Posted by & filed under Animal Forage, Compost, Medicinal Plants, Plant Systems.

Comfrey (Symphytum spp.) has been cultivated and valued by many cultures for almost 2500 years. A native to Europe and Asia, the comfrey plant with which most are familiar, Symphytum officinale, has been used as a blood coagulant, a treatment for maladies of the lung, and as a poultice to aid in the healing of wounds and broken bones. Consumed as a tea, comfrey is said to treat a variety of internal ailments by various folk medicine traditions.

The word comfrey is Latin in origin and means "to grow together”. Though research has recently linked the consumption of comfrey with liver damage in mice, thus halting the development of comfrey as a modern food crop, the plant was once widely grown for its medicinal, food and forage value. Today it is still valued for its use in salves and other topical skin preparations and for its use as animal fodder and fertilizer.

A fast-growing, herbaceous, perennial plant of the borage family, comfrey’s thick and tuberous roots create an expansive root system, allowing the plant to “mine” compacted soils for minerals and other nutrients which are often difficult for other plants to obtain. It is this ability to help cycle nutrients through the soil that has given comfrey its designation as a dynamic accumulator plant. Like daikon, stinging nettles, and other plants that function as dynamic accumulators, comfrey leaves make an excellent fertilizer, and provide a nutrient boost to compost mixes. Additionally, comfrey leaves are used as a green manure and mulch, being cut, then spread over planting beds and left to decompose on site, further helping to condition soils. Cutting and placing the first flush of comfrey leaves in trenches where potatoes are to be planted is thought to provide the tubers with nutrients that will result in an increased yield. It is important to use only the leaves of the plant when mulching, as any cut stems have the potential to take root.

A liquid fertilizer can also be made from the comfrey plant by “steeping” chopped comfrey leaves in water for several weeks (placing a rock or other heavy item on the leaves to keep them submerged) until they form a dark, thick liquid. The liquid should be diluted 12:1 – 15:1 prior to application.

Mature comfrey plants can be cut several times each season, prompting some to plant comfrey patches in proximity to compost heaps to take full advantage of comfrey’s use as an excellent compost activator. Adding leaves of the comfrey plant to a compost heap gives the compost added nitrogen, resulting in increased microbial decomposition of the compost. The addition of too much comfrey will result in an imbalance in the carbon: nitrogen of the compost, and can actually slow the decomposition rate.

A potting mixture can be made from leaf mold derived from chopped comfrey leaves and dolomite mixed together and left to sit in a lidded container for several months. Though not suitable for seeds, once well rotted the comfrey leaf mold mixture is suitable for use as a general potting soil.

Comfrey is hardy from zones 4 – 9, and will grow in full or partial sun. The ease of growth, tall stature and the small, yet attractive, bell-shaped flowers of the comfrey plant lend to its use as an ornamental in the landscape, but comfrey is not well suited to small garden patches where planting space is at a premium as the plants themselves can often grow to 24 – 48" wide.

Because comfrey will self-sow and is tolerant of most soil conditions, the plant can proliferate, potentially becoming a nuisance. The “Bocking 14” cultivar of Russian Comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) has gained popularity in recent years, as this strain of the plant is sterile, and is thus unable spread by seed, vastly reducing the risk for this comfrey to spread out of control once planted. Developed in the 1950s by Lawrence Hills, of the Henry Doubleday Research Association (known today as Garden Organic), at that organization’s Bocking, UK research farm site, the Bocking 14 cultivar is propagated from root cuttings called “offsets” which can, initially, be purchased from nurseries and through on-line sources. Once the plants have become mature and established in the landscape, gardeners can obtain root cuttings from their own plants, giving them an almost unlimited supply of the hardy, fast growing and multipurpose comfrey plant.

20 Responses to “The Wonderful Multi-Purpose Comfrey Plant”

  1. Dean O. Hopper

    A bit frightening.
    According to the autopsy, my brother died of kidney-failure, at 67.
    The cause was his daily cup of comfrey tea, for about 7 months.

    Comfrey tea is not a good idea.

    Deano

    Reply
  2. Christine Baker

    Deano, was there a particular reason why your brother daily drank the tea for such a long time?

    I’ve read that people drink it after they break a bone for a couple weeks, but not regularly for no particular reason. It is a “medicinal” plant and personally, I’d drink the tea if I had a problem with bones, but definitely not for longer than a couple weeks.

    Most medicines have side effects and shouldn’t be taken any longer than necessary.

    I’ve been reading so many good things about comfrey and we can’t wait to get started with the spreading kind. It’s not going to take over the desert and I’m intrigued by the possibility of making comfrey potting soil.

    Really wish that there were more studies on potential health risks. We’ll probably just add it to our potting soil, it’s better to have multiple ingredients.

    Melissa, thanks for the article! Would like to read more about multi use plants like comfrey.

