Growing and Using Comfrey
Herbalists throughout the ages have placed comfrey high on their list of useful plants. It is known to have an effect on a variety of external ailments. Some of the common ones include cuts, burns, skin ulcers, hemorrhoids, sprains, fractures, and boils. In today’s article, we are going to go over everything you need to know about the comfrey plant. Learn how to grow comfrey and use it in your herbal first aid preparations. Also, learn how you can use comfrey as a soil amendment too.
Now, I’m not a doctor, nurse or trained herbalist. But I am someone who loves understanding the benefits of using herbs to keep my family healthy. I love finding new herbs that can remedy common ailments that people traditionally turn to traditional medicine for. My philosophy is if a natural herb can cure it, then why not use it? For hundreds of years, comfrey has been a great healer and was even used to feed people.
While the benefits of comfrey are too good to ignore, there has been some controversy surrounding it. A study came out in the late 1990s that indicated comfrey might be carcinogenic. Because of that study, comfrey has been tainted with somewhat of a bad rap.
The comfrey controversy stems from the notion that when comfrey is taken internally, there is cause for concern. This is because it is known to have 14 pyrrolizidine alkaloids. This molecular makeup of the plant has been linked to ailments in humans such as liver damage and failure.
While the controversy surrounding the comfrey plant cannot be denied, we encourage you to do your own research. The best way to do this is by listening to trusted herbalists and deciding for yourself. For now, I stand with the status quo that using comfrey internally is done at your own risk. To research on your own, I recommend checking out this excellent article – the comfrey controversy.
What is Comfrey?
Comfrey is a medicinal plant that grows in the form of a shrub. It is naturally found in parts of Asia, Europe, and all over North America. A distinguishing factor of this plant is the fact that it grows little bushels of flowers. These flowers can range in color from white to blue to purple. The small flowers have a similar appearance to that of Bluebells. Another distinguishing factor of this plant is its black skinned roots and long, skinny leaves.
While comfrey has many uses. It is mainly known for its medicinal properties. It has long been used in Japan to remedy external issues. Some of the common health symptoms it treats include muscle sprains, bruises, joint inflammation, and burns.
Growing Comfrey is Easy
Comfrey is a vigorously growing plant, often spreading 24 – 48” wide. If you have a large garden space, then you may want to consider placing your comfrey in large tubs. This will help to contain them so that the plant does not overrun your garden. Once you have established a comfrey patch it will be hard to get rid of it. Even small bits of the root can produce new plants. Your comfrey will grow in full or partial sun and is hardy from zones 4 – 9.
In cool climates, the plant will die back in the winter but then re-shooting again in the spring. In warmer climates where there is full sun, your comfrey plans will not die back. This means you can expect the leaves to be intact all year round. However, it will rarely flower because it needs a winter chill.
What makes comfrey a great plant to grow is the fact that it is so easy to work with. When repotting, you can divide young plants in the spring as the leaves begin growing. During this time, the roots are hardy so you do not need to worry about being gentle. Use a shovel or sharp knife to dig up and separate the roots into smaller pieces. You can then re-pot or give away your comfrey plants.
Comfrey is a fast grower and the leaves can be harvested at least 4 times a year, the first cutting is usually ready by mid-spring. Harvesting the plant is very simple and easy to do. You will need to start by cutting the leaves back to about 2 inches above the soil. You can also take individual leaves as they get to about the size of your hand. After the first cut, you can count on another cutting every 6 weeks until early autumn. This is when you should allow the plants to leaf out and build up winter reserves.
Before you start harvesting, you want to make sure to have the right equipment on hand. There are fine hairs on the leaves that can irritate some people so it is best to wear gloves when you are harvesting. Once you have harvested the leaves, dry them by spreading them out in single layers and use any one of the dehydrating methods found in this post. When the leaves are dry, store them whole, lying flat in boxes. You can also gently crumble and store the leaves in jars. When storing the root cuttings, you should wash them in cool water first. Then, cut them into thin slices and dry them out. They can then be ground into powder or kept in small chunks until used.
There are many ways to use the comfrey plant
What makes comfrey such a great plant is the fact that you can use it in more than one way. Here are some of the most popular uses of the comfrey plant.
1. As a compost activator
If you want to provide a nutrient boost to your compost, then the comfrey plant is the way to go. The comfrey leaves make an excellent fertilizer. They give your compost added nitrogen. Nitrogen is essential to a compost pile because it results in increased microbial decomposition. Be sure not to add too much comfrey plant as this can disrupt the carbon – nitrogen ratio. This can have adverse effects such as slowing down the decomposition rate. Some people plant a comfrey plant bush next to their compost heaps. This allows them to take full advantage of its use as an excellent compost activator. If you plan on doing this, just be sure to contain the growth!
2. To improve compacted soil
Comfrey’s thick and tuberous roots create an expansive root system. These thick roots allow the comfrey plant to “mine” compacted soils for minerals and other nutrients which are often difficult for other plants to obtain. This ability to help cycle nutrients through the soil is a great reason to plant comfrey at the base of fruit trees and other perennials. Again, just be sure to contain the plant so that there are no overgrowth issues.
3. Steep comfrey leaves to make a liquid fertilizer
This is another great compost tip. Chop up some comfrey leaves and place them in water for several weeks. Placing a rock on the top will help keep the plant submerged. Then, wait until they form a dark, thick (smelly) liquid. This liquid can then be diluted 12:1 – 15:1 prior to application on your garden plants.
4. Use comfrey leaves as green manure and mulch
Another great use of the comfrey plant is to use it as a green manure or mulch. Simply cut the leaves then spread them out over your planting beds. You can even leave the plants to decompose on site. The decomposed comfrey plant will continue helping to condition your soil.
5. Medicinal topical remedies
If you are looking for a natural remedy for common ailments, then the comfrey plant can be very beneficial. The leaves of a comfrey plant are completely safe and very effective. The recommended way to use it is in a topical fashion. Make a poultice of comfrey leaves for use on bruises, external wounds, and sores. Take a macerated leaf solution (mix it with hot water or herbal tea to make a paste) and place this directly on the affected area. Be sure to use a warm cloth or bandage to hold it in place. Comfrey has tissue regenerative abilities and is helpful in destroying harmful bacteria. Comfrey should not be placed on deep puncture wounds as it may heal the surface of the wound too fast.
6. Use in creams and infused oils
If you are looking to battle dry skin, then use comfrey as an ingredient in creams and infused oils. You can treat blackheads by making a poultice of comfrey root mixed with calendula petals. You can also take notes from Rosemary Gladstar too. In her book, Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide, she makes an easy and effective Aloe-Comfrey Arthritis Gel to be used topically for sore muscles and arthritic joints (see page 106).
Below, you will find plenty more resources for growing and using comfrey in your daily life:
I also recommend the following books to further research growing and using herbs. These are all in my prepper reference library:
The Herb Bible by Peter Mchoy and Pamela Westland
Growing & Using the Healing Herbs by Gaea and Shandor Weiss
Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, Claire Kowalachik, and William Hylton, Editors
Final Thoughts on the Comfrey Plant
If you are ready to start growing and using comfrey, you do not have to look any further than the specialty nurseries in your area. If you know someone who is growing comfrey, you can even snag a couple of roots from them. Consider the addition of this wonderful herb in your garden. It has many medicinal and soil building benefits that you don’t want to miss out on.