All winter long, families find refuge from the gloom at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens, where, for a short time, they can imagine themselves taking a tropical mini-vacation. “I can see an almost instant transformation when people come in,” says horticultural manager Mike Palmer. “They’re amazed at how warm it is. They rip their coats off with relief and breathe in the sweet smells of exotic flowers.”

But not everything smells sweet, warns Palmer. “One of the common names for the Florida anise is ‘wet dog bush’ because of its smell.”

As the sunlight grows stronger, two pods of ornamental fish quicken from their winter lethargy. One pod, a species of fingerling-sized goldfish, makes its home in a pond near the entrance. Usually its females lay their eggs in April among the weeds in a dancing frenzy, but Palmer says most of the fish in this spring’s pond are too young to reproduce yet.

The most exciting action is in the back pond, home to a pod of about half a dozen koi–a breed of carp highly prized in Asia and elsewhere for their vivid coloring (stripes and speckles of black, red, yellow, blue, and cream) and delicate, fringed fins. (Their name in Japanese means “brocaded carp.”)

Unlike the goldfish they do not breed at the gardens, but adults live there for decades, growing as much as a foot long.

“School groups are brought here to study the plants,” Palmer says. “But we know the younger children are much more interested in the fish”–and especially the eye-dazzling koi. (Though both are members of the carp family, the koi is a different species from its plainer cousin, the goldfish.)

Garden staffers have their own affectionate names for the koi, such as “Butterfly” (distinguished by its long flowing fins) and “Sirius” (the brightest fish, named after the brightest star in the sky). Many children bestow names of their own. The excitement peaks at feeding time, when the koi race to gobble up pellets with their huge mouths. Sometimes the fish flip their tails so forcefully that visitors get splashed.