One day as a boy in Japan I looked up and marveled at the fish-shaped fabric streamers, flowing in the wind like kites. The fish were Koi. Traditional Japanese households fly Koinobori from poles or lines in honor of Children’s Day, a national holiday observed on May 5. Whether in the kite form or not, Koi are special to the Japanese, who first bred the new fish varieties and cultivated their colorful iterations in the early 19th century.
As beautiful as some of the fabric examples of Koinobori can be, they are not nearly as evocative as the real thing. Koi are a form of carp, which to our ears makes them sound like something unpleasant. They are not a variant of goldfish, and though Koi can be interbred with the latter, the offspring are sterile, just as are mules (the offspring of horses and donkeys). Unlike common carp, Koi have been bred to feature bright colors and a fluidity of movement that graces many ponds in formal Japanese gardens. Curiously, if released into the wild and allowed to propagate, researchers find that within a limited number of generations, Koi offspring revert to the more common form and dull brown-gray color of river and lake carp.
A goldfish above a Koi
One notable difference between common carp that are found in many rivers and lakes, and Koi found in Japanese style garden ponds, has to do with the quality of the water in which they are typically located. As bottom feeders, carp tend to swim and eat in the lower levels of murky waters. And so – by contrast – Koi are usually cultivated in clear and relatively shallow pools where their bright colors can be better appreciated.
Koi can be quite expensive, especially the fancier varieties, but they can also live as long as, if not longer, than humans. For these reasons, those who are new to keeping fish in smaller outdoor ponds may do well to start with multi-colored goldfish, the outdoor care of which can be easier and a good preparation for caring for Koi.
Some years ago when we previously lived in south Louisiana, I purchased a black plastic pond basin from a big box home supply store, along with an inexpensive pump. Having half-buried the basin, we found some decorative stone and an aquatic plant or two. We then filled the basin and let the water sit for a few days to allow any chlorine or other potentially noxious elements within treated water to dissipate, and to ‘season’ the pond’s content. Some landscaping needed to follow, as you can see below.
For a surprisingly limited number of dollars, a trip to WalMart provided a number of long-shaped, rather than plump-shaped, multi-colored goldfish, which survived and even thrived over many years while growing to an 8 or 9 inch length (photo below). The pond pump helped aerate the water, and a natural bacteria and enzyme product made a huge difference in helping keep the pond clear.
Many people find even a small water feature like a miniature fountain near a patio to be calming and restful. Adding a small gurgling pond, such as ours, with a few fish can enhance the interest, providing the subsequent pleasure of helping care for the aquatic residents within it. Someday, I hope to have Koi. But I may be starting once again with goldfish, which on a smaller scale can often be just as beautiful!
A special thanks to former and now neighbors, Jeanne and Tom Morris, for adopting our goldfish and pond, and giving new life to the ensemble.