Late last year, I set up a poll asking about herbs. More specifically, I asked the question “Name herbs you would like to learn more about relative to wellness and healthcare”. There were close to one hundred responses with the clear leader being Comfrey.
What is Comfrey? How do you grow it? What is it used for? In this first of a series of articles on plants used for health and wellness, I share what I know along with what I have learned from Susan Perry, a practicing herbalist, educator, and master gardener who is also a Backdoor Survival reader.
Comfrey has been called “The Legendary Herb of Life”. Known for centuries for its amazing healing properties, it is used a fertilizer for gardens, and as food for farm animals, this herb is truly a homesteader’s best friend.
Legend has it that if you cut raw meat, then put a comfrey poultice on the cut, it will grow back together! I can’t say I believe that, but it’s a great reminder of one of comfrey’s talents: healing cuts and scrapes.
Medicinal Use of Comfrey
by Susan Perry
Parts used: The entire plant is used medicinally: leaves, roots, and rhizomes.
Herb Actions: Don’t worry – this next part is the closest we get to talking chemistry! These terms help you understand how herbs work and which herbs to use.
1. Vulnerary: Helps the body heal wounds, cuts and other tissue damage.
Comfrey is a most impressive wound-healing herb. This is partly due to a chemical (allantoin) that stimulates cell growth, promoting healing both inside and out. It is used for healing cuts, and scrapes, surgical incisions, stubborn leg ulcers, and skin irritations. It also promotes smooth and proper healing of scar tissue.
Comfrey has even been used to heal broken bones, particularly fractures of small bones or those that cannot be put in a cast such as ribs, fingers and toes. A poultice of its large leaves is wrapped around the affected area. (see directions below)
2. Demulcent: Rich in mucilage to soothe and protect inflamed or irritated tissue.
Its demulcent quality makes comfrey an excellent soothing herb for healing digestive ulcers, skin ulcers, ulcerative colitis, bronchitis, and persistent coughs.
3. Astringent: Contracts tissue, can reduce secretions and discharge.
Comfrey’s ability to stop bleeding contributes to its use for first aid, wound care, hemorrhage, and nosebleeds.
4. Expectorant: Helps remove excess mucus from the respiratory system.
Congestion from colds and flu can be alleviated with comfrey. It is also helpful for sinus infection, bronchitis, persistent cough, pneumonia, and other respiratory illnesses.
Regarding broken bones, I love the following, written by Euell Gibbons:
Modern herbalists may smile tolerantly at the old notion that herbal medicine could hurry the healing of broken bones. I refuse to join them.
What causes broken bones to heal swiftly in one person and take months to knit back together in another? Could it not be that in the slow cases the elements necessary for the healing process are absent, or present in such small quantities that healing proceeds very slowly?
Analysis shows that comfrey is high in calcium, potassium, and phosphorus, along with many useful trace minerals, and the green leaves are rich in vitamins A and C, and broken bones simply refuse to heal unless many of these nutrients are present.
Comfrey In the Garden
Comfrey prefers moist areas, but is drought resistant and will grow almost anywhere. It does best in hardiness zones 3 – 9. Check your hardiness zone here.
It can be planted spring through fall, whenever the soil can be dug. It requires only average soil with clay or sandy loam, but its deep taproot allows it to thrive in poor soil as well. In warm, southern climates it can be planted and harvested anytime during the year.
Warning: give comfrey its own space. Planted in garden beds, it will soon take over and crowd out its neighbors!
Before you head to the garden store for some seeds or plants, you need to know there are two species of comfrey. Are you planning to use comfrey as a medicinal herb, or as a garden amendment? Although both kinds will serve these purposes to a degree, each has their strong suit, and one type has sterile seeds.
Comfrey will take over a garden bed, so plant separately or choose Russian Comfrey, the seedless variety
1. True or common comfrey (Symphytum officinale).
This is the original, ancient medicinal herb most often used for healing. It contains allantoin, which promotes and increases cell growth.
True comfrey can be planted as seeds, live roots, or transplants. It is most often planted from seed, as it grows easily and seeds are the most economical.
2. Russian comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) also called Bocking 14 cultivar.
This is a hybrid of true comfrey and prickly comfrey. It was developed to have a sterile seed, to avoid it spreading and crowding or killing other plants. This variety is most often used for fertilizing, mulching, and animal feed.
Russian comfrey can be purchased as a live root or a plant.
As Granddad used to say, even a fifty-cent plant deserves a five-dollar hole. The same applies to comfrey.
Dig a hole several times the size of the root ball (see above!)
