We move our chooks around our native plantings every couple of months. Generally they do a pretty great job of keeping the grass down and helping the trees to grow.

In turn, the trees offer the chickens shelter from predators and – it turns out – also provide food for the chickens.

Earlier this year I noticed the Coprosma robusta (karamu) berries were ripening. I went out to collect some seeds and observed something interesting – only the berries at the top of the tree were there at all.

Anything within chicken-pecking height was long-gone. It made me wonder if the chooks had been foraging? That question has led me down quite the rabbit hole this week.

Testing the observation

I already knew that coprosma – a relative of coffee – was edible. So I threw down some of the higher berries I’d harvested to see what happened.

They were gone in a nanosecond. The entire flock began hovering around my feet.

I bent an unharvested branch towards their hungry beaks. Pandemonium.

Huh. I wondered if the Internet knew about this?

Googling “coprosma chickens” bought me only two relevant links. A pretty good one on plants to grow for chickens on This NZ Life. And a reference to Bill Mollison recommending it for poultry on the Blockhill website.

Down the rabbit hole

The Bill Mollison reference made me laugh – of course he knew this. I went to my bookshelf and started hunting. I found the reference on page 139 of a book called Permaculture Two:

Excerpt from Permaculture Two by Bill Mollison.

Mollison actually references another text, The 1975 New Zealand Whole Earth Catalogue. So, being curious I googled that and found this review of the first edition in an issue of Salient from 1973.

“A mighty fine publication that will be bought, and should be bought by every hippy household in New Zealand, that will be read by every hippy member of every hippy household, and which will then lie in the bottom of the hippy bookshelf (because it is too big to stand up), until the marijuana planting season, or maybe the time of the year when you breed pigs.”

It seems three editions were published in 1972, 1975, and 1977, and the one I need is the 1975 (second) edition.

At $60-$80 for the cheaper copies I’ve seen online, I don’t see myself buying it. But I have placed an interloan request with my local library to find out what the New Zealand Whole Earth Catalogue happens to say about chickens and coprosma and continue this research thread.

Update from the future – I did track the reference down, if you’re interested.

Amazing plants

Coprosma is a whole family of plants. Wikipedia lists over 120 known varieties. Karamu is just the one we happen to grow a lot of here.

The main reason we plant it is because it’s a fantastic early-coloniser plant. It’s happy in a range of soils and grows pretty fast. The fruit our chooks love so much are also loved by native birds who poop out the seeds of other native trees while chowing down. This process helps establish natural forest cover below the canopy of the planted species.

Its relationship to coffee means it’s a – reportedly – passable substitute. Early attempts to commercialise it failed in part because the seeds are much smaller than a coffee bean. Explorations at the time (1870’s) mused it would be a good industry for child labour – small hands being better for picking.

J.C Crawfford on taupata/coprosma via Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Volume 9, 1876, Page 545

Excerpt from ‘On New Zealand Coffee’ by J.C. Crawford, 1876. Via Papers Past. Click to expand.

A comparison of the seed size of Coprosma robusta versus Coffea arabica

Comparing the seeds of Coprosma robusta (left) to NZ-grown Coffea arabica.

I don’t know if I’ll be experimenting with coprosma coffee anytime soon; but if coffee were to become difficult to access for some reason, I’d definitely be thinking about it.

Karamu also has important uses within Māori rongoā (medicine) – but I don’t think it’s my place to go in-depth on that one. Here’s a much more appropriate resource if that aspect interests you.

And finally – it turns out to be excellent chook-tucker.

A perennial problem

Like many New Zealand plants, coprosmas face a lack of research. There’s a general lack of interest in studying a lot of our native plants and their benefits and properties. Though when they are studied, indigenous knowledge is frequently proven to a ‘scientific standard’.

My accidental observation has taken me back in time to semi-obscure 1970’s hippy publications; and to the 1870’s when J.C. Crawford was exploring a possible New Zealand-based coffee industry.

I’ve found a total of four references in the last 150 years to poultry enjoying coprosma species – Bill Mollison, who himself took it from; the Second New Zealand Whole Earth Catalogue; This NZ Life; and a passing mention regarding turkeys in the above paper by J.C. Crawford.

It seems mad that we’re not planting coprosmas around our chicken coops – that we’re not shouting this from the rooftops! It should be general chicken-keeping knowledge – at least in New Zealand.

Coprosma can literally grow like a weed in the right conditions. Different varieties of coprosma fruit throughout the year. It seems with some thought, chickens can practically survive on it.

I think I’m going to spend some time learning about other coprosmas and experimenting with including them in our systems. Chicken food isn’t getting cheaper, and I value my feathered girls more and more each day.

Perhaps some more experimentation with these wonderful native plants might give them better lives – ‘cos they sure do love coprosma.