Thursday, September 22, 2011

Comfrey: Part 2, Medicinal Herb

Comfrey [Symphytum officinale or a hybrid of it] is a fabulous plant to keep around the house.   It's beautiful and extremely useful.

As I mentioned last week, we inherited a couple of these plants and I was thrilled when I realized what they were.   I planted them in several areas and they've volunteered in others.

It is native to Europe and is now widespread both there and here in North America, where it was brought by early settlers and where it no doubt did a lot of healing.

Comfrey grows into a casual clump of stalks about 3 feet tall.   It blooms in pink or blue clusters that uncurl from the top of the plant.   There are several cultivars that are highly prized garden specimens - Vita Sackville-West had a whole long walk lined with a shorter, bright blue variety at Sissinghurst. 

The leaves are long, faintly crinkled and hairy.   Don't let the prickly hairs keep you from using it.  

Comfrey is not a fussy plant.   It'll grow wherever you put it.   If it gets dry, the leaves will pout and perhaps even begin to dry and crumble around the edges, but, like hostas, it takes a lot of punishment and doesn't die easily.

It transplants easily - just dig up a bit of an existing plant.   If you try to move it, then make sure you dig up all of the root, because it will come back if you leave even a tiny bit.  

Comfrey has been used traditionally as garden compost.  It adds nitrogen and potassium.  Just cut the leaves and toss them in the garden.   The leaves enrich the soil as they break down.  If you want to use it in the garden, but you don't want it to self sow, then make sure you've cut all of the flowering parts off before you toss the rest of the plant in the garden.   It'll volunteer whenever it can. Alternatively, you can make a tea with the leaves [dump them in a bucket with rainwater] and use that to water with. 

Legend has it that comfrey was 'soveriegn in and out' meaning that it was the best healing herb for both internal and external use. 

Modern medicine recommends that it NOT be used internally now.   There is evidence that it can cause liver failure.

There are no warnings against external use and I have had excellent results with it. 

I have used a comfrey poultice to dress all kinds of injuries, including a serious laceration on our dog when he got hit by a car.   Overnight, the skin began to heal rapidly.   You can see a grey film beginning at the edges of the wound - that's new skin.   As long as the wound smells clean and not putrid or rotting, then there's no problem.    Note:  I do not recommend that you use comfrey instead of taking an injured animal to the vet.   We did take the dog to the vet, and then supplemented with our own poultice.  [We kept it on by putting a diaper over the poultice-covered wound.]

After tripping and ramming my kneecap into the edge of a limestone step, we packed my knee in comfrey for the next three days.   I had a deep dent in my kneecap and you can still feel a slight indentation, but the knee healed completely and didn't bruise.   Not kidding!  My other leg had bruises all over it, but the smashed knee didn't bruise.  At all.  I am a huge fan of comfrey poultices on skin injuries.

To make a poultice,  tear off the leaves [I use the older and larger leaves at the bottom of the plant] and crush them with a mortar and pestle.   If you don't have a mortar and pestle, then put them in a ziplock bag and crush them with a hammer.   Crush them long enough that you don't feel the hairy prickles when you put it on your skin.   The plant will ooze and the juice will quickly turn brown.   Comfrey juice stains, so if you use a cloth with your poultice, make sure it's one that you don't mind staining.   Your skin might stain, too, so don't be surprised.   It'll wash off in a day or so.  

I have left poultices on for several hours and even overnight.   Get a fresh one in the morning and before bed.  Take time to clean the wound and do a thorough visual check for infection.

I've used comfrey to make a soothing skin balm by steeping the leaves in hot olive oil and mixing it with lavender oil and beeswax.  Warning - comfrey that is steeping in olive oil smells like something that poop.  That's why I use lavender oil with it - to cover the stink.    Experiment away from critics. 

Comfrey root is also useful.  It is dark - almost black in color.  You can use it fresh, or you can dig it, wash it, and dry it.  It will get very, very tough, so you might want to cut it up before you dry it.   Then, when it is very, very dry, you can grind it up and use it in soaps and things.    I didn't enjoy doing the drying and grinding and my soap wasn't that much improved, so I stopped digging.   Besides, I like my roots in the ground, growing things.   I much prefer to have the leaves to use, especially since the leaves and roots have the same healing properties.


  1. Thank you Robin! you saved me from throwing out 2 jars of Comfrey infused in Oil, cause they smelt aweful!! This is my first year taking advantage of the local wild comfrey. I just Googled 'comfrey in oil, smell' and your article came up first! I love your descripton of the smell, fits perfectly. I was gonna blame it on the neighbors dog peeing in it! ..sincerly yours, living in comfrey country, BC

  2. I could cry. I wish I read this first. I just opened my jar of infused oil and the smell was so bad I dumped it. Start over time.

    1. You're not alone! Before you know it the next batch will be ready [and you'll have a great story!]


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