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THE CALIFORNIA GARDEN

In a watery landscape, flowers that swim

Koi bloom with color and, some say, bring good fortune. For a fish rich in symbolism, passions run strong.

January 04, 2007|Ariel Swartley | Special to The Times

THIS garden could be a study in tranquillity. Slender reeds emerging from the pond's surface form an elegant kimono pattern with the reflection of a pastel sky. An 18-inch koi streaks into view, its red and white blotches as gaudy as a clown suit. More fish soon follow. Their Japanese name, nishikigoi, translates as "brocaded carp," and its aptness is apparent. There are fish whose scales glitter as though they have been embroidered with gold thread. Others are robed in thick swirls of jet black and glistening white.

The explanation for their arrival stands nearby: a fish food dispenser. Here at the Earl Burns Miller Japanese Garden at Cal State Long Beach, a quarter buys a handful of pellets, and the frenzy of leaping bodies and gaping mouths that greet this offering leaves no doubt that koi are descended from the legendary Chinese carp whose arduous mythical journey up a waterfall to the Dragon Gate has made it a widespread symbol of perseverance.

Southern California is an ideal place to get hooked on these auspicious fish. Not only is the climate favorable for keeping koi outdoors all year, but the region is also home to a legion of enthusiasts.

The Associated Koi Clubs of America lists more than half a dozen groups in Los Angeles and surrounding counties. They provide advice and encouragement to the novice setting up a koi garden as well as to the expert raising fish for competition. Many with merely a passing interest in koi soon find themselves in a highly specialized world -- one where prized specimens can cost more than the pond the koi call home.

IMAGES of koi and its ancestor, the common river carp, are everywhere in Asian culture. In Japan, families fly carp-shaped streamers called koinobori on Children's Day in May. The bright-colored fish are a sign of good fortune (the number of streamers equals the number of children in the household) and a reminder of the obstacle-leaping that is required in any successful journey to adulthood. Chinese feng shui texts point out the beneficent effects of keeping a statue of carp in the home -- or, better yet, of having a pool of swimming koi.

To a gardener, the fish have something in common with camellias, another Asian specialty. All koi are one species, Cyprinus carpio, but fanciers recognize a bewildering number of varieties classified by color, pattern and the type or absence of scales. Recent introductions such as the platinum Ogon, an all-silver fish with the texture of quilted satin, are startlingly beautiful, but among traditionalists -- and especially among those who raise koi to show -- the vivid red and white fish known as Kohaku are particular favorites. The Japanese, first to breed river carp for decorative purposes, associate those colors with happiness and a bright outlook.

Lisa Barnett, president of the Nishiki Koi Club, based in Orange County, notes with approval another traditional preference -- that for female fish.

"It's the only hobby where they want the women chubby," she says.

The female koi's silhouette, chunkier than the male's, is said to offer a more satisfying image of robust vitality.

Regardless of their symbolism, koi's grace and flower-like brilliance are a mesmerizing addition to a garden. Experts may argue about varieties, but the fish themselves are rampant individualists. Like snowflakes, no two koi look the same.

AT Westminster's Eastern Nishikigoi, a licensed importer of Japanese koi, sales associate Nancy Morales walks to the back pools where the biggest fish swim. Koi grow rapidly under favorable conditions, reaching half their adult length in 24 months, and the 2-year-olds in these pools are already more than a foot long. In koi terms, though, they are still toddlers. Fish in well-designed pools can easily live 40 years. In Japan, some koi have topped 100.

Morales, who raises prize-winning koi with her pond-designer husband Frank, points to a pale gold behemoth rising from the pool's depth.

"Here, Buttercup," she calls. On either side of the koi's O-shaped, expectant mouth, barbels -- sensitive, whisker-like appendages that distinguish true carp -- gleam like miniature ivory tusks. Buttercup is a 6-year-old, 34-inch Chagoi. With a price tag of $8,500, Morales explains, she is also the least expensive fish in the pool. In a Japanese competition last year, one entrant fetched $150,000 -- and that was before it won.

Best-of-show judges favor high-contrast patterns like those of a Kohaku or a Showa, a black fish with white and red markings. Still, Morales says, every koi pond needs a Buttercup. Known for their friendliness and hearty appetite, Chagoi (the name means "tea-colored") exert a mellowing influence on other fish.

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