As soon as humans domesticated animals, they began treating their ills and injuries with the same medicinal plants they used for themselves. We can do that, too! While herbs are often used to cure disease and dress wounds, they’re best used for preventative health in both animals and humans. Getting started with herbs shouldn’t cost you a mint; it’s easy to grow your own or start with wild herbs you can gather in your own backyard.
Herbalist Susan Burek of Moonlight Mile Herbs develops recipes and products designed for the avian body that are made using natural foods and herbs that birds seek out in the wild. “Some of the most potent and beneficial herbs can reside right outside in your yard,” she says. “Poultry naturally eat a lot of these herbs while on range. I encourage people to learn about these native herbs because they can be a big help for chicken keepers as both food and medicine for their flock.”
Wild medicinal herbs include dandelion, nettles, clover, yarrow, cleavers, primrose, burdock, plantain, purslane, chickweed, mullein, curly dock, smartweed, violets, wood sorrel and goldenrod, to name a few. They’re packed with vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Chances are that some of these plants already grow on your property. They’re free for the picking, but be sure to follow these simple rules if harvesting outside the confines of your farm or yard:
- Buy a good wild-plant identification book with clear illustrations, and make sure you know what you’re picking. If you can’t positively identify a plant, don’t use it.
- Pick only in areas that are free of chemicals and automotive exhaust. Avoid sprayed yards, parks and the sides of roadways.
- Pick in mid-morning or later, when dew is off the plants.
- Dig most roots in late fall.
- Take only what you need and always leave some plants behind.
A good wild herb for beginners is the dandelion (Taraxicum officinale). All parts of this plant are usable. Dandelion contains high amounts of antioxidants, iron, potassium, calcium and a host of other minerals, as well as vitamins A, C, K, E and B complex. It’s a wonderful nutritive tonic that makes chickens strong and healthy. Dig its long taproot in the fall or harvest the leaves and flowers during the spring and summer. All parts of the dandelion can be chopped and fed fresh or dried, or even ground up and added to your chickens’ normal food.
Another valuable tonic herb is stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). It’s high in calcium and magnesium, and is a good source of chromium, cobalt, iron, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper and sulphur, along with vitamins A, C, D, K and B complex. Wear gloves, long sleeves and long pants when gathering nettles; it’s called stinging nettle for a reason. Dry or boil nettles to remove their sting. Don’t feed them to your flock fresh from the meadow.
If gathering wild herbs isn’t your thing, rest assured that many of the culinary herbs you buy at the farmers market or grow in your garden will benefit your chickens, too. Grow some near your run for chickens to peck at through the fence. Planting aromatic herbs around your run and henhouse also helps repel bugs and mice. Place sprigs of herbs in your nesting boxes, or scatter fresh leaves or dried herbs in them. Here are some herbs to consider.
- Catnip, lavender, lemon balm or pineapple sage in nest boxes, broody pens and wintertime coops keep chickens relaxed and happy.
- Fennel, garlic, marjoram, nasturtium and parsley will help your hens produce more eggs and eggs with better shells.
- Cilantro, dill, sage and tarragon are antioxidants.
- Basil, lemon balm and thyme have antibacterial qualities.
- Nasturtium, garlic, ginger and sage are natural antifungals and antibiotics.
- Catnip, catmint, lavender, mints of all kinds, feverfew, rosemary, sage, thyme and wormwood repel bugs and external parasites.
Herbs are most potent just prior to flowering. Harvesting and drying them at their maximum potency means you can feed top-quality herbs year-round, not just during a narrow fresh-herbs window of opportunity, which is often only a few days. Also, dried herbs are easy to store, whereas fresh herbs need to be refrigerated or used right away. Even then, fresh herbs are prone to spoilage if your chickens don’t consume them right away.
Chicken keepers usually mix dried herbs with their chickens’ normal food, though most chickens will also eat them if they’re served on the side in separate feed cups. Harvest fresh herbs and hang them upside-down by their stems where your chickens can pick at them all they want. You can also strip them from their stems or chop them loosely and scatter them in nest boxes, in dust-bathing areas or on the floor of the henhouse. You can even add chopped herbs to their food.
To slow-dry herbs, use a food dehydrator or your oven or air dry them flat or in bunches. Dehydrator drying is fast and easy. Preheat your dehydrator, and place the herbs in a single layer on dehydrator trays. It can take anywhere from one to four hours to complete the drying process. Check periodically and follow the manufacturer’s instruction booklet for specific details.
To dry herbs in an oven, place their leaves on a cookie sheet and pop them in a 180-degree F oven with the oven door left ajar, for about two hours or until the leaves are crisp.
To air dry herbs flat, place them on paper towels over newspaper in a well-ventilated area out of the sun, arranged so the leaves or plants don’t touch one another. Hang-drying them is the essence of simplicity: Bind their stems in small bundles, and hang them upside-down in the same sort of well-ventilated, shady area until dry.
To preserve their nutritional value and medical constituents, store dried herbs whole or loosely crumbled. Don’t crush them into powder prior to store them; if powder is needed in an herbal recipe, powder the herbs just before mixing. Store herbs in paper bags, cardboard boxes or glass containers—canning jars work well—but not plastic or metal. Store dried herbs in a cool, dry place which is out of direct sunlight.
Herbs are as useful today as they were 10,000 years ago. They’re easy to grow or harvest in the wild and easy to prepare for use. They’re a first-choice way to start keeping your flock holistically. Try herbs. You’ll be hooked!
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of Chickens.