They are not fancy or overfed goldfish, though they are distantly related, but a kind of carp, better known by the more elegant Japanese name of koi.
Fanciers call them "living jewels" for their bright, often metallic colors, and in a garden pond they indeed sparkle like cut or colored stones in the clear water.
Clear water is absolutely essential for keeping koi and is the reason they are not more common in garden ponds. Unlike goldfish, which can live in a murky barrel of water, koi need clear, carefully balanced water, and this requires a fairly elaborate system of filters.
"Most of us build our own," says Edward Conrad, who is chairman of the Associated Koi Clubs of America, "and frankly just about the only way to learn how is to join one of our clubs, though there are some professional installers who can build a pond and filtering system for you."
These and dealers who sell koi and koi supplies advertise in "Koi U.S.A.," the colorful magazine published by the Associated Koi Clubs (to subscribe, write to Koi U.S.A., P.O. Box 1, Midway City, Calif. 92655).
Those who are not quite ready to take the plunge, can simply look. There are several public gardens with koi ponds, the best of which is probably Sherman Gardens in Corona del Mar.
There are also koi shows, where the colorful fish are displayed for a weekend in large plastic wading pools. (See the box listing upcoming shows in Southern California.) And, there is a once-a-year koi convention, held in San Diego this year at the end of June (for information, write to AKCA Seminar, c/o Bob Everett, 2147 Flintridge Court., Riverside. Calif. 92506).
Conrad says the questions most often asked at shows are: "How much are they worth?" and "Are they good to eat?" "More than you think, and no they aren't," Conrad says. Philip Ishizu of Sunnyslope Gardens in San Gabriel, adds that they are "awfully bony" and suggests that Chinese fish balls are the only palatable way to eat one.
People are also curious how long they live; 25 to 50 years is about average if they are kept in a good environment, though there is a koi in Japan that is reputed to be 227 years old.
They can certainly look that old, and even wiser, with their whiskered, wizened faces. Koi are big fish, big enough to take your finger off if they had teeth or a mind to. But, in fact, they are as docile as lambs and love to nibble food offered by human fingers.
Like a dog, they come when called and gently churn the water waiting for a reward. They may even roll over and want their stomach stroked, though koi owners discourage touching, since it can harm the scales and the health of the fish.
They grow quickly: from fingerlings to 2 feet long in five years in a good environment and with plenty of room. Every 2-footer requires about 300 gallons of water, according to Conrad. Without this much room, a fingerling will only grow to a certain size and then stop, which is also true of goldfish.
According to Ishizu, whose nursery usually sells koi, but is temporarily out of the business because of a major theft of about 400 fish (they should have koi again in late spring), koi and goldfish do "only grow as large as the pond," as an old adage says, or at least as large as the volume of the pond allows. Hormones secreted into the water will stop growth if they become too concentrated. He adds that even ordinary goldfish will quickly grow to a foot or more given the room.
As a result, koi ponds tend to be quite large, often filling much of the back yard. The koi, however, can usually be found clustered in one corner, since they are very social fish and like to stick together.
Koi come in many colors and combinations of colors, each with its own Japanese name. The favorites right now seem to be the red and white Kohaku. Add black spots and you get Taisho Sanshoku or Showa Sanshoku. There are also fish that are plain black and white, or ones with the colors only in certain spaces, such as a red spot on the head of an otherwise white fish (called Tancho).
And, there are koi that are metallic colors including one that is a genuine gold (not the orange of goldfish, but a gleaming bullion color). Metallic-colored koi are called Hikari (meaning "shiny") and they are the favorites with show visitors, Conrad says.
Ishizu suggests that the red and white varieties are the most popular because "a mass of red looks great in the garden," showing up well against the dark bottom of a natural-looking pond. He suggest that fanciers stick to one or two of the predominantly red breeds so that at least 50% of the fish are mostly red and white, for maximum impact.