What is Echinacea?
Also known as the purple coneflower, Echinacea is a colourful, hardy, perennial plant which adds a splash of colour - and attracts birds, bees and butterflies - to the late summer garden.
The name comes from the Latin echinus, meaning hedgehog, and referring to its deer-resistant prickly stem.
Drought resistant and lovers of heat, they're also trouble free to grow. So even without the benefits for chickens, growing this plant is a real asset for any garden.
Types of Echinacea.
There are three major types of Echinacea used for medicinal purposes: Echinacea Purpurea, Augustifolia, also known as the narrow-leaved Echinacea, and Pallida. Of these, Purpurea is the most well known; Augustifolia is said to have the strongest pharmaceutic properties.
As a group, Echinacea is one of the top ten natural ingredients known for their healing and disease resistant properties(1).
Echinacea contains a variety of active substances, including antioxidants, natural sugars, glycoproteins which stabilise healthy cell structure, and essential oils(1).
As far back as the 1870s, it was claimed to cure everything - including snake bites. For that reason, it was known as one of the original "snake oils".
More recently, it's still touted as a cure-all for more or less anything including boils, upper respiratory infections, tonsillitis and athlete's foot.
"The effectiveness in treating illness or in enhancing human health has not yet been proven beyond a reasonable doubt".(2)
Echinacea has been proven to stimulate the immune system, so it can certainly help with reducing the severity and duration of symptoms of infections like the common cold if taken at the start of an illness(e.g.2).
Often shortened to "cocci", coccidiosis is a highly infectious disease caused by a microscopic parasite picked up from the droppings of infected birds. Once established in flocks it can be incredibly difficult to eradicate.
The parasites invade the lining of the intestine and cause dehydration, bloody diarrhea, stunted growth and, eventually, death.
The long-standing approach to preventing coccidiosis has been synthetic feed additives, which have in recent years been challenged by both regulatory agencies and consumers demanding safer, natural, organic solutions.
Echinacea is one of those solutions.
Echinacea appears to stimulate an immune response specifically targeted against coccidiosis when it's present in bedding.
Studies have found that Echinacea works differently depending on the way in which it's prepared and fed.
Dried Echinacea purpurea supplements were shown to have no significant effect on either growth or the immune system(3).
Root extract was shown to have a specific impact on the immune system of poultry. It was found to be most effective when taken from both the Echinacea Purpurea and Angustifolia varieties.
When Echinacea was administered to chickens through drinking water, as a tea, it was found to be more effective both as a boost to the immune system, particularly in times of stress, and as a trigger to activate the immune system's response to the cocci parasite(3, 4).
In all the research conducted to date, no detrimental side effects have been found.
It's possible to buy dried Echinacea online, but the research shows that a liquid made from the fresh plant appears to be more effective.
It's a lovely plant for the garden, too. It looks particularly striking when planted as a mass and, if left to itself, will self-seed year after year.
So why not grow some at home? Either buy some young plants from your local nursery, or get some seeds and do it yourself!
Be aware, though, that plants grown from seed may not produce blooms in the first season, depending on the variety, and on how early the seeds are started.
Lay the seeds on a tray and leave for several weeks. When they're dried, you'll be able to crack the outer layer and remove it. The seed will be underneath and can be stored in an envelope, ready for planting next year.
Or add them to some fermenting feed, spread them on a bird table or scatter in the garden to encourage a spread of blooms next year.
Store them in an airtight container and leave in a cool dark place until you're ready to use them.
Dried Echinacea leaves, seeds and petals were found to be less effective than juice from the root.
Mixed with raw, crushed garlic it was found to be slightly more effective - although that may have been solely to do with the garlic, which has been recognised for many years as a booster for the immune system.
Grind the dried plant to a powder, and feed about one part garlic to three or four of dried Echinacea.
If you don't have the capacity to grow your own Echinacea, or the time to plant, harvest and dry it, you can buy the dried root online. Make sure it's organic, and from a reputable source. (This is an affiliate link, which means I receive a very small commission if you click through and buy).
How do we know about this research? In 2006, reviewed and updated in 2016, the European Union banned the use of "subtherapeutic antibiotics" which had been used as a matter of course in animal husbandry for many years - and still are, in most other countries including the United States.
Since then, there has been a need to find natural alternatives, substances which will improve animals' immunity and health without having negative effects on the animal, the consumer and the environment.
That need has been the incentive for research to find organic products, of which Echinacea is one.
The information in this article is based on that research, as well as my own experience in its practical application. The documents referred to below are just a small part of that.
1. Barnes, J. et al: Echinacea species: a review of their chemistry, pharmacology and clinical properties. Pub. Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology, 2010.
2. Barrett, B.: Medicinal properties of Echinacea: a critical review. Pub. Journal of Phytomedicine, 2003.
3. Nasir, Z and Grashorn, M. A.: Echinacea: a potential feed and water additive in poultry and swine production. Pub. Journal of European Science, 2009.
4. Allen, P.C.: Dietary supplementation with Echinacea and development of immunity to challenge infection with coccidia. Pub. Journal of Poultry Science, 2003.
5. Wallach, M.: Role of antibody in immunity and control of chicken coccisiosis. Pub. Journal of Trends in Parasitology, 2010.