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Comfrey - Botany And History

A relatively ancient herb that was originally wild-crafted and only later largely cultivated for agricultural purposes, comfrey is a moderately-sized perennial herb of the Boraginaceae family (related to borage (Borago officinalis) and Forget-me-nots (Myosotis), it is a hardy plant that prefers to flourish and thrive in semi-moist environments with rich soil, although it does possess a relative hardiness which allows it to readily adapt to less viable conditions, albeit with signs of impaired growth. It is commonly found growing near marshes, river banks, or ditches, although it can be cultivated to grown in a garden away from bodies of water, granted that they are given ample watering for them to truly thrive.

Comfrey is characterised by its moderately-sized (sometimes bordering to large) broad green leaves which possess tiny hairs on both the obverse and reverse sides. This hirsute characteristic is more pronounced on the reverse side of the leaf more so than on the obverse side, which displays only a very mild peppering of nearly imperceptible hairs. Unlike species like the stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), the hairs found on comfrey only cause mild discomfort, although when employed as an edible vegetable (as it has been during ancient times), the hairs can pose a danger (which can be remedied by soaking the leaves prior to consumption or by blanching them in hot water to 'deaden' the hairs and soften them). Comfrey is also characterised by its sturdy stem, its small bell-shaped inflorescence (the colours of which range from pink to violet and everything between that colour spectrum) and for its unique black-hued root, the latter resembling a turnip in all but colour and taste. [1]

Comfrey was initially a wild-crafted herb employed by many cultures for both culinary and medicinal puporses. It was later cultivated by primitive societies, although its cultivation was not motivated by its employment as a food source or even by its medicinal usage but rather, due to its agricultural viability and its employment as fertilizer. This practice is, however, not universal, with only a number of primitive societies having done so, among them the Greeks, the Scythians, the Arcadians, and the Ancient Chinese. This practice was largely forgotten, with only a select number of communities employing comfrey for agricultural 'support', until the practice was later revived by the Quaker and Amish communities sometime in the latter 1800s to early 1900s, where the practice remains strong to this day both within and outside of traditional communities.

Comfrey - Herbal Uses

Since ancient times comfrey has been employed as both a medicinal plant and as a type of vegetable, although the general employment of the plant in the latter sense seems to veer more towards its Western usage more so than its Eastern employment, as the East generally employs comfrey chiefly as a medicinal herb, with rare usage of the plant for consumption only occurring during times of hardship. Comfrey was quite a popular vegetable and medicinal plant during the Dark Ages until well into the Renaissance due to the fact that is was readily grown, relatively hardy, and required very little maintenance given ample water supplies and already presently viable soil properties.

When employed for culinary purposes, comfrey is typically harvested using shears, or, in ancient times, scythes, as the tiny hairs found on the plant can cause minor discomforts when touched. Prior to being consumed, usually as a vegetable incorporated into soups or stews, but sometimes even as a salad green, it is always soaked in water or par-boiled to soften the hairs (if employed for salads) or otherwise simply integrated whole into a simmering pot. Long believed to possess medicinal properties by folkloric healers, it is said that foodstuffs containing comfrey helped in boosting one's overall health, improving digestion, and alleviating common ills such as cold, flu, and fever. It was also given to individuals to alleviate the symptoms of cough, or, if prepared as a vegetable in combination with chicken soup, as a general cure all for respiratory ailments. [2] The leaves of the plant itself contains minute amounts of allatonin - a chemical compound thought to be beneficial for the growth and repair of cells as well as for its ability to reduce inflammation and alleviate the symptoms associated with it. The leaves also contain significant amounts of mucilage which are extracted through the process of decoction, making it useful for the treatment of internal ailments like indigestion as well as more serious ailments such as asthma and whooping cough (the mucilage actually helps to soothe the esophageal track, alleviating the irritation which triggers coughing, while eliciting the ease of expectoration). [3] When employed solely as medicine, mild decoctions of the leaves are typically taken in minute to moderate dosages to alleviate the symptoms of whooping cough, sore throat, hoarseness of voice, flu, and colds. Moderate decoctions of the leaves have been used in ancient times as an emmenagogue and as an early type of disinfectant and antiseptic. It has even been employed as a gargle to remedy halitosis, treat gingivitis, and alleviate the symptoms of sore throat.

When using comfrey for graver diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, and even angina pectoris, the root of the plant is a preferred constituent part to be decocted in lieu of the leaves, as the root tends to possess more potent volatile compounds than the leaves. Comfrey, regardless of the constituent parts employed, can be used in both its fresh or dried form, although some curative practices may call for its usage while fresh. The roots are commonly decocted and drunk to treat the same diseases which are curable with comfrey leaves, although it's more potent nature requires lesser decocting time and a smaller dose. In traditional cases, decoctions of the root are often employed to hasten the healing and cut the recuperation time of individuals who are mending after suffering from broken bones and fractures. Because of this powerful healing capacity, it was referred to by ancient Western herbalists as 'knitbone'. Employing comfrey for the healing of fractures usually employed giving a small amount of a mild decoction to an individual for a set number of days not exceeding a week until sufficient progress is seen. [4]

