just don’t want to let me go. I’m very worried about commercialism getting into it. You might think that’s funny seeing as we had a commercial Bonsai… but we never used the commercial side of Bonsai to overlap the Bonsai Society. They had access to our property to do workshops and all that but never any charge. If I suggested that the pot didn’t suit it I would go down and get a pot at no cost for them. So we didn’t use it as a commercial enterprise.

View looking down at trees on Koreshoff property from property above 2002

Why is your place in Castle Hill so significant?

It’s the head of the Parramatta River, runs into our stream, comes up from below, runs down into the Darling Mills Creek which flows on into Lake Parramatta.

So they’re the headwaters at your place?

Yes it’s very dry at the moment but we have a dam which is always filled.

What were the fauna and the flora like in Castle Hill when you came? Were there many animals?

Yes bandicoots, echidnas, rabbits. Actually the rabbits just abounded so much that we had our stock area, where people could go and buy their plant and turn it into a Bonsai. The rabbits kept eating them all the time. So we put a couple of Besser Blocks and put palings on top of that so we’ve grown it ever since. Nowadays when Bonsai nurseries evolve we notice that they all have their Bonsai above ground.

We spent more than a year sourcing all the estate agents in the Castle Hill area to try to find a place. Finally we saw one along Castle Hill Road which juts onto the bottom of the property that we now have. When Vita asked Mr Coutts “is there anymore places”? “No, no, I’ve shown you everything the only other thing is the property over there.” Vita said “I’d like to have a look at that”. He didn’t like the property we were in because it was facing west and it was very bare, nothing there and it was a pig stye. Nobody seems to remember that there was a pig stye there. The earth gave way near the pig stye, so it dropped, there’s slippage in the area. Not in our place nothing has ever slipped down. So Vita the following weekend dressed very safely because a kikuyu had come up, there was privet, there was blackberry, there was just about everything there. It was just an absolute maze. So he had to fight his way through to find the big shed down the bottom. The Saddlers that was the name of the people before us. They had built a big corrugated shed to house the rabbits and they had a quota in those days, 1965, there was a quota system. The quota they had originally arranged for after one season, breeding season, they’d outdone it. So when they tried to increase their quota they were closed right down. They took a course I believe in real estate and the place was up for sale and we bought it. To the shock and surprise of everybody because there is just a road coming in to the little Victa war service home, because of lack of material in those days. So we bought the property and added to it. Put a verandah, there was only a few steps going out of the sitting room. We went on from there.

 Deborah right and friend Barbara on tractor with old pig stye behind 1967

So they were breeding rabbits in your house on your property before?

Yes big white New Zealand rabbits.

Tell me how has the Shire changed since you came in 1965?

Just modernised, high rise buildings, not much but they are planning it. Especially the Mall that’s gone ahead, the Towers was just a few shops. I think Mr Coutts had the real estate on the corner and he was involved with the Tower development there. There was an RSL put in. The schools added to, quaint little primary school at Northern Road and that’s been maintained as heritage. The building that’s going to surround it I don’t know what they are going to do but I believe that’s going to cover over. They’re keeping it intact as a reminder of the times passed.

Tell me about the events that happened to you in 1989?

A car accident down in Argyle Street (Parramatta) where a police van ploughed into our car just getting on midnight the 24th December 1989. Next thing I knew the car had rolled over, I didn’t know anything at all. I was knocked unconscious for a long time. We came to rest apparently under the railway bridge. The police car was rushing to a domestic but anyway they got involved in our car crash. The prognosis that was given to my family was that if she comes out of the coma she probably will be a paraplegic in a wheelchair for the rest of her life and probably won’t be able to get her sentences.

Dorothy Koreshoff in shed with orchids 1969

Were your faculties all right after the accident?

No, no it was very difficult. I was unbalanced; I lost my balance because the ricocheting of the head against the broken glass of the window gave me brain damage to the right side. I mean I had left hand problems and then I had the damage to the brain from the knocking against the skull on the right side. I can’t remember that and still now I’m left with slight imbalance on the left side. I seem to favour the right so I have to remember to lift my left shoulder up to bulk myself up. It’s very difficult for me to walk on a slope because I want to fall over. So it left all those things. It’s been a long time and I’m only recently beginning to feel that I’m back on track. It’s taken me all this time to realise that I’m practically back to where I was.

Now you’ve had some involvement with the Orange Blossom Festival, tell me about that?

Yes with the Bonsai Society of Australia. We first were meeting at Roseville at St Andrews church I think. Then as houses were being demolished and units coming up we found that the people in units were not interested in horticulture or gardening or anything like that because they only had balconies. You can grow a Bonsai on a balcony but it all depends which way you’re facing. South would be excellent, east is not too bad - sun block from the afternoon is probably OK with some species. If you’re on the western side there’s no way you could grow Bonsai. If you’re away on business all day no way or if you go away, no way it’s no good putting it inside for a day maybe but any longer is not too good. Anyway we kept talking about finding a new place nobody did anything? So I found Normanhurst Public School so that became our next venue. In the meantime somehow with the Council, I can’t remember how I got involved with the Council, course I do.

