What IS Comfrey?

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While the Project is named after Comfrey, many of us don’t know much about this humble and amazing plant.

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) is a bit of a wonder plant.  It’s known as a dynamic accumulator, drawing minerals out of the soil and into the roots and leaves, and is also a compost accelerator, a fine ingredient in liquid manure (comfrey juice), beneficial insect attractor, mulch, weed suppressant, biomass accumulator, livestock forage, edible for humans (comfrey fritters!) and a wound healer.

It was traditionally called ‘knit bone’ by herbalists as it helps heals fractures. It’s an ideal permaculture plant!

There is a huge tradition of use by herbalists over history. Its traditional names of ‘knit bone’, ‘bone set’ and the derivation of its Latin name Symphytum (from the Greek symphis, meaning growing together of bones, and phyton, a plant), speak to its long and widespread usage as a therapeutic herb.

Comfrey species are important herbs in organic gardening. They are used as a fertilizer and as an herbal medicine. The most commonly used species is Russian Comfrey (Symphytum×uplandicum).

Comfrey is a perennial herb with a black, turnip-like root and large, hairy broad leaves that bears small bell-shaped flowers of various colours, typically cream or purplish. It is native to Europe, growing in damp, grassy places, and is locally frequent throughout Great Britain on river banks, ditches and many many allotments.

Comfrey is a fast growing plant, producing huge amounts of leaf during the growing season, and for that reason is very nitrogen hungry. Although it will continue to grow no matter what, it will benefit from the addition of animal manure applied as a mulch, and can also be mulched with other nitrogen rich materials such as lawn clippings.

Comfrey will rapidly regrow, and will be ready for further cutting few weeks later. It is said that the best time to cut Comfrey is shortly before flowering, as this is when it is at its most potent in terms of the nutrients that it offers.

Comfrey should be harvested by cutting the plant about 2 inches above the ground, taking care while handling it because the leaves and stems are covered in hairs that can irritate the skin. It is advisable to wear gloves when handling Comfrey.

Useful and versatile

Comfrey has long been recognized by both organic gardeners and herbalists for its great usefulness and versatility; Symphytum officinalis is the white comfrey, which herbalists prefer (but its very vigorous and will spread rapidly).

If you want Comfrey but don’t want it seeding all over the place you can get ‘Bocking 14’ a variety of Russian Comfrey. It’s not as vigorous as Common Comfrey, for that reason it can be divided every couple of years to get lots of extra plants.

At the Comfrey Project we use the juice as a super fertilizer. We developed very simple mechanism on our allotment (plastic tube fixed to a wall with a mesh at the bottom, 2 ltr bottle of juice previously filled with water that snugly fit and lots of Comfrey leaves.  We fill the tube with the freshly cut leaves and place the bottle on the top . The weight of the bottle will gently squash the leaves and the juice will drip through the mesh. Make sure you remember to put a bowl at the bottom otherwise you’ll lose all the juice. Once the bottle drops significantly we take it out and replace the leaves. It does help to tie some string to the bottle before hand so you can simply pull the bottle out again with the string to reload.

Its only drawback is the smell … really bad! But it’s slightly better when soaked in water.

We dilute the juice with water at a ratio of 10:1 for potatoes or tomatoes and 20:1 for everything else.

Medicinal uses

One of the most common modern-day uses of Comfrey extract is as a skin treatment. The plant contains the small organic molecule allantoin, which is thought to stimulate cell growth and repair while simultaneously depressing inflammation.

Some scientists and physicians agree that the use of Comfrey should be restricted to topical use, and should never be ingested, and Comfrey has been implicated in at least one death, although the type of Comfrey being consumed, and other dietary, physiological and pharmacodynamic factors were not accounted for.

On the other hand modern science confirms that Comfrey can influence the course of some types of muscle and joint pain. Comfrey was used in an attempt to treat a wide variety of ailments ranging from bronchial problems, broken bones, sprains, arthritis, gastric and varicose ulcers, severe burns, acne and other skin conditions. It was reputed to have bone and teeth building properties in children, and have value in treating “many female disorders”.

So looking at the evidence up-to-date – Comfrey has been used traditionally for many different ailments, for very long time, including the root: historically more prized than the leaves.

For me It’s great for grazes and is the absolute best thing to rub on nettle stings. Pick a leaf, spit on it, rub it between the palms till it starts breaking up, then rub on the affected area.

So now I will leave it to you to decide in what form you would like to benefit from this magnificent plant!

By Sanja Ratkusic – Horticulturalist