Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) is an herbaceous perennial native to Europe. It is a large plant with broad leaves, producing lovely bell-shaped flowers in a variety of colors. The most commonly found U.S. varieties are sterile hybrids, collectively called Russian comfrey, and although they don’t produce seeds, they will spread rapidly by root division. For this reason, comfrey has been labeled a “weed” by those who till (but we all know that tilling is bad, right?).
As Paul Wheaton, the proclaimed Duke of Permaculture, would say, “some weeds ain’t weeds at all,” and a little information goes a long way towards understanding and appreciating this plant. In fact, Toby Hemenway, author of Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, has crowned comfrey “Queen of the multi-functional plants.”
To those of us on the path towards self-reliance, multi-functionality is important; the fewer one-trick ponies on the farm, the better. Comfrey is highly beneficial as a medicinal plant, mulch and fertilizer. Today its use for animal and human food is controversial although people and animals have been eating it for centuries. Let’s examine its principal uses.
A Folk Remedy
Also known as knitbone and knitback, comfrey has long been a folk remedy for healing sore muscles and sprains. It contains allantoin, a chemical compound that speeds cell proliferation when applied to injured tissues. Comfrey compresses have been reported to heal sprained ankles overnight, reducing inflammation. But applying comfrey to any open wound is no longer recommended.
Mulch is defined as “a protective covering spread or left on the ground to reduce evaporation, maintain even soil temperature, prevent erosion, control weeds, enrich the soil, or keep fruit (such as strawberries) clean.” Comfrey makes fantastic mulch, and makes a lot of it. A wonderful bio-mass accumulator, it produces vast amounts of green material (up to 4 to 5 pounds per cutting), several times per growing season.
When the plant reaches at least 12-inches in height, it can be cut back to about 2 inches above the ground, and the material transported to the area where mulch is desired, or it can simply be “chopped and dropped.” The plant will quickly grow back. Cutting the plant prior to flowering will ensure that the nutrient level in the leaves is at its peak, since nutrient levels begin to diminish with flowering.
As mulch-cum-fertilizer, comfrey is a true overachiever. It has an enormous root system with a taproot that, by some accounts, goes as deep as 12 feet. This makes comfrey a “dynamic nutrient accumulator,” which draws up minerals and other nutrients from way down deep. These minerals and nutrients are then stored in the plant above ground, and below ground, closer to the surface.
According to permaculture and wildcrafting expert Michael Pilarski, the comfrey plant is constantly sloughing off part of its root system, much as we slough off dead skin cells.
Bacteria feed on these dead roots, and worms in turn feed on the bacteria. The worms then work their way through the surrounding soil, depositing the minerals and nutrients closer to the surface for other plants to enjoy.
But comfrey doesn’t stop there. The leaves, when cut, decay quickly and can either be “chopped and dropped,” or transported to the specific area needing nutrients. The resulting mulch/fertilizer will be particularly rich in potassium, phosphorus, and calcium. You can also make a “tea” with the leaves by steeping them in water for a couple of weeks, and pour the finished brew where nutrients are needed in the garden.
Question Of Edibility
As a food, comfrey becomes questionable. Many sources advise against ingesting comfrey due to its alkaloid content, as alkaloids can damage the liver. However, a cup of comfrey tea (not the fertilizer kind), contains only 1/100th of the alkaloids found in a bottle of beer, according to Michael Pilarski. Many people claim that they, and their livestock, eat comfrey with no problems. The young leaves can be a wonderful early spring salad green. And later in the season, the flower heads are a nice addition to salads as well. Chickens, cattle, and pigs will devour it, and people have reported that sheep, when they are moved to a new pasture, go straight for the comfrey.
Tips For Growing Useful Comfrey
With these benefits, you may be itching to get some comfrey growing on your land. Here’s how to do it. Find a well-established comfrey plant and spade off a small chunk, including some roots from the edge of the plant, then replant it. The next option is to buy root cuttings. Seeds from true comfrey (non-sterile) are available online from Horizon Herbs.
Give your new plant about 3 feet of space. In a couple of years, it will fill the 3-foot square area. Comfrey does have a reputation for spreading and taking over. If you want to keep your comfrey confined, do not till, or allow livestock to root around it.
If you have true comfrey, to prevent spreading you must not allow it to set seeds. If you find yourself with comfrey in an inconvenient spot, Brian Kerkvliet of Inspiration Farm in Bellingham, Washington, suggests building a hot compost pile on top of it. Kerkvliet says that one season should take care of it. However, Paul Wheaton would like to see us embracing comfrey right where it is, and suggests planting a fruit tree next to it, a perfect companion plant.
To learn more, visit the forums at permies.com, where people have posted information about comfrey.
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by Milan Young / Oct 28, 2013