The soil should be a pH of 6.0 to 7.0. If the soil is too acidic, add lime, which is available at any nursery or garden shop.
Add aged manure of any kind and mix with the lime and soil, then add water to fill most of the way. Situate the plant or cutting so that the root tops are at or just below ground level. Press gently to firm the soil.
Space plants about three feet apart.
You may start seeds indoors. Plant seeds ¼ inch deep in starter pots, and keep them moist. Seeds germinate in 10 to 15 days.
Move plants outside two weeks after the danger of frost.
Plant them 8 inches apart, then thin to 3 feet apart.
Tending to your plants: Comfrey grows quickly, so weeding is usually needed only during the first month. Fertilize only if you see evidence of nitrogen deficiency, such as yellowing leaves.
Harvesting comfrey could not be easier!
• Gather leaves and small stems when you can see the flower buds, but before they have fully bloomed. This ensures the greatest medicinal potency.
• The best time of day for harvesting is in the morning after the dew has lifted, and before mid-day sun, which can deplete the plants’ volatile essential oils.
• Trim the largest parts and allow small parts to continue growing.
•A mature plant can be harvested several times per year.
How to Prepare and Use Comfrey
1. Make a Poultice
A poultice is solid plant material applied directly to the skin. The medicinal properties work both on the skin and the area beneath it. A poultice can be used for cuts, wounds, bruises, burns, rashes, swelling, broken bones, sprained ankles or other joints, scars, and skin ulcers.
1. Put fresh or dried leaves in a large bowl.
2. Heat enough water to moisten the leaves until it starts to simmer; pour the water over the leaves in the bowl.
3. Cut and press the leaves to “bruise” them, using a spoon or other utensil.
4. Put the leaves and warm liquid on a clean cotton cloth, and place it on the skin of the affected area. The herb material should be touching the skin. Leave on for thirty minutes or more.
2. Make an Infusion
Infusion is herb speak for what most people call tea made from leaves. Infusions are used for internal healing, especially digestive and respiratory issues. An infusion can also be used as a warm compress for external application. Just saturate a cotton cloth with the infusion, then place it on the skin. Use a heating pad to maintain the warmth if needed.
Note: Use comfrey internally for no more than one week, due to its possible effect on the liver. See additional info in the Cautions section below.
Dr. James Duke says:
“No one should drink comfrey tea by the gallon every day, but I’m not afraid of a little comfrey now and then. I base this on studies done by biochemist Bruce Ames, Ph.D., at U.C. Berkley. According to his findings, a cup of comfrey leaf tea is less carcinogenic than a can of beer, and I’m not going to give that up either!”
Use 1 cup water per teaspoon of dried herb, or two teaspoons fresh herb.
1. Heat water to a boil in a covered pan.
2. Remove from heat. Add herbs, stir until all leaves are saturated.
3. Cover pan and let steep for fifteen minutes.
4. Strain out herbs into another container. The remaining plant material makes good mulch for the garden.
5. Keep extra in the refrigerator; stays fresh for up to three days.
Standard dosage: 1 cup up to three times per day.
3. Make a Steam Infusion
This is an excellent method for any respiratory condition. It relieves congestion and irritation.
1. Fill a large pot with water; add one half cup of comfrey.
2. Bring the water to a gentle simmer. Turn off the burner!
3. Put a large bath towel over your head, holding the ends out to the side.
4. Stand over the pot and breathe in the steam.
4. Make a Decoction
To make a tea using roots, follow the directions above for infusions except for step three, when you simmer the herbs for twenty minutes in a covered pan.
5. Make an Herbal Salve
There are several ways to make a salve. Here is one of them.
1. Prepare an herbal oil. Use either dried comfrey leaf, or fresh leaf that has been rinsed and allowed to dry until no water remains on the surface. (This is important to prevent the finished oils from developing mold!)
Put the herbs into a non-corrosive (enamel, glass, stainless steel) double boiler pan and cover with olive oil, using 2 parts oil to 1 part herb.
As a substitute for the double boiler, you can use a medium sized pan for the oil, and put it on a metal trivet in a large skillet. Add water to the skillet deep enough to come about an inch up the outside of the pan with oil. Cover the pan holding the oil and heat it over gently simmering water at low heat for 30 – 40 minutes. Let it cool a bit before you proceed.
2. Strain the oil to remove the plant material. Use a mesh strainer lined with a clean fabric; a flour sack dishcloth works well. Hold the strainer over a large bowl to drain, then gently squeeze the fabric to get out the remaining oil. Avoid getting any plant material in the oil.
