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What to grow this year: Comfrey

A beginner’s guide to Comfrey

This native perennial grows in ditches, damp hedgerows and woods, and sometimes alongside water courses.  It forms clumps up to three or four feet tall, with long, pointed, slightly hairy, oval leaves.  There is also a dwarf variety which is less invasive than the standard type.  Flowers appear May to September, and are bell-shaped and purple-blue to pink; sometimes these are white.  The long tap-root goes very deep, and the plant is valued by Permaculturists as a mineral accumulator because it mines nutrients from deep in the soil, making them available to other more shallow rooted species. Planted between apple tree roots at their extremeties, comfrey will bring up these nutrients to feed the tree, (apple trees feed through these shallow root tips) so comfrey makes an excellent companion plant.

History

 

Comfrey probably came to Britain with the Romans. The name comes from the Latin 'confevre' meaning 'to grow together'; Symphytum comes from the Greek 'symphyo' = 'to unite'. This reflects the healing powers of the herb to speed the regrowth of cells and to mend breaks and wounds. A traditional healing oil is made by steeping leaves in olive oil for several weeks, and straining and bottling the resulting infusion. (Note: Care should be taken in using this if a wound is deep however, because the surface skin cells will be stimulated to regrow very quickly, and if this happens before the deeper tissues have healed, an abcess can form). Comfrey is also available in homeopathic form as Symphytum and can b useful after surgery.

Cultivation

Divide roots or clumps in spring or autumn.  Comfrey prefers damp soil and shade. If you don’t want it to spread a lot, try the cultivar Bocking 14 which is sterile and therefore does not seed freely. This can be purchased as root cuttings from Garden organics and other suppliers. Our experience with these is that they do better grown on in pots and then planted out rather than put straight in the ground.

Part used

The dried root or the leaves, fresh or dried. Fresh leaves are the most potent.  They make an excellent poultice in a first aid situation after bad knocks.

Harvesting

The leaves should be gathered in June and July and the root dug up from October to March.

Medicinal uses

Herbal expert Lynee Tann-Watson says “Comfrey contains allantoin, a cell proliferant which repairs damaged tissue, so it is the best of all herbs for applying to bruises, sprains and fractures.  It is particularly useful for such breaks as toes, ribs or hairline fractures where it is not possible to bind the break.

Although comfrey has been used internally for duodenal ulcers, ulcerative colitis and bronchitis, though its use internally has been restricted in some countries as it may cause liver damage and tumours.  It can help heal acne, boils and psoriasis.  If using it as a wound healer, caution should be exercised as mentioned above - for if the wound is deep, the application of comfrey may encourage growth of surface tissue before the wound has healed deeper down, thus allowing abscesses to develop.  Care should also be taken that any wound is very clean so that the rapid healing does not trap dirt inside the wound.

As an anti-inflammatory, comfrey is very useful, and an infused oil, ointment or poultice can be applied to arthritic joints, conditions such as tennis elbow and inflamed bunions.  It also reduces swelling and has been used to treat gout, phlebitis and burns.  Applied to scars it can help to diminish them”.

Other uses

Lynne also has some good garden usage tips: “Older leaves may be wilted and used as animal feed because they are high in protein.  As a garden herb it is a wonderful compost plant adding many nutrients.  A liquid fertilizer can be made by drilling a hole in the bottom of a lidded bucket and standing on bricks with a bowl underneath.  The bucket is then filled with comfrey leaves, which are left to rot. The resulting liquid will drip into the container and can be stored in a bottle.  This is very concentrated and can be diluted and used as a plant feed.

It can also be used as a mulch around the base of plants and placed in the bottom of a trench before planting potatoes.  If you are growing runner beans up a 'wigwam', bury comfrey leaves in the centre for bigger, healthier beans.

The leaves and flowers produce yellow and orange dyes for wool and cloth, depending on the mordant used”.

MWPN acknowledges the expertise of Lynne Tann-Watson in putting together this short guide.

Books by Lynne Tann-Watson are available from:

http://www.witchsgarden.co.uk/books.htm

and

http://www.herbsociety.org.uk/shop.htm

The Herb Society website has a Herb of the Month section with lots of fascinating information, see:

http://www.herbsociety.org.uk/hom-main.htm

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