Comfrey is a very important perennial herb, with a lengthy history, dating back over 2,000 years. It’s scientific genus is Symphytum and there are 35 known species; many of which are cultivated for use in herbal medicine. Symphytum loosely translated means “to unite” or “grow together;” indicating the usefulness of this herb in treating injuries. Throughout time it has also been called Knitbone, Boneset, Knitback, Bruisewort, and Slippery Root plus many other names. It has a widespread documented use in herbal medicine for treating multiple symptoms, however modern-day herbalists have mixed feelings on it’s overall effectiveness.
The plant itself is fast-growing, with thick deep green leaves that have a slightly rough and hairy feel to them. The stalks are thick, angular, and hollow, and like the leaves, are sharp-feeling and rough to the touch. Comfrey plants produce flowers in many different colors; they are bell shaped and range from cream to dark purple, depending on the species. The branched root is very dark in color and has been compared to a black turnip, with a white fleshy interior. Depending on water and growing conditions, plants can range between three feet to eight feet tall.
Comfrey’s use for herbal medicine can be traced back more than 2000 years. Early records identified Comfrey root being used in Greece as far back as 400 BC for bronchial problems and to staunch severe bleeding. Greek physician Dioscorides prescribed it for healing wounds, broken bones, as well as for respiratory and gastrointestinal problems. Later in Rome, Pliny the Elder experimented with Comfrey specifically by boiling the root. This led to both teas and poultices; the former being focused on alleviating symptoms of diarrhea, stomach ailments, and bleeding ulcers. As time progressed, Europeans discovered multiple uses and benefits for the herb, yet they were not alone. Chinese herbalists and Native American healers also have a lengthy relationship with using comfrey to benefit their respective people.
Comfrey components (found in either the roots, leaves, and flowers) include tannins, rosmarinic acid, allantoin, steroidal saponins, mucilage, inulin, pyrrolizidine alkaloids, Gum, Carotene, Glycosides, Sugars, Beta-sitosterol, Triterpenoids, Vitamin B-12, Protein, and Zinc. It has been linked to the treatment of arthritis, mending broken bones, sprains, skin care, sunburn, sore throat, stomach ailments of all types, and all types of cuts and bruises.
One of the most common uses of comfrey leaf is in an ointment or as a poultice and applied directly to sprains, broken bones and other flesh wounds. It promotes rapid healing of both skin lesions and bone breaks. It is also used in herbal pastes, ointments, tinctures, decoctions, poultices and even in cosmetics. Comfrey is also a popular addition to herbal blends, salves and ointments, which can be used for bruises, sprains, eczema, swellings and burns. One of the secrets of comfrey is the concentration of allantoin, which when applied to the skin accelerates the healing of tissue and the closing of wounds.
As a tea, Comfrey is surprisingly used more for external applications rather than internal ones. Cooled tea is used to treat bruises and burns; it soothes the damaged skin, stops the itch, prevents infection, and speeds healing. The tea is also used as a facial wash to cleanse pores and reduce acne. People suffering from arthritis use cooled tea to reduce joint inflammation, thus easing their pain. History has shown that this tea was also used to treat many stomach ailments, however todays’ herbalists recommend that comfrey preparations should not be taken internally because of the remote possibility of liver damage. And as a precaution, comfrey should not be used by pregnant or nursing women.
As a salve or ointment, comfrey has been employed to treat burns, scrapes, abrasions, eczema, insect bites, and just about every other skin irritation. Comfrey’s astringent tannins form a protective surface over wounds that promotes healing.
Growing Comfrey at Home
Most soils and climates support cultivation, as long as there is sufficient water. Plants will grow in direct sunlight, but will only achieve heights ranging from three to five feet. Plants cultivated under shade trees can grow up to eight feet tall. The nature of comfrey is to spread out in every direction, so staking is critical for maximizing the amount of usable leaves. If stalks are allowed to fan out, they will lie flat on the ground but still grow. Use caution when trying to stake a plant in this condition as the hollow stalks will break easily. One way to reduce the risk of breakage is to overwater the plant for several days prior to any staking movements. You’ll see a natural rising of the fallen stalks plus the extra moisture will allow for flexibility.
Herb growers understand that many herbs quickly go to seed and some have a tendency to take over beds or gardens (think Mojito Mint). Luckily, comfrey doesn’t spread underground, nor does it have rhizomes. In the wild, the plant spreads seeds and reproduces naturally, Many garden varieties do not produce viable seeds and must be propagated hand using by root cuttings. Exercise a high degree of planning before digging close to your plants, as even a small piece of cut root can reproduce. Once its established, comfrey is quite difficult to eradicate; plant it where you want it and leave the surrounding soil undisturbed.
Harvesting, Drying, and Storing Tips
Healthy plants can be harvested multiple times during the summer months. Depending on the size and maturity of the plants, it is possible to realize up to five cuttings annually, however two or three is considered standard. Before harvesting, water thoroughly starting two days ahead of cutting. The extra moisture will cause the plant to perk up and allow for easier access to the base. Since comfrey is so prickly to the touch, wear gloves and forearm protection. A surprisingly effective solution is to wear neoprene ice fishing gloves in extended length. The neoprene provides a high degree of control while offering superior skin protection.
Comfrey as Fertilizer
Organic gardeners have utilized comfrey for fertilizer because of it’s unique growing characteristics. It’s a deep rooted plant which pulls trace minerals and nutrients from the lower depths of the topsoil and then accumulates them in it’s leaves. It is also very high in potassium (2-3 times higher than manure). Because the leaves do not have thick fibers, they tend to break down very quickly and pose no risk of nitrogen depletion in the process. The leaves can be added sparingly to compost piles to increase nitrogen, or used as mulch around plants which would benefit from extra potassium.
It’s great to add to composts to help activate the pile, but use sparingly as it will break down into a black soupy mess. Layering comfrey leaves between a balance of browns and greens will yield maximum benefits. Another option would be to loosely fill a watertight container with comfrey leaves and enough water to help the decay process get underway. After several weeks, the black soup can be poured off and mixed with water (recommended 15:1 or 20:1 ratio of water to soup) and poured directly where needed. Potato and fruit growers have used chopped up leaves as mulch around their crops for the potassium benefits.
If you have the opportunity to add comfrey to your home beds, you’ll have access to a truly amazing plant; one that will offer multiple benefits and is pleasing to look at. Additional information can be found at Mother Earth News
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