The prolonged or excessive intake of comfrey (either as infusions or decoctions) can however be dangerous and even poisonous hence its very limited and strictly regulated usage in ancient herbal practices. The more common method of employing comfrey for general (external) complaints is by using the leaves as either a poultice, or by creating a topical rinse or salve imbued with the properties of the leaves and roots by either making a very strong decoction of the constituent parts and applying it topically as a wash, or by creating a salve through the maceration of its constituent parts in one's choice of a base oil. Some traditional folkloric applications even employ heated comfrey leaves directly unto the skin as a remedy for arthritis, rheumatism, gout, broken bones, sore ligaments, and even burns. [5] Because of its analgesic properties, salves, ointments, and liniments may sometimes contain minute amounts of comfrey's essences, as it is known to not only relieve pain, but also reduce inflammation and hasten the overall recovery of the affected area. An older method of creating a healing salve of comfrey is to boil the fresh or dried root for several hours under low heat until a thick, creamy paste is formed. This paste can then be stored and applied topically as needed, although care should be taken when overusing it, as the paste can cause allergic reactions to some individuals who have very sensitive skin.

Comfrey may also be employed as a fertilizer for agricultural purposes. Because they are nitrogenous plants that can literally 'mine' nutrients from the soil, this may be taken advantage of by planting and, later, harvesting nutritionally dense comfrey leaves which can then be rotted, or dried and finely chopped and employed as fertiliser for crops. The easiest means to make use of comfrey as a fertiliser is to create a concentrated liquid which is composed of the whole of the plant, macerated to the point of decay. This 'nutrient water' can easily be poured unto plots. Being liquid, the nutrients contained in the 'brew' is readily accessible to the plants, and it also seems to be the most readily applicable fertilizing medium when compared to other forms such as pellets or mulch. The liquid may be further improved by allowing it to macerate compostable materials prior to a final staining and employment for added nutritional benefits. [6]

Comfrey - Esoteric Uses

Comfrey has long been employed in the magickal world, and, being a relatively "ancient" herb, its usage has changed overtime. Initially considered a talismanic herb, it was originally carried by travelers in medicine pouches or juju to protect them from harm during long sojourns. Its protective properties were later revamped to include its capacity to protect items from theft, and so it was encased in money bags and chests to help protect the articles from theft. Sympathetic magick and folkloric magick have employed comfrey as a sort of 'fixing' herb, as it is said that leaving a sachet of comfrey beneath or lover's bed or pillow, or bequeathing them such an item would keep them faithful. Its protective abilities soon expanded to include general household protection, and cleansing. A strong decoction of comfrey leaves can be employed as a cleansing bath to help strip off negative energy and cleanse the body of any malignancy, while an incense made from dried comfrey leaves and roots (the latter being most preferred by Caribbean, Haitian, African, and some shamanic branches of magick) is said to drive away evil spirits, aid in concentration, whet one's psychic abilities, and allow for the easy and painless severance of unhealthy relationships. [7]

Comfrey - Contraindications And Safety

While the use of comfrey was predominant in ancient herbalism, the modern applications for comfrey are somewhat more limited as the plant has been found to be toxic in large dosages, and dangerous - even in small dosages. Herbal use of comfrey is now legally restricted in some places although this has caused a certain amount of controversy. Most modern manuals on alternative medicine now suggest that comfrey not be taken orally, although some older (and other not-so-old) texts suggest that it may be safely taken orally in minute dosages, but never for prolonged periods of time. Because the oral intake of comfrey may raise the risk of liver damage, lung damage, and cancer, its oral usage is ill-advised by most modern health-care professionals. As a general warning however, both ancient and modern medical sources concur that comfrey should not be taken (orally) by pregnant or nursing individuals, and that people with a history of liver damage and lung damage, or those who are at risk for such diseases should best steer clear of comfrey.

While the topical application of comfrey is relatively safe, it should never be employed by individuals who have broken or damaged skin, nor should it be employed liberally. When using comfrey either as a foodstuff or as medicine, it is best to employ only very trifling amounts as even small dosages can be potent enough to elicit a healing effect. It must be noted that individuals who are under liver-tonifying medicines, or who are under medication for the treatment of liver disease should never take comfrey orally, and must only employ it topically on very rare occasions lest it react with the preexisting medication. To err on the side of caution, one is also advised to consult an expert herbalist when employing comfrey, and to not depend on general self-medication as made available by current and past literature for the sake of safety.

Comfrey - Other Names, Past and Present

Chinese: zi cao
Japanese: konfuri (transliteration and onomatopoeia of the English 'comfrey')
Korean: keompeuli (bastardised transliteration of the English 'comfrey')
French: consoude / grande consoude / herbe aux Charpentiers / herbe a la coupure / langue-de-Vache / Oreille d'Ane
Spanish: consuelda
Italian: consolida
English: common comfrey / ass ear / black root / blackwort / bruisewort / consound / gum plant / healing herb / knitback / knitbone / wallwort / comphrey / rough comfrey / Russian comfrey
German: beinwell
Dutch: smeerwortel
Swedish: vallort
Latin (scientific nomenclature): Symphytum officinale (common comfrey) / Symphytum x uplandicum (Russian comfrey) [here, two of the more common varietals employed for general as well as medicinal purposes; other nomenclatures exist depending upon the species and area where it thrives]









Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt.

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