Herb Profile: Comfrey – a force to be reckoned with!
COMFREY Symphytum officinale
Comfrey was first brought to my attention after the birth of my son more than thirty years ago. My domiciliary midwife, the wonderful Joan Donnelly was a staunch advocate of eating weeds and comfrey was one of her favourites. She was a picture of health and as well as her weed salads she used to knock back tablespoons of cayenne pepper to keep any bugs at bay.
Undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with and she was a guiding light in the homebirth movement in this country. But I digress … comfrey also a force to be reckoned with, there’s no getting rid of it once it establishes itself. Every little rootlet will grow a new plant. I used to curse it when my garden was tiny. Now I welcome the huge clumps it makes and I have created gardens around it. In early spring when I am planting seedlings or planning to make a comfrey tea for the garden I can never get enough of it!
It has had some very bad press during the last few years for causing hepato-toxicity in laboratory experiments with rats, but there’s no need to throw out the baby with the bath water. Problems can occur from ingesting the roots, in quantity.
Topically it is one of our most marvelous healers for all manner of wounds and injuries from the skin through to the ligaments and the bone, nicely backed up by placebo double-blind trials I might add!
Common names; Comfrey, Common Comfrey, Knit-bone, Bone-set, All heal, Bruisewort, Blackwort, Knitback, Bugle, Ass-ear.
Description; There are over 25 different varieties of comfrey. Most commonly cultivated is the variety ‘Russian comfrey’, a winter dormant perennial herb with a central leafy stem that can grow up to a metre high. The hollow, angular and hairy stem bears bristly, lanceolate leaves. The plant forms a cluster of large and prostrate leaves at it’s base. These leaves can be up to 30cms long are rough, hairy and oval shaped. The leaves decrease in size as they are produced up the stem. The stem is terminated by clusters of drooping white to pinkish/purplish flowers. The flowers grow one-sided on short stalks, the racemes are scorpoid in form, curling over like a scorpion’s tail. The tubular shaped blossoms taper from fully formed to minute buds at the curled over tip, resembling forget-me-nots. Each flower produces four small oval and shiny seeds. The mucilaginous, much branched rootstock is smooth and black on the outside and white and fleshy inside. The root branchlets can grow up to 2 feet and bring nutrients up from deep down in the soil. Comfrey flowers throughout the summer months and is propogated through root division or from seed.
Parts used; Leaves and roots.
Preparations; Fresh macerated leaf, ointments/creams/balms, poultices/washes, extracts/tinctures, homeopathic remedies.
Habitat; Comfrey is native to Europe and temperate Asia. It has spread throughout most temperate regions of the world, thriving on the banks of rivers and in ditches. It prefers wet locations and rich soil and fails to establish itself in very dry conditions.
Traditional & Historical uses; You could probably write a book on the historical use of comfrey. It has been used by so many cultures for food and as a medicine, in agriculture as a fertilizer and stock-feed. There are references to it’s use 400BC in Ancient Greece, to arrest bleeding and later for bronchial complaints. It is recorded as a healer in the writings of Herodotus, Nicander, Galen, Dioscorides, Pliny, Paracelsus, Turner, Gerard, Culpepper to name some. It was used for healing wounds, gangrenous ulcers, torn ligaments and broken bones. All manner of gastrointestinal problems including diarrhoea, ulcers and internal bleeding as well as for lung complaints, bronchitis, TB and as an expectorant. It acts internally on the mucosal tissues of respiratory and GI tract.
Therapeutic actions; A cell proliferant, emollient, antinflammatory, vulnerary, haemostatic, anodyne, expectorant, astringent, demulcent, diuretic, refrigerant & tonic.
Constituents; Allantoin, mucilage (even more than in marshmallow root), tannins, pyrrolizidine alkaloids, steroidal saponins, tannins, inulin, silica, phosphorus, potassium, Vitamins C, A, E and B12.
Current Herbal uses; Externally; High levels of allantoin stimulates cell proliferation which promotes the granulation and formation of epithelial cells, hence it is a plant par excellence for wound healing. Deep wounds, burns, sunburn, sores and ulcers can benefit as well as sprains, osteoarthritis, back and joint pain, inflammatory swellings and bruising. Wounds must be kept clean as they will heal over very quickly. When using homeopathic comfrey for broken bones one is advised to first ensure that the bone is set in place properly! As a hair and scalp tonic or conditioner. Internally; While there is much debate over the safety regarding the internal use of comfrey it has been used for gastrointestinal complaints such as gastric and duodenal ulcers, haemorrhoids and ulcerative colitis. The antiinflammatory activity and astringency of comfrey helps arrest GI bleeding and protects the gastric mucosa from further damage. Being high in mucilage it has beneficial laxative properties. It has also been used for bronchial complaints with spitting of blood
( bleeding mucosa) and as an expectorant.
The information given here is for your general knowledge only. Please consult your health care provider for specific medical conditions and treatments.
Gardening applications; Comfrey is a welcome addition to any garden area; herb, flower, vegetable or orchard. As a companion plant for under your fruit trees, it’s thick and fleshy roots will open up the sub-soil and the large leaves will create shade for the trees roots in summer. The flowers are loved by bees, hence attracting pollinators into your orchard and garden. As the comfrey leaves decay at the end of summer they add beneficial nutrients to the soil. In the compost heap comfrey leaf acts as an activator and is full of valuable minerals. Place a few layers of comfrey leaves on the top of the compost heap, then sprinkle a little garden soil on the top of the leaves. The organisms in the soil will act with the rapidly decomposing comfrey to speed up the decomposition of the compost heap. (Make sure not to add any rootstock to your compost heap as you will inadvertantly be spreading the plant through your garden. Whilst it is a wonderful plant in it’s place, it is very difficult to get rid of once it has established itself somewhere.) As a liquid fertilizer for the garden, it is rich in potassium and nitrogen. You can use it pretty much on anything to promote growth of leaf and flowers which will in turn support fruit production. eg. tomatoes, potatoes, peppers etc. When growing potatoes or tomatoes I place wilted comfrey leaves in the bottom of the hole or trench, for a nitrogen-rich green manure.
Food uses; As a pot herb in soups and stews. Young leaves raw in salads in moderation (see contraindications).
Contraindications;It is suggested that comfrey (especially the root) is not to be taken internally as the alkaloids it contains can be carcinogenic and hepato-toxic if consumed in a large enough quantity and over an extended period of time.