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For a long time, additives have been used in chicken feed to promote growth and maintain health.
But antibiotics and growth promoters have both been banned in the European Union for more than a decade, and natural alternatives have been sought.
That's led to research into natural substitutes, including plants, which can be proven to enhance a flock's health and boost the quality of their eggs, without any adverse side effects.
One such plant readily available for backyard chicken keepers is used commonly to add colour and interest to the pots and borders of many summer gardens: the nasturtium.
What is the Nasturtium?
Its botanical name is Tropaeolum majus. Don't confuse it with Nasturtium officinale - which is watercress.
Originally from south America, it's an annual plant also sometimes known as Monk's Cress or Indian Cress.
Its sprawling growth sets distinctive leaves and large, abundant, happily colourful flowers which are often red and orange - a chicken's favourite colours - sometimes joined by yellow and cream.
It's incredibly easy to grow in virtually any soil for most of the year, and the flowers will bloom from spring until first frosts.
Brightening up the gloomiest of shady corners, the nectar it produces attracts not only bees and butterflies but, if you're lucky enough to have them in your area, humming-birds.
As often happens, a lot of claims are made for the benefits of nasturtiums for chickens, most of which are either unproven or simply not true.
Some of them are that a nasturtium plant...
To continue with the claims...
And if you're a human with a hair problem worry not, because applying a tea made from nasturtium leaves will apparently restore hair growth, too.
How much of this is true? Not much.
Let's look at the evidenced facts.
Yes, this claim is true. It's one of the few claims that is backed by proper evidence.
Again, this claim is well evidenced (e.g. 3).
Every part of the nasturtium plant is a rich source of vitamins C and A.
They also contain trace elements like potassium (which helps poultry withstand heat), phosphorous (helps absorb calcium which is essential for healthy bones, particularly important for egg layers) and iron (lack of which causes anaemia in poultry).
A chicken lays one egg approximately every 26 hours. That's how long it takes for an egg to be formed in the oviduct.
No amount of nasturtiums can make that process any faster.
Would nasturtiums mean a hen could lay eggs for longer each year?
There's no evidence of that. The only evidenced way of making hens lay for longer is by providing additional light in the coop.
There is evidence, though, that the presence of carotenoids in nasturtiums helps the egg yolk to become a darker colour, much as is the case with marigolds.
Nasturtiums contain a carotenoid - a type of vitamin - called Lutein. It's related to vitamin A.
There is evidence that the lutein content of nasturtiums helps prevent cancer in mice(5). But mice are not chickens.
There's also strong evidence(6) that lutein helps combat macular degeneration and cataracts, diseases of the eye, in humans.
But humans are not chickens, either.
Lutein is a beneficial substance, there's no doubt about that. And it is right that lutein can be found in chicken eggs.
So feeding your hens with the lutein nasturtiums can provide may have a beneficial effect on their eggs. And if we eat their eggs, it may have a knock-on beneficial effect for us.
But none of that is actually evidenced anywhere.
Despite statements you'll see more or less everywhere, I've been able to find absolutely no evidence of this, anywhere. There isn't even any evidence to suggest it promotes urinary tract infections of any kind in humans.
They do act as a diuretic in rats, helping them expel more water from the system - not worms. And again, chickens are not rats.
To say "my chickens eat nasturtiums and they don't have worms, therefore nasturtiums are a natural wormer" is not evidence! Chickens not having worms could be down to any number of reasons.
Practicing good husbandry, in particular keeping wild birds out of the run, is the best way to prevent your chickens getting worms.
Chickens are naturally anxious. They're prey creatures and instinctively react to any sudden noise, or change in their environment. To say they have "nervous ailments" is to attribute human troubles which they just don't have.
Nasturtiums are a natural antibiotic and will provide your flock with plenty of vitamins A and C, and trace elements which are beneficial to their overall health and well-being.
As long as you don't expect them to cure everything, you won't be disappointed.
Are they worth growing? Absolutely!
As well as benefits for chickens, nasturtiums have definite benefits for the garden. The most beneficial of these can at first seem like a real problem.
Because nasturtiums always attract unwanted guests, particularly caterpillars and the cucumber and pumpkin beetles.
Which means you need to keep looking for the tiny eggs laid on its leaves, and the greedy caterpillar which likes nothing more than munching on its leaves and flowers.
But this also has advantages.
Nasturtiums are the perfect plant if you're not too good at constant care. They almost thrive on neglect.
They're not keen on frost or wind, so plant in a sheltered spot but apart from that, there's nothing much to be aware of!
Nasturtiums can be grown as a vine - just make sure you buy the variety that climbs. Of course, they'll need something for the tendrils to cling onto. A chain-link fence is ideal. If your fence is wood try attaching some chicken wire to act as a trellis.
Whatever you do though, don't plant nasturtiums inside the chickens' run. In my experience, they'll enjoy digging the plants up and eating them wholesale. You'll literally have nothing left.
Instead, plant outside the run, either directly into the ground or into pots. That way, the flock can reach some of the leaves and flowers but can't get to the roots.
Climbing nasturtiums which don't have something to cling to will creep or trail nicely, which is a bonus if you want to use them in hanging baskets, or as part of a colourful and useful "edible garden" in your coop's window box.
Try "Jewel Mix" which gives a lovely combination of red, orange and yellow flowers.
The compact varieties - Empress of India is a big favourite - do well in containers and borders. They grow very quickly, so they're ideal for hiding untidy ground in very little time.
This "caterpillar planter" made of used tyres packed with compact nasturtiums looks lovely, but again, chickens will dig those plants up in seconds if it's placed anywhere they have access!
Two or three nasturtium seeds form on each plant when the flower dies. They're very versatile: they can be eaten, or used as seeds from which new plants can be grown the following year.
They really need very little care once the plant is established.
It's not difficult...
1. Tabler, T., et al: Fowl pox in backyard flocks. Pub. Mississippi State University Extension Service, 2017.
2. Brosell, H.: Active substances from higher native flowering plants and their use as growth stimulants in the feeding of young poultry. Pub. 1958.
3. Jakubczyk, K, et al: Garden nasturtium (Trapaeolum majus) - a source of mineral elements and bioactive compounds. Pub. 2018.
4. Bhuiyan, A., et al: Importance of vitamin A supplementation for performance of chickens under smallholder farm conditions. Pub. Department of Animal Nutrition and Physiology, Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences, 2004.
5. Byoung-Ke, A et al: the tissue distribution of lutein in laying hens fed lutein fortified chlorella and production of chicken eggs enriched with lutein. pub. Korean Journal for Food Science of Animal Resources, 2014.
6. Niizu, P. and Rodriguez Amaya, D.: Flowers and leaves of Tropaeolum majus as rich sources of lutein. Pub. Journal of Food Science, 2005.