Colorful koi, jewels of the summer pond

The little boy was running so fast on the wooden walkway over the Portland (Ore.) Japanese Garden's water garden that visitors barely had time to get out of his way.

Moments later he breathlessly returned with his mother in tow, saying: "It was just like a goldfish but it was this big!" holding his arms as far apart as possible. Leading her to a railing, he stared down into the slightly murky water and his shoulders sagged as he saw only water lily pads.

"I don't see any ...," his mother began, then gasped "Oh!" as a brilliant red and white koi suddenly emerged from beneath the leaves and soon was joined by a solid-gold companion and others in a mixture of colors. Soon there was no space left along the railing as others gaped and pointed in admiration at the colorful school of brilliant fish.

That event happened just 15 years ago, and since then the number of people familiar with the flashy fish has increased markedly until no true Japanese garden is considered "complete" without a koi pond. In fact, an international koi show is expected to be one of the biggest attractions at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show, March 21-25.

In the United States the rise in popularity of water gardens goes hand in hand with koi culture. Now backyard water gardens are often enhanced by the flash of colorful fish rising to the surface in search of a handout when people approach. Although they're considered "bottom feeders" they will accept food on the surface as well.

Largely associated with water gardens in Asia, the fish thrive in any climate that will support native carp. They'll live under ice, for example, but won't survive when frozen solid. Which is one reason why they're becoming enormously popular in northern countries like Denmark.

Happily, the colorful carp have retained the rugged constitution of their "plain Jane" ancestors so they don't present major maintenance problems but beginning hobbyists quickly learn that there's more to raising koi than meets the eye.

As colorful as they are, koi are dirty fish, and a good bio-filter is a necessary part of the pond. Also, they make a great catch for fish-eating birds like herons and so the ponds must be protected with wire mesh just above the surface or be deep enough that the long-legged birds in search of a free meal can't touch bottom with their feet.

As koi hobbyists note, herons have a knack for carrying off the most prized fish in the pond.

One such hobbyist, nurseryman David Lake, lives in the northern California community of Newcastle, just a few miles from Sacramento. A large koi pond is the centerpiece at Lake's Nursery, which specializes in Japanese maples. Mr. Lake says with a chuckle that people come initially to see the trees, but spend almost as much time looking at the koi.

"People are sometimes a little horrified when I tell them that the fish eat their own eggs," Lake says. "When a female is ready to lay her eggs, usually two males bump her with their shoulders, forcing thousands of eggs from her body. They then fertilize the eggs and every fish in the pond begins eating eggs in a frenzy. To them, it's like free caviar would be to us!"

To keep all the eggs from being consumed, Lake practices a technique learned from other koi breeders: He puts the clean head of a cloth mop into the water on the side of the tank and lifts it out as soon as the eggs have been spread, moving those eggs to hatch in a tank without adults. But even under ideal conditions, fewer than half of the hatch survives.

Another aspect of the hobby is that the carp occasionally leap from the water and bang into the sides of the tank, suffering injuries which blemish their markings and reduce their value to zero in an instant. "It always seems," Lake says with a sigh, "that it only happens to your very best fish."

Koi are not "giant goldfish" as some believe, although starting out a pond with tough and far less expensive goldfish is a common first step in the koi hobby. What the Japanese call "nishikigoi" arose from the common black carp (magoi) in Japan about 200 years ago, and it wasn't until the early 1900s that the truly flashy varieties began making an appearance.

Typically they grow from two to six inches a year, reaching a maximum length of about three feet. They generally live from 25 to 35 years, but there are some treasured specimens reputed to be nearly 200 years old.

As koi evolved, competition between breeders for bragging rights - and later considerable cash prizes - became intense. At one point some skillful entrepreneurs were surgically implanting colorful scales on their fish and for a time the top prize winners (which might be valued at over $100,000) were examined under magnification to detect such manipulation.

Grouped by color, the most common koi is the kohaku variety, which is white with red markings. What makes one fish in this classification more valuable than another is its body being "whiter than white" and the red markings should be very well defined.

Then things begin to get complex: Within this grouping is the tancho kohaku (named after the tancho crane, Japan's national bird), which is a white koi with a single red spot on its head; an inazuma kohaku has continuous red markings from head to tail; a nindan has two red markings, a sandan has three such markings and a yondan has four.

Some sources have as many as 14 different color categories for koi, and within those are subcategories. The Internet offers a wealth of such information through organizations such as the Associated Koi Clubs of America ( or the Northern California Koi Council website,, but the best way to sense the enthusiasm of koi breeders and collectors is through attending an event such as the 2001 Northern California Koi Show and Competition, which takes place within the March 21-25 San Francisco Flower & Garden Show.

Arranged on some 14,000 square feet of display space, 50 tanks ranging in size from 300 to 900 gallons and holding from two to 10 koi each will display fish raised by members of the sponsoring nonprofit San Francisco Bay Area Koi Club as well as entries from numerous other clubs around the country. The actual judging will take place March 24-25, with prizes being awarded March 25, Sunday afternoon.

There will also be exhibits offering fish and water garden supplies for sale.

The San Francisco show's slate of seminars will feature five programs by world-renowned koi experts including Roland de Aenlle, owner of Toyoma Koi International; Erik-Alexander Richter, world-class photographer and editor of the Dutch magazine, Koi; American Ben Plonski, an authority on pond construction; Carolyn Van Hoecke, past president of the Camellia Koi Club, and Dr. Donald Henderson, a local biologist focusing on water quality.

Lucia Rose, president of the sponsoring club, explains the link between koi and gardening by saying, "Our major objective is to introduce and educate more gardeners about koi keeping, and we hope our show pleases both koi lovers and garden lovers."

For details on the San Francisco event, the show's hot line is 800-829-9751, and the internet site is

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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