3. Warm the strained oil over low heat in a clean pan.
4. Add 1/4 cup of grated or chopped beeswax for each 1 cup of oil. Keep the oil warm enough to melt the beeswax. Stir to blend. The beeswax itself provides additional healing properties.
5. Remove the pan from the heat. Check for the desired consistency by putting a small amount on a metal spoon, then putting it in the freezer for one minute. Add more beeswax to make it thicker, more oil (can be plain olive oil) to make it thinner. Stir in a few drops of your favorite essential oil if desired.
6. Pour the salve into small, airtight containers. Let them sit undisturbed while the salve is cooling to avoid spills.
7. Store in a cool, dark place. Salves will keep for many months, even up to several years.
Precautions When Using Comfrey as a Medicinal Herb
With any herb, use your own good judgment. That said, with comfrey, note the following:
• Always clean a wound thoroughly before applying comfrey, as rapid healing on the surface can trap any dirt or debris.
• Do not use comfrey on deep wounds, as the surface can heal over and form an abscess or interfere with complete healing beneath the surface.
• The safe use of comfrey is currently a whirlwind of conflicting opinions! Some studies suggest that pyrrolizidine, a toxic alkaloid, can cause liver damage when taken internally. Other studies demonstrate it does not. The highest concentration is in the root, so the use of the root internally is not advised. Swedish and other researchers have determined that these alkaloids are destroyed when making an infusion of the leaves.
I recommend using comfrey internally for up to one week, due to its possible affect on the liver, and only for serious cases of digestive ulcer or respiratory infection that have not responded to other treatment. These conditions can first be treated with a combination of herbs containing berberine (goldenseal, Oregon grape root, or yellowroot) and marshmallow root.
How to Preserve and Store Comfrey
The best way to store comfrey long term is by dehydrating.
1. Select only undamaged leaves. Give them a quick rinse in cool water, then let them air-dry on clean kitchen towels or trays. Cut large or thick leaves into smaller pieces.
2. If you have a dehydrator with a thermostat, set it to ninety-five degrees. Higher temperatures will cause the surface to dry and seal up, leaving the inside still moist and prone to mold.
The other way to dry herbs is on trays in a warm room with low humidity and some air circulation. Do NOT put herbs in a window with direct sunlight, despite what you might have seen in pioneer movies or Italian cooking shows.
With either method, place herbs in single layers, and dry leaves and roots separately.
3. Herbs are dry when leaves and stems are brittle and crumble easily, and when root pieces don’t bend but break with a snap. The time needed depends on how thick the herbs are and conditions in the drying area.
4. Store dried herbs in airtight containers. Glass is good, plastic is not, as moisture can enter. When dried and stored correctly, leaf herbs can keep their potency for a year or more.
Identifying Comfrey in the Wild or in Your Backyard
Comfrey is a large herb in the borage family, native to the temperate northern and central climates of the U.S. It grows wild in damp areas near ponds or stream banks, but can also be found along roadsides and ditches. It enjoys partial shade.
It averages two to three feet tall, with yellow, white, blue or purple tubular flowers that grow on one side of the stem, blooming June through September. The leaves are broad, hairy, lance-shaped, and rough. They are attached to the stem so as to form a wide base.
Above-ground parts are most medicinally potent when they have just started to form buds but flowers have not yet bloomed. Gather them in the morning after the dew has dried. Roots are best dug in spring and fall.
Gather plants with an appreciation for what they are providing you, and enjoy nature’s bounty.
Homesteading Benefits of Comfrey
• Pollinators are drawn to comfrey’s blue, pink, purple, or white flowers.
• Super Fertilizer: Add comfrey to the compost pile. It contains Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium (NPK) along with many other trace elements, all essential for plant growth, and in higher amounts than manure and many liquid feeds. The leaves can be cut for use as green mulch multiple times per season.
• Food for animals: Comfrey has significant nutritional benefit for farm animals, including horses, cattle, and pigs, and a long history of its use for such.
Here are a few resources you can use to continue your study of comfrey for medicinal and wellness. All three should be available at your local library.
The Final Word
Comfrey has been a healing remedy for thousands of years. Records show that starting in 400 BCE, early Greek physicians used comfrey to stop bleeding, treat bronchial problems, heal wounds, and mend broken bones.
In the Middle Ages, comfrey was a famous remedy for broken bones, and the name Comfrey comes from con firma, in reference to this. In a book by Madame Susanna Avery from 1688, comfrey is mentioned for its wound healing. And so it goes with many references throughout the years of the positive benefits of using comfrey for healing.
If you’re interested herbs for healing or for use on a homestead or for when traditional medicine is not available, you simply can not go wrong with comfrey.
Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!