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King of the River: Koi at Portland Japanese Garden

Photo by Ernie Stoddard

The Japanese have long praised koi (carp) as “the king of river fish.” They were first bred for color in Japan as early as the 1820s, initially in the Niigata Prefecture on the northeastern coast of Honshu island.

In Japanese, koi is a homonym for another word that means “affection” or “love”; koi are therefore symbols of love and friendship in Japan.

“There’s George, Penny, Mergatroid, Goldie Hawn, Lovely Latrice…” said Senior Gardener Adam Hart with a laugh while sharing just some of the names of the beloved koi at Portland Japanese Garden.

In fact, Hart said nearly all of the koi at the Garden have records and names.

The outside world was not aware of the development of color variations in Japanese koi until about 1914. They’ve been a fixture at Portland Japanese Garden since the 1970’s.

Koi can live very long lives, but the average lifespan is about 25-30 years-old in most ponds, said Hart.

“Life expectancy in a pond like ours is 30 years if all goes well. There are many outside factors that contribute to shortening their lifespan sometimes. The oldest on record is well over 100 years so, they can live a very long time,” he said.

Portland Japanese Garden has about 50 koi and they are a large draw for visitors every year.

“A ton of people want to know which one is our oldest. We don’t know definitively, but we’ve looked at historic photos and traced back. There is one, a male, which predates 1996. So, there is at least one that is 21 years old.”

What I find is that the value of the koi and what people favor doesn’t correlate at all. We have them because they’re beautiful and people like them. They’re a part of this Garden.

The oldest fish is not the largest either, Hart said. He’s very thin and orange with black speckles. “One of his eyes is clouded over. He is one tough fish and has survived many things,” added Hart.

The fish have survived numerous tough winters, especially the winter weather of 2017.

Photo by William Sutton

“They can withstand really low temperatures. Our pond gets down to 35 degrees Fahrenheit generally in the winter. They don’t hibernate, but they get extremely sedentary, it is almost like hibernation. They spend most of the day at the bottom of the pond, they don’t eat much, and they live off of stored fat from the summer.”

The Garden’s koi pond does freeze sometimes, but Hart said as long as it doesn’t freeze over completely, the fish still thrive.

In 2009, the Garden installed a new waterproof pond liner, a top of the line filtration system, and new pumps that restart automatically after a power loss. That way, if the pond does begin to freeze over and no one can get up to the Garden, the pumps will run no matter what, keeping the filters running and the waterways from completely freezing over.

“It’s been a huge help and has made for much better living conditions for the koi,” said Hart. A holding tank was also added so the gardeners can move the koi if needed.

Photo by Ken Ballweg

“To keep the koi healthy, we needed a dedicated safe place to take them out of the pond and doctor them on occasion. That’s why the holding tank has been integral,” said Hart. “We want to give them the best care possible. They are a part of our Garden, just like the plants and stones.

And doctoring is needed from time to time.

“The biggest problem we’ve had in recent years is an osprey that came around for a while. Pretty much all of our koi now are too big for something like an osprey to grab so we don’t worry much anymore. But the osprey may try to take them, and even if they are too large to be carried away, the attempt can leave bad wounds on the koi.”

Photo by Tony Small

To protect the koi, the gardeners float bamboo on the water to act as a “net” to prohibit the osprey from catching the young koi. The bamboo is an aesthetic safety measure and does not hurt the birds.

“We did have herons years ago. But I think our koi are too big for them now. At this point, I think a bald eagle would be the only thing able to take a large koi out of the pond,” said Hart.

And, the Garden has some larger fish – weighing an average of ten pounds, Hart said. The koi are well cared for and that includes being properly fed.

“They eat koi food. It’s pelletized food mostly made out of fish meal, wheat germ and alfalfa. They’re bottom forgers, though and really wouldn’t discriminate about what they eat.”

The gardeners do try to make sure that the koi don’t eat coins. It’s a tough job to track said Hart.

“A lot of people either don’t see the ‘no coins allowed’ sign, or can’t read it. Removing coins from the pond has become part of our regular maintenance and luckily some of our guests get passionate about enforcing the ‘no coins’ policy. When someone is throwing a dime into the pond, a fish could think that someone is trying to feed them, which can be very dangerous for a koi’s health,” he said.

In addition to accidentally eating a coin, the metal from the coins leach into the pond water which is harmful to the health of the koi. Touching the koi is also not healthy for them as it can harm body parts and remove their protective slime layer.

Hart said the number one question people ask is the value of the koi.

“They can be quite expensive. It varies a lot. So much goes into their value. Certain patterns are more desirable than others. Beyond that, the clarity of the pattern is pertinent. The body composition matters,” he said. “A show koi could easily go for up to twenty-thousand dollars in Japan. We don’t have any like that,” said Hart with a laugh.

“Even if they aren’t show quality, the guests still love the koi. We have some koi with long fins, there is a white one with orange markings and it looks iridescent. It’s hands-down the most popular koi in the pond but it couldn’t be entered into a koi show in Japan because it is not a recognized variety.”

He said most of the Garden’s koi are of very high quality, but not necessarily show quality. The gold koi; for instance, are very striking and Hart hears many people say those are their favorites.

“What I find is that the value of the koi and what people favor doesn’t correlate at all. We have them because they’re beautiful and people like them. They’re a part of this Garden.”