Sunday, 31 March 2013

using the herb COMFREY

I've been in love with the herb comfrey for about 40 years but have not had it growing for half of that time.  We moved around at bit over the years and I haven't had a suitable place to plant it - but now, at last there is a garden and plenty of space to grow this incredible herb.  Comfrey likes to settle in for a long stay, in fact there is an understanding among herb growers that  - you plant comfrey knowing it will still be growing there long after you have gone.

Hairy comfrey leaf