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Koi — Living Works of Art

Koi Fish

by B.K. Davis

Imagine you are sitting on a low stone bench, in a peaceful Oriental garden, next to a pond. You look down and see flashes of bright red, silver, black, creamy white, and golden yellow gliding under the water. A school of koi inhabits the pond.

Known as "living jewels," koi have been adorning garden ponds for over two thousand years. Also known as brocaded carp or Nishikigoi, they have been bred for beautiful colors that are most effectively appreciated from above (as in a pond setting) and for their personalities. They can be trained to feed from the hand and to do tricks. They are family pets that have been known to live in some Japanese ancestral ponds for generations.

Koi are not goldfish. Actually, they are a variety of carp, selectively bred to enhance a color mutation that developed several hundred years ago from a standard black or gray fish. They are a symbol of strength and masculinity in China and Japan.

Their breeding history goes back over 400 years. Initially, carp were found in the seas of the Middle East and were merely a food source. In fact a carp dinner for Christmas was traditional in southern parts of Europe. Genghis Khan is credited with spreading carp across Asia. He seeded them in lakes along his travel routes to supply provisions for his troops. Japanese koi were bred from stock that came from China and Germany.

Farmers in Niigata Prefecture kept carp in irrigation canals around their fields to be used as a protein source during harsh winters. It wasnít until 1502 that carp were first sold for ornamentation in garden ponds. Wealthy families began breeding koi for their spectacular reddish-orange color as a luxury pastime.

Carp breeding first came to America in 1831 and to California in 1872. During World War II, Japanese breeders kept their koi stock in mountain caves for safety. Since the early 1900s deliberate crossbreeding for color variations has developed many new types of koi.

Before the invention of plastics in the 1950s, koi were transported in buckets that were hand aerated to provide oxygen for the fish. Now they are transported in plastic bags partly filled with water and inflated with oxygen. Easier transportation made koi accessible to more markets and helped to increase their popularity around the world.

The most common color combinations for koi are white/red, white/red/black, white/black, white/yellow, and white/black/silvery-blue. They can have either scales or a skin-like texture common to German carp. Male fish are slimmer and have a slightly brighter color than females. To enhance the brilliant red-orange color, koi are fed spirulina algae. This algae was once grown only in Mexico and Africa but now is farmed in Californiaís Imperial Valley and is commercially available as a variety of "koi chow."

Koi are about an eighth of an inch long when they hatch and grow to an average size of 24 to 36 inches. The largest known koi, however, is just less than five feet in length! Full size is determined both by heredity and environment. Koi will not grow bigger than the pond can support. They can breed when they are three to four years old.

It is an accepted fact that koi live a long time. There are legends in Japan about century-old carp in ancient temple ponds. To conclusively determine their age, the rings of koi scales can be counted like tree rings. A study done in 1965 reported that one carp had been in a family for generations. It was from the pond of an ancestral home in Gifu Prefecture, Japan. When this koi, named Hanako or Flower Maid, died in 1977, she was 226 years old and weighed about fifteen pounds. Usually though, koi live about fifteen to thirty years.


Size, quality, and popularity of type determine the value of a koi. The smallest koi (five to six inches long) can cost around six dollars, while some prize-winning koi have been sold for over a hundred thousand dollars. The average show quality fish is worth two hundred to three hundred dollars.

Koi respond to low frequency vibrations in the water. They are reported to like classical music and will swim differently when it is played. Koi can be trained to come for feeding when you stamp your foot next to the pond. Since koi are foragers, they nibble constantly (even though they should be fed just once a day) and they can be trained to perform tricks for food. Food treats can be rice, pasta, fresh fruits, or vegetables. Some have been trained to puff cigars or jump through hoops. Since koi swim in schools, they are happiest when there are several fish in a pond.

California Koi Farms, the largest koi breeding farm in the United States, is located on 10 acres of land in Fallbrook. It has over one-half million koi on the premises in 27 ponds. Surrounded by trees, the ponds sparkle from sunlight, both on the water and reflecting off thousands of tiny, silvery, mylar strips strung above. Birds are the chief predators of koi and the shiny little flags are used to scare them away. The koi are segregated into different ponds by size, with the smallest ones in cement ponds. The koi are also segregated by sex when they mature, until time for breeding. The owner, Takemi Adachi, started the farm 20 years ago when he came from Japan as a student. His family has been raising koi for three generations. According to Adachi, the peak season for koi breeding is from March to September, as the koiís metabolism slows down significantly during the colder months.

Size, quality, and popularity of type determine the value of a koi. The smallest koi (five to six inches long) can cost around six dollars, while some prize-winning koi have been sold for over a hundred thousand dollars. The average show quality fish is worth two hundred to three hundred dollars. A koi of good pond quality can be valued at between $20 to $100. Koi are marketed through a small, tightly-knit farming and competition community across the country.

Within the koi farming community, according to Adachi, the goal is to breed champion koi for competitions. Sought after qualities include good shape (straight spine, balanced body, no missing scales), bright attractively patterned colors, and clarity of markings. Until a koi reaches maturity, it is unknown whether or not it will be of competition quality. Koi shows are held in winter, after the breeding season is over. Usually competition koi are 8 to 10 years old before being judged. Classifications are by size (ranging from 6 to 21 inches) within 16 different categories. Koi competitions serve as a meeting ground for hobbyists and breeders, provide education for owners about high quality koi, attract new hobbyists, and reward those koi that exemplify the best qualities of the breed.

Of course, the way to truly appreciate koi is when they are in an attractive garden pond. Most koi ponds are located in private homes, and in the next issue we will explore koi ponds and how you can create one of your very own.

For information on building a koi pond, please read The World in Your Backyard – Koi Pond

Other sources of information on Koi: Koi.Home Koi Ponds for Beginners

Koi Clubs:

Mid-Atlantic Koi Club
http://www.makc.com/
Wayne S. Orchard webmaster@www.makc

Atlanta Koi Club
http://www.atlantakoiclub.com/
webmaster@atlantakoiclub.com

Oklahoma Koi Society
http://www.flash.net/~darrylw1/
darrylw1@flash.net

Associated Koi Clubs of America
http://www.koiusa.com/
joyceg@koiusa.com

San Fransico Bay Area Koi Club
http://pw1.netcom.com/~nhi1/index.html
koi@ix.netcom.com

Southern Arizona Koi Association
http://members.aol.com/tidbitkoi/koi/saka.htm
Tidbitkoi@aol.com

Books:

Keeping Koi Book Cover     Koi Breeding Book Cover

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