Power Plants: Comfrey

via Bryce Wylde

Biohacks, Remedies

Power Plants

COMFREY (Symphytum officinale)
Comfrey is part of the borage family, which also includes forget-me-nots. It is a large plant (2 to 5 feet tall) with broad, hairy leaves and purplish, blue or white flowers. Native to Europe, it has long been cultivated for its remarkable healing properties and for use as an organic fertilizer. Its Latin name Symphytum is derived from the Greek symphyo meaning to “grow together,” and its folk names include bruisewort, boneset and knitbone.
Many herbal preparations now use a cultivar called Russian comfrey (Symphytum × uplandicum), which is a hybrid of common comfrey (S. officinale) and rough comfrey (S. asperum).
Comfrey is nature’s answer to the Band-Aid. In the past, its leaves were sterilized in boiling water and applied directly to wounds to reduce swelling and bruising, and even to promote rapid healing of broken bones. Comfrey’s ability to help heal wounds comes from a compound called allantoin (present in both the leaves and roots), which is believed to reduce inflammation and promote new cell growth.
Modern science seems to back up traditional beliefs. In one study, for example, a 35% comfrey cream applied topically to ankle sprains was very effective even when compared to anti-inflammatory pharmaceutical creams.
In the past, comfrey was also taken and orally for gastrointestinal, respiratory and gynecological concerns. However, it is now known that the plant contains toxic compounds, and it is listed as “topical use only” in herbal and medical text books.
Difficulty: Easy
Hardiness: Perennial in zones 4 to 9
Time to Plant: Sow seeds directly into garden in early spring, or purchase transplants in mid-spring
Time to Harvest: Flowers in early to mid-summer, roots in fall
Location: Full sun to part shade
Soil Type: Most (will grow in clay)
Comfrey is a hardy perennial that is extremely easy to grow: its vigorous roots will even break through clay. It blooms most of the summer and spreads rapidly, so it will thrive in most gardens. But a word of warning: comfrey is a big plant that will easily grow 2 to 3 feet tall and wide and can take over its location.
Common Varieties: Common comfrey (Symphytum officinale) and the hybrid Russian comfrey are the most common. Red Comfrey (‘Rubrum’) is a cultivar that tolerates shade.
Comfrey should be located in the middle or at the rear of a garden, since this large plant has been known to shade out its medicinal friends in the garden. Comfrey is propagated from seed, root cuttings, crown divisions, and transplants. Plant it in mid-spring after the risk of hard frost, or directly sow seeds in the ground in early spring, as soon as soil is workable. Divide in early spring or early fall. Locate common comfrey in full sun in rich, well-drained soil for best results and space 30 to 60 cm (1 to 2 feet) apart.
The biggest challenge with growing comfrey is getting it established: after that it will take care of itself. Water deeply and infrequently, ensuring new transplants never dry out. Regular applications of general-purpose water soluble fertilizer or compost tea will also help.
Once established (give it about a year), comfrey is extremely winter-hardy, drought-resistant and unlikely to be bothered by diseases or insects, but inspect it occasionally and remove any brown side shoots as necessary. Ensure adequate air flow by not overplanting.
Harvest mature plants only: wait for a plant height of at least 60 cm (2 ft) before cutting leaves. Harvest during mid-morning on a sunny day after foliage has dried. Wear gloves as the plant’s hairy leaves have been known to cause rashes.
Remove entire stalks by cutting to just above base of the plant. You should not harvest more than a third of the plant at a time, but comfrey is an incredibly tough plant that will bounce back even after aggressive harvesting. In fact, it will produce additional growth and can be harvested up to 3 times per season.
Dry the stalks and leaves by hanging them upside down in a dry space out of direct light (the garage will do). Comfrey has dense foliage and will take longer to dry than other herbs. After drying, store the foliage in airtight containers or sealed bags out of direct sun.
Breastfeeding blues? Comfrey brings re-leaf!
The soothing demulcent properties of comfrey leaves can help relive sore nipples after breastfeeding. Demulcents are traditionally used to aid healing and soothe irritated tissue.
To prepare a poultice, dip 2 comfrey leaves into a mug of boiling water, lie them flat and allow to cool. While they are still wet, wrap each with a layer of gauze. Apply to the nipples for instant comfort and relief. A heating pad or hot water bottle over the application will keep the poultice warm and active longer. Leave on for up to 15 minutes.
Before the baby breastfeeds again, the area should be rinsed thoroughly to remove any herbal residue from the breast. IMPORTANT: Women planning to use herbs during pregnancy or breastfeeding should always seek the supervision of a qualified healthcare practitioner.
Roll an ankle? Sit down and get comfrey!
You don’t have to be an athlete or weekend warrior to sprain an ankle—just walking over a curb or an uneven surface can end up in a painful ankle roll. It is always best to start treatment for this type of injury with ice, but after several minutes it’s time to slip into something a bit more “comfrey”!
This poultice will work on more than just a sprained ankle: apply to any sprained, strained, bruised or battered body part. First collect about 20 comfrey leaves, chop them and blend them enough water to make it soupy. Pour contents into a bowl and add enough psyllium husk (unflavored Metamucil) to make it thick and sticky.
Now place the mixture into an old pair of socks (half the volume in each). Flatten the poultice within the socks and seal the tops using elastic bands. Apply the socks to both sides of your twisted ankle and cover with plastic wrap to hold in place and prevent leaking. Leave on for 15 minutes. Do not reapply more than hourly, and no more than 4 times in one day.
Trauma? Rub on some relief!
Comfrey cream should be in everyone’s first aid kit. It can bring comfort to aching arthritic joints and sore muscles without the strong smell of most topicals.
To make your own, blend 10 comfrey leaves with enough water to get a soupy consistency that is not too liquid. In a glass or stainless steel bowl over a small pot of boiling water (acting as a double boiler), add ¼ cup of coconut oil and 5 tablespoons of beeswax until melted. Add the blended comfrey leaves and mix thoroughly. Pour into a clean, dry jar. Once the cream has cooled and solidified, apply it liberally to the affected area.
Fast forward to the health food store to purchase the Gaia Herbs Comfrey Compound or equivalent. Follow the instructions on the label.
Many countries, including Canada and the U.S., have banned oral medicines containing comfrey. Comfrey (especially the roots) contains potentially dangerous pyrrolizidine alkaloids. Avoid ingesting comfrey, as these compounds are toxic to the liver.
Just as with calendula cream, do not use comfrey on deep, puncture-type wounds, as it can cause the skin to heal over and seal infection inside.
Comfrey should also be avoided if you are allergic or hypersensitive to any member of the borage family (Boraginaceae). If you have never used comfrey it may be prudent to first test your sensitivity by firmly rubbing a leaf on the skin of your inner wrist. If a rash or irritation presents, do not use.
Predel HG, Giannetti B, Koll R, et al. Efficacy of a comfrey root extract ointment in comparison to a diclofenac gel in the treatment of ankle distortions: results of an observer-blind, randomized, multicenter study. Phytomedicine 2005;12:707–14
Koll R, Buhr M, Dieter R, et al. Efficacy and tolerance of a comfrey root extract (Extr. Rad. Symphyti) in the treatment of ankle distorsions: results of a multicenter, randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind study. Phytomedicine 2004;11(6):470-477
Mills SY. Out of the Earth: The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine. New York: Viking Arkana, 1991, 544–7.
Duke JA. Handbook of Phytochemical Constituents of GRAS Herbs and Other Economic Plants. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1992.
Kucera M, Kalal J, Polesna Z. Effects of Symphytum ointment on muscular symptoms and functional locomotor disturbances. Adv Ther 2000;17(4):204-210

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