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Comfrey
By Chris Evans

The task of précising all the information gleaned about this remarkable plant was a daunting one.  I’ll admit to being a little incredulous when I started to read the beneficial uses of the plant that have been claimed over the centuries.

Unless otherwise stated when we refer to comfrey we mean Symphytum officianale. It grows to a height of 2-3 foot from very hardy perennial roots which are dormant in the winter months.  The oval leaves can grow to up 10 inches long and are covered in tiny hairs which can be an irritant to the skin.  Comfrey is common throughout England, Wales and Europe and is happiest in a moist, fairly sunny position, though not particularly fussy about either.  In Scotland a tuberous form of comfrey is found known as Symphytum tuberosum. 

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Growing

Warning: Common comfrey is invasive, propagating from strong and ever growing roots and seeding easily. 

The Henry Doubleday Research Association (HDRA) recommend instead Russian comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) which is available mail order from them in the form of root offcuts.  Any piece of healthy root should form a new healthy plant and these can be planted any time with the exception of the coldest winter months. Chiltern Seeds sell seeds of this variety (and others).  I have purchased some and will report on how they perform during the course of this year.   Plant the seedlings or roof offcuts at least 2 feet apart. 

Warning: Comfrey leaves are covered in tiny hairs which can irritate if brought into contact with bare skin.w

Comfrey requires water and nitrogen to ensure healthy growth. The plant should be harvested at least 3 times a year, and the first feed applied after the first spring harvest.  Simply cut the plant down to a little above the ground and collect the stalks and leaves (wear gloves). Harvesting can take place when the plant reaches a height of 2 foot and before it flowers. It will grow back very quickly.

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Horticultural Uses

Fresh Leaves:

Alternatively, place the leaves in water and leave for a few weeks to decompose, use as a liquid fertiliser around the garden – NB it smells!

The HDRA discuss a method that I haven’t tried (yet). They suggest placing the leaves in a container with a hole in the bottom and another waterproof container underneath. Leave the leaves until the liquid gunge starts to drip out of the bottom into the second container. Apparently this is a less smelly method and the concentrate that drips from the bottom can be collected and stored over winter, then heavily diluted (15:1) to use on spring crops.

Liquid comfrey can be used to fertilise a great many plants, including tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, pot plants and hanging baskets.

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Medicinal Uses

Warning: Some authorities consider comfrey dangerous if taken internally in other than small quantities.
I have so far not been able to find any commercial preparations for internal consumption in the UK

Parts used: both leaves and roots

Here are just a few of the things that comfrey is claimed to relieve and/or cure:

Swelling around fractures External ulceration Hemorrhoids
Bruising Cuts or sores Stomach, liver and lung ulcers
Sprains Burns Consumption
Coughs Quinsy Whooping cough
Defective circulation “Poor” blood Gangrene
Dysentery Diarrhea Nappy (diaper) rash

And much more…

To quote Gerard: ‘The slimie substance of the roote made in a posset of ale, and given to drinke against the paine in the backe, gotten by any violent motion, as wrestling, or over much use of women, doth in tower of five daies perfectly cure the same, although the involuntary flowing of the seed in men be gotten thereby.’

We came across an amusing little tale from the Middle Ages, which I think takes the claims a little too far! This is from Grandmother’s Secrets by Jean Palaiseul:

‘A servant girl, on the eve of her wedding, prepared herself a bath containing a strong decoction of comfrey in order to recover her long-lost virginity. Having omitted to inform her mistress of the purpose of this operation, the lady plunged into the same bath, and the results were such that her husband was not a little surprised to discover that his wife was a virgin once more….’

Comfrey

At its simplest, as an external remedy, take a few leaves, bruise them, and wrap the leaves in muslin or thin cotton and hold (attach) them for lengthy periods of time to the injured part. This was the method I used last autumn to cure the 8 month long anguish of tennis elbow! Discontinue the treatment if the leaves cause an allergic reaction on the skin.

Comfrey increases the rate of cell growth, thereby speeding repair of damaged tissue. It is excellent for reducing swelling, bruising and expediting the repair of cuts and fractures. However, such is its strength that you should avoid using it on deep cuts as there is a danger that it will heal the outer skin before the inner wound has repaired. Comfrey also encourages good formation of scar tissue.

I am deliberately not entering into lengthy discussions of preparations that can be taken internally; some do seem rather strong and use a lot of the herb. However, a common infusion (tea) is mentioned in many places which uses one ounce of leaves to 1 (UK) pint of water. I think it safer to print that than not – as the amount of leaf recommended is probably less than most people would guess at!

To return to external uses, to make an oil to use on skin irritations: pick clean dry leaves and cut into 1 inch squares. Pack into a clean dark jar. Apply a screw top lid, label and date. Store for two years without opening. Use on eczema and other skin inflammations.

Alternatively, create a poultice containing ground roots and/or leaves and adding water. Hold against the irritated part.

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Cosmetic & Other Uses

Leaves and roots: infuse and add to baths and lotions to soften the skin.
A splendid soap for sensitive skin can be made by incorporating the root into soap formulas.

DYE: Boil fresh leaves for a golden-brown fabric dye, alum must be added as a mordant (to "fix" the dye). Alum (aluminum potassium sulfate); 1 oz. Often combined with cream of tartar (tartaric acid); ¾ oz. Alum gives bright clear colours. May also be used to colour soaps.

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Culinary Uses

We discovered recipes, but bearing in mind the warnings mentioned earlier, and the fact that one of them recommended using one pound of leaves and very little else, I have decided against repeating them here! In most culinary examples use of the very youngest sprouting leaves is recommended.


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