    Christine

    Reply
    • Callie

      I would suggest reading this site’s page about Comfrey:
      http://www.herbsarespecial.com.au/free-herb-information/comfrey.html

      Despite the painful lack of paragraphs (I actually copied and pasted it onto a word doc and split it up into paragraphs just so I could read it), it’s worth reading every word, particularly as it demonstrates blatantly ‘dodgy’ research and 2,000 years worth of evidence to the contrary.

      If his brother died from Comfrey tea, then it’s more than likely the Comfrey he’d used was covered in insecticide – or something else had been dumped on it. Or he hadn’t been drinking Comfrey tea at all, but something he picked himself and assumed was Comfrey.

      Comfrey does NOT kill beast or human.

      There are many lies being fabricated and spread about Comfrey ‘poisoning’, mostly by the Big Pharma and the medical profession – particularly in Australia.

      Reply
  3. Melissa

    Deano,

    So sorry to hear of your brother’s experience, it must be terrible to know that his death was caused by the ingestion of a seemingly harmless tea that’s been enjoyed by people for generations – your comment serves as a good reminder: as with any herbal/natural remedies (and medications, in general), one should seek the advice of a qualified physician to determine the safety for YOU (particularly if any underlying conditions or allergies are present or suspected). The concerns some have with human ingestion of comfrey stems from the presence of the pyrrolizidine alkaloids in the plant (which are toxic to the liver and have been shown to cause damage to the livers of lab animals, when taken in larger quantities). It is often thought to be the AMOUNT consumed that makes the difference between whether this (or any) herbal remedy is safe to use, as excessive use of most medications (herbal or otherwise) can be dangerous. I have known several people, myself included, who have enjoyed the occasional cup of comfrey tea and have suffered no ill effects, but again, it is always a good idea to check with a physician prior to trying a new herbal remedy… a little due diligence can go a long way :) Thanks for your comment.

    Reply
  4. Øyvind Holmstad

    Camelina:

    I learned about another forgotten plant this morning http://www.nofima.no/mat/nyhet/2010/09/gamle-vekster-gir-god-olje (in Norwegian), camelina http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camelina_sativa (in English), that in contrary to comfrey thrives in nitrogen poor soil.

    What is really interesting about this plant is the high percentage of omega-3, 35-45 % of its oil is omega-3, and also the yield of oil is about 45 %.

    This should be an ideal plant for people who don’t like fish, and a splendid plant to feed our chickens. Today’s eggs and chicken contains too much of dangerous, inflammations omega-6, due to too much soya in the chicken food.

    If you feed your hens with camelina, maybe one camelina egg for breakfast could replace your daily spoon of fish oil? And what a good name for marketing, “camelina eggs”!

    Nb! Camelina, even native to Eastern Europe and Asia, even thrives as far north as Norway.

    Reply
  5. Darren (Green Change)

    You can access Lawrence Hill’s 1953 book – Russian Comfrey: A Hundred Tons an Acre of Stock or Compost for Farm, Garden or Smallholding – here:

    http://www.soilandhealth.org/copyform.aspx?bookcode=010153

    It’s well worth a read, but make sure you do your research on toxicity before using comfrey as a significant part of your animal fodder. Some studies say it’s fine, others warn against it – read the information yourself and make your own mind up.

    Reply
  6. Øyvind Holmstad

    I’m sorry to tell the omega-3 from plants is different than the omega-3 from fish; they are shorter than the marine omega-3 fat acids. Plants omega-3 has not documented the same benefits for health as marine omega-3. Sorry to tell you can’t replace your daily spoon of fish oil with a camelina egg, which surely should taste much better.

    I didn’t find any information in English about the differences between plant and fish omega-3, so I have to post the Norwegian link: http://no.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfalinolensyre

    Reply
  7. Peah Barnyngoz

    I was experiencing inflammation and some toothache pain at the site of a root canal dental operation I had 6 days ago. Antibiotics are only good as control medicine if there is continuing infection. Disappointed that it had cost so much and I had another toothache coming on I went for a stroll in the garden. My comfrey patch showed an abundance of growth after a whole week of rain so I picked 6 large unblemished leaves and within two minutes It was stewing slowly in a pot in the kitchen. After 25 or so minutes, I removed from heat and strained off about two cups of tea. I couldn’t wait so I added some cold water and drank and found the tea to be remarkably satisfying.
    The toothache was no more. So I may still have to have the troubling tooth pulled but the appointment is 2 weeks away and in the meantime I have the comfrey.

    Reply
  8. Wojciech Majda

    A bit of information about what Oyvind is talking about (why plant source of omega 3 is inferior to one found in fish or pasture raised animals:

    http://thehealthyskeptic.org/why-fish-stomps-flax-as-a-source-of-omega-3

    It’s also interesting to note that ALA to DHA concersion is very poor in Scandinavian population (because they used to eat so much fish, so that mechanism seams to disapear).

    Anyway it’s interesting to notice that eating food that we were designed to eat decrease inflammatory disease. Basically it’s what aspirin or paracetamol is doing, except it doesn’t damage your liver. And it’s natural.

    Reply
  9. Øyvind Holmstad

    Hei Wojciech Majda!

