3 Herb Mamas

Wednesday’s Weeds: COMFREY

on September 3, 2014

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Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)

Because I purposefully planted Comfrey in our first WV garden 25 years ago, I’ve never thought of it as a “weed.” Of course, by now it is probably clear that I don’t think of any plants as weeds in the commonly intended, negative sense of the word. I am frequently asked, “Is this an herb or a weed?” For me, that is like asking, “Is this a plant or a plant?” But I understand what is being asked. Essentially, the questioner wants to know if the plant might be of some use to them personally. And the answer 99% of the time is a resounding YES! I blame the 1% on my own lack of knowledge rather than on a plant’s lack of usefulness. Also, plants are sometimes useful in ways or to species not directly impacting humans. Poison Ivy effectively blankets and protects deforested land while Thistles defend compacted, over-grazed land…but that is a story for another time. Today I want to focus on the many gifts and talents of Comfrey.

When we bought our first home in the mountains I was fortunate to cross paths with an herbal hermit of sorts. He took me through his extensive terraced gardens that overflowed with herbal wonders and was a botanical Eden in miniature. His small lot was not well situated, nor was the soil optimum, yet hundreds of culinary and medicinal plants grew with verdant and lush enthusiasm. I’d been using herbs for at least a decade but I was about to put down roots and begin the marvelous adventure of growing and wildcrafting (reaping where no man has sown) my own. Before I left that day, this reclusive herbalist gave me a “slip” of Comfrey root no bigger than the tip of my pinkie. He told me to plant it and spread the roots by division every spring until I had the size bed I desired. From that tiny piece of root has come so much healing and hundreds of feet of Comfrey beds at two different homesteads.

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My first Comfrey patch started from a small root tip over 20 years ago and is pictured in its second season of growth.

Comfrey has a reputation of being invasive but in my own experience it does not spread unless I divide the roots purposefully. Otherwise, the individual plants simply grow up more lushly from each planted root year after year. The difference may be that if Comfrey is planted in a garden that is plowed or tilled each spring those roots are probably being chopped up and scattered around. All it takes is a tiny root hair to start a whole new plant. We have always used garden beds that are built and then left undisturbed after the initial preparation, simply adding compost and mulch as needed but not disturbing the layers of micro-organisms building up the soil. I use Comfrey so frequently and broadly that I encourage it to spread out and make itself at home. I never seem to have enough for all the ways that I like to use it.

Comfrey prefers a moist, shady spot with rich soil. It will do well elsewhere but that would be its first choice and you will find it grows most abundantly in that type of setting. We have planted Comfrey in at least three different spots but it is growing best in a Hugelkultur bed along the edge of a wooded area. In our old home it grew amazingly along a creek bed under a poplar tree.

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Freshly planted Comfrey bed this past spring the day of planting and one month later…already blooming!

As with any plant you bring home and include in your landscape or garden, you should research it first and decide if it is something that you want to have around and would find useful. Have a plan and know what your needs are. There are so many reasons to appreciate Comfrey but over the years of sharing root cuttings with others and then listening to complaints about its abundant health and growth, I’ve opted to simply grow and use it in our family.  A turning point was when someone who asked for roots from our garden and then never used it for any purpose applied an herbicide to kill the plant. 😦

Comfrey, in my experience, is unequaled at healing sprains and fractures. I would never suggest that anyone forego seeing a doctor to set a serious break but Comfrey can certainly speed up healing once that important step has been attended to. The Comfrey that I grow has the Latin name Symphytum officinale. The designation officinale means that it is included in the official U.S. Pharmacopoeia. That’s the tip-off that a plant has useful medicinal purposes. Although there is controversy over whether Comfrey should be used internally or not, most experts agree that it is an impressive cell tissue proliferater. That means that where there is damaged tissue, be it skin, ligament, or bone, using this plant will aid in the production of healthy new tissue. For open wounds that are not properly cleaned this can present problems as it can speed up the closing of the wound and seal in bacteria. Always clean open wounds well before applying Comfrey.

Over the years we have used Comfrey for everything from shin splints to sprained ankles to achy backs. Most recently we have been using it as a compress to speed the healing of a hip socket fracture my husband sustained in an auto accident. Although the orthopedic doctor told us that it will take 10-12 weeks for full recovery, at just over 2 weeks post-accident he has been released to work half days so long as he remains on crutches and bears no weight on his right leg. Although I am comfortable using Comfrey internally in the ways described below, you should ALWAYS do the research for any substance you ingest and decide if it is appropriate for your specific situation and circumstances.

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Comfrey Compress made simply by pureeing whole Comfrey leaves (Roots work great, too!) with a little hot water and some Bruise Juice (an oil based blend of herbs including Comfrey made by and available from Jeanne Rose). This is placed in a layer of cheese cloth or other fine fabric and folded up burrito style. Twice or more daily we apply this to the fracture, cover with a water proof layer, a tea towel, and then a heating pad on top. We try to keep this on for an hour each time and follow it up with a gentle massage using Bruise Juice. 