The Bonsai Society had booked the hall for their show and the Shire Council was moved from Castle Hill to the corner of Showground and Carrington Road. I just said to the gentleman “do you have a function room here”? He said “yes we do but you’ll have to go and park in the front and go in that way”. Well when I went in and saw this green carpeted room with one wall in dark green suede and windows all around and glass into the foyer through the glass doors. Ah this Castle place is so wonderful. Vita had come up with the idea of changing ordinary horticultural shows from the trestles around the edge of the room with maybe a trestle down the middle covered with butcher’s paper in those days. They must have a theme. The Council was so impressed they’d never seen anything like it. They suggested that if we moved our…”I said it’s very expensive and we didn’t make any money out of it”. They said “well look if you’d like to change your venue and time from the first weekend in October to the Orange Blossom Festival in September you can have it for free”. Of course we pay into any charity they like. I thought it went to the Council’s charity but I’ve just found out no we can give it to the Cancer Council. Some of our members have suffered from breast cancer and whatever so this is what we are doing.

Is this every year?

Yes it’s a set venue with the Orange Blossom Festival and we’re very, very grateful. They changed the date of the opening day the first week of the Orange Blossom Festival to the day that we had our show on. It was Art Meets Nature and if I say so myself it was one of the best shows that ever were. The people gathered around. I think they appreciated the fact that they could walk around in there and look at the show. Then come together in the foyer for all the opening addresses and so forth. People stand otherwise in their little groups and if you’re on your own or you don’t know anybody you feel quite out of it. It’s very good.

So when did you actually close the nursery down?

Last year Australia Day that weekend.

Are you going to leave the Shire?

I don’t want to.

But are you going to?

I’d hope not, I hope somehow, somehow I have this thought in my mind that I wont go.

You must obviously like it there?

Of course I do. I’m a person that loves the shopping centre, not necessarily because I want to go there and buy everything. I just like the activity I like the hustle and bustle on both sides.

Looking back at your life what were the highlights do you think of your life?

My parents Vita and my friends and Bonsai.

In which order?

Well it has to be the parents first because Vita was attracted to my character not my looks I can guarantee you that. By my character very shy, a secluded life, very young and you might say he moulded me and I’m so glad he did. My parents gave me a wonderful start and he continued. He would tell me the good things of life and how to behave. It’s just wonderful.

Dorothy with her mother Lucy Wellings c1934

How do you regard your contributions to Bonsai? How do you see that?

Dramatic, it’s moved on from lets say tradition. In my book I say you have to have respect for tradition, tradition got us where we are now. But we can’t stay at this point otherwise we become static. Everything has to move on. In the book it’s talking about life as well as every sentence is a bit of information. Then trivia come in, funny stories that have been associated… things that make your Bonsai better and your life better. As a better person, better Bonsai.

Is this a book that you’ve written?


What is it called?

"The Structural and Growing (Elements of) Bonsai", this is the first one. Then it’s (second book) about the art side of it. (Art Principles: Structure and Design). The subtitle is "The Underground Story". It’s all about what happens underground. Don Burke said that its ground breaking technology this book has to be written. So my solicitor Dennis Barton a very good friend says “I’m the only one, I’m a words man, and I’m the only one that can find exactly what you want to say”. “This is so controversial that unless you get to the very essence of what you’re trying to say you‘re going to be ridiculed”.

Really I didn’t realise that Bonsai growing was that controversial?

Well it’s not only a structural container growing including Bonsai you see. You can grow a cactus you can grow a palm tree anything with the information that’s there. Anything it doesn’t have to apply to Bonsai. It’s above ground growing.

So looking back how important do you think Vita and your contribution has been to the Bonsai in Australia?

Well I don’t want to be immodest but I have to say ground breaking. So totally different that it’s taken it to a whole new episode of growing plants in containers.

Dorothy Koreshoff with her OAM at Government House Sydney 2000

Dorothy what sort of recognition have you received for your work?

I have been awarded an OAM for horticulture and in particular Bonsai.

When was that?

A few years ago I don’t remember dates.

How do you feel about receiving that very great honour?

Well I don’t use it for myself. I never sign myself with an OAM. I’m grateful to have been recognised. It has been able to help other people. Dennis tells me it will take a year because he can only spare one day of a weekend and he said “at this rate it’s about six pages a day”. From about half past nine to about half past ten at night that’s how intense the wording is for people to understand.

For the book?

For people to understand he says it will take us a year.

So this is the new book that you’re publishing?

Yes everybody is waiting for it.