    Thank you for a very useful link! If you feed hens with seeds from the camelina flower, do you think the eggs will transform the shorter chains from omega-3 to pre-formed DHA and AA? If this is possible, maybe my idea about camelina eggs is not so bad after all, and can replace the daily spoon of fish oil?

    Do you know about any sort of hens which are especially clever in pre-forming DHA and AA to long omega-3 chains, like found in seafood? Maybe hens from South Eastern Europe are better in this transformation, as I understand camelina flowers are more common there? I wonder if there is done any research in different sorts of hens ability to pre-form DHA and AA? I think it’s important to learn more about this as seafood becomes increasingly more expensive.

    Reply
  10. Wojciech Majda

    From what I know land omnivore animals are not super efficient when it goes to converting ALA to DHA. You can’t create egg super rich in omega 3, because if you feed hens diet rich in flax or rapeseed (above 5-15% of diet) it will taint eggs and/or meat. It can give fishy or “paint” like flavor. The same happens if you feed chicken or pigs too much fish meal.
    I don’t know much about AA into DHA conversion, but i think that if AA is from omega 6 group it cannot be converted into omega 3 DHA.
    Good link into that topic:
    http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com/2009/11/omega-3-eggs.html

    Usually the warmer the climate is the more saturated fats plants and animals produce and (store) (coconut, pal oil). It’s because unsaturated fats are liquid in cold water (or weather) for example fish oil, seal oil, rapeseed oil. Saturated fats would freeze in cold water so fish will be to stiff. The same for seeds – it would be difficult for plant to use “solid” saturated fat.

    Place where there is lot of DHA in animal is brain. So eating pasture raised cattle or lamb brain is healthy :) I’m planing to do things like that when I will buy a farm.

    I think that we shouldn’t worry about getting as humanity in future if we just cut using unhealthy industrial vegetable oils (canola, sunflower, cotton seed, corn, soy..). Anyway most healthy cultures (hunter-gatherers)get about 2-5% of they calories as polyunsaturated fats. We can get enough if we eat animals that were raised in permaculture way :)

    You can create also milk rich in omega 3 if cows are raised on pasture. Giving cows/goats/sheep sea buckthorn (Hippophaë rhamnoides) (also elagnace family) or Eleagnus spp. (gumi, russian olive, autum olive…) leaves is also great for cows and omega 3 content. Latin name of sea bucthor is greek word shiny horse – that’s because it got good fats. I don’t know are they converted to DHA unfortunately.

    Interesting resources about fats and pasture raised animals:
    http://www.eatwild.com/healthbenefits.htm
    http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com/2010/05/pastured-dairy-may-prevent-heart.html

    And this one is good – experiment on rats fed different fats but the same amount calories. Rats gain weight diffrently:
    http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com/2008/12/vegetable-oil-and-weight-gain.html

    Reply
  11. Øyvind Holmstad

    Thank you Wojciech for all this information! Surely industrialized eggs and chicken is a hazardous thing to eat, as I saw a program on TV recently showing a study they are full of omega-6. Surely, the best is eggs from hens fed on a variety of herbs, and I think camelina should be just one of many. Variety, like always, is the key here.

    Reply
  12. Steve Rushton

    Have used Comfrey since 1980 for all types of ailments from bone fractures to sprains and muscle pain, I mainly use the root and infuse grape seed oil or make a poultice of the ground up root. My first experience with Comfrey was on 1980 after back surgery. I would bath in a hot water bath with ground up leaves and roots on a regular basis. my recovery was speedy and I have NO back problems 30 yrs later.

    Is it true that black olives have the same toxic properties said to be in Comfrey, if so should the authorities ban black olives?

    Reply
  13. Tanya Retallack

    As in all things… MODERATION is key… The French paradox.. a little of everything …

    Reply
  14. David

    Yes the root is best kept for external use – its a super powerful healer – external used with hot compresses. The leaf is ok for occasional consumption but not regular. Drink or eat the leaves for 2 or 3 days is best then stop for 3 – 4 days … small quantities are all that is needed to gain healing effects. Comfrey’s power is in wound healing and deep tissue repair such as deep muscle or bone repair when applied externally. Use a hot moist compress to activate or use comfrey oil (root soaked in vegetable oil for 2 or 3 weeks).

    Reply
  15. Randy

    Some excellent comfrey links from Dr Christophers Herbal Legacy site where they are currently refuting some of the findings and methodologies used by the FDA. There are 4 separate links on the site, the first is the most technical one, the others are more anecdotal and written by their schools graduates & Master Herbalists.
    http://herballegacy.com/Comfrey.html
    http://herballegacy.com/Comfrey_Hoover.html
    http://herballegacy.com/Seitz_Comfrey.html
    http://herballegacy.com/Comfrey_Thesis.html

    Reply
  16. Emmanouil karamousadakis

    Nice article. Just a correction. The scientific name of the confrey it is not Latin. Its Greek. Symfyto. Sym means together, fyto is the word for plant in ancient and modern Greek.

    Reply

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