In a pinch I have simply dipped the large, somewhat fuzzy leaves of Comfrey into some boiling water and wrapped them directly on a sprain or pulled muscle area. While the leaves remain warm this works fine but as it cools off it can feel prickly from those fine hairs. So if I want to keep an application on longer I will often make a compress. A compress is simply prepared plant material wrapped in fine cloth (cheese cloth, silk, gauze, etc.) and applied to a wound. Poultices are similar except that the plant material is applied directly to the skin without a layer of cloth between the plant and the skin. These preparations are little used today in our hectic, pop-a-pill-&-keep-going culture. They require you to slow down and be still to rest the muscles and bones and allow the plant time to be in contact with the wounded area. Slowing down and being still is a medicine all its own. Adding the healing grace of a plant is the cream on top. You can use compresses for all sorts of situations: menstrual cramps, a sore back, a sprain, or just because. Use the time to read an inspiring book, hand write a letter to a loved one, meditate, or daydream.

Comfrey slurry

Comfrey Slurry can be quickly made by combining fresh Comfrey leaves and hot water and/or Comfrey oil, Bruise Juice, or other liquid and pureeing in a blender. I make a couple of days’ supply and refrigerate, then warm as needed and place it in fine gauze before applying as a compress.

Because I want to keep Comfrey and other healing herbs in contact with the skin in the area of my husband’s fractured hip, I apply Bruise Juice or Arnica oil frequently throughout the day and night in addition to the compresses. He is also eating a mineral rich diet emphasizing calcium and silica in particular. That means lots of leafy greens, especially kale from our garden along with other wild greens, salmon, home made yogurt, a variety of nuts and seeds (especially Chia), and flavonoid-rich fruits (especially berries). Thankfully I have some mineral-rich herbal vinegars handy. I combined Red Raspberry leaf, Nettles, and Comfrey leaf apple cider vinegars (ACV) and use them freely. Although many are unfamiliar with it. a tablespoon of ACV in a tall glass of water is refreshing and delicious. Much tastier and hydrating that soda. My husband was skeptical but has come to love this drink. I also use the herbal vinegar freely in salad dressings and marinades.

Bruise Juice is a Jeanne Rose creation based on a recipe from 1490 and prepared by the Grand Dame of Herbalism and Aromatherapy herself since 1969. Effective, healing, and fragrant. You can read about it in her book, HERBS & THINGS, read a testimonial here: http://www.jeannerose.net/articles/Bruise_Juice.html , or order it here: http://www.jeannerose.net/articles/Bruise_Juice.html

According to traditional herbalists, Comfrey speeds healing of cuts, ulcerations, bruises, broken bones, pulled muscles and ligaments, and sprains. Comfrey contains Pyrrolizidine Alkaloids (or PA’s), which can be toxic to the liver used improperly. The PA’s are more concentrated in the roots than in leaves. Comfrey gained a lot of attention in the 1970’s for its healing abilities and, hence, attracted the attention of researchers. Sadly, as such research goes, “active ingredients” were isolated and synthesized and the resulting experimental “medicine” was injected directly into the bloodstreams of lab rodents. Not surprisingly, the animals developed tumors and other undesirable damage. Lots of warnings came out about the dangers of using Comfrey and, to this day, some refrain from using it even externally. That is unfortunate since most of us do not isloate one alkaloid from a whole plant, synthesize it, and inject it. At least I know I don’t do that. According to Richo Cech of Horizon Herbs in his book MAKING PLANT MEDICINE, “Taken internally, a 3-week course of Comfrey root extract [preparation directions available in his book] or Comfrey leaf tea is considered harmless to the liver of a healthy, non-pregnant person.” He also warns that Comfrey should not be applied externally to “new puncture wounds or deep cuts, due to the likelihood that the outer skin layer will be stimulated to close up and heal prior to the draining and regeneration of deeper tissues.”  I clean all wounds thoroughly using a variety of methods from epsom salt soaks to Calendula tincture or Kloss’ Linament before applying  my Triple Healing Salve, which contains Comfrey root and leaf.  As with ANYTHING you ingest, whether prescribed by a doctor or gathered from your garden, thorough research should be done and consideration of your specific health conditions and unique needs before making an decision that is best for you. 

As a point of reference and for some perspective, here is a government publication listing, in order of toxicity, cancer hazard risk from a variety of sources. Note that both beer and breathing in mobile home air (14 hours per day) rank higher than 1.8 mg. of Comfrey pepsin in 9 tablets!

http://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/cpdb/pdfs/herp.pdf

Comfrey is also rich in allantoin and mucilage, two powerful agents for healing wounds and damaged tissue. Because it has the lowest concentration of PA’s I only use Symphytum officinale and never the hybrids or Russian Comfrey. Comfrey will become slimy when you work with it but it is slime that heals! Although I am personally comfortable using Comfrey internally and appropriately, I never include it in tea blends, capsules, or tinctures for others. However, I will continue to be an advocate for this wonderful plant that helps in so many ways around the home, barn, garden, and in life. Other ways I use Comfrey include:

*Added to compost piles to improve and speed up decomposition.

*As a houseplant and garden fertilizer (Comfrey Tea).

*To feed to my lactating goats to improve milk production and their calcium levels.

*Tons of permaculture uses for health of fruit trees, soft fruits and other plants that benefit from a living mulch of this “Doctor Plant”.

*In skin creams and salves for extra healing, skin softening ability.

*To attract bees and other pollinators.

*To admire and appreciate the beauty. 

Edible Herbal Bouquet for Goats

An edible herbal bouquet bucket for my goats that includes Comfrey among other delights!

~Leenie


One response to “Wednesday’s Weeds: COMFREY

  1. Christa Lemons says:

    fantastic Leenie! Thanks for the information I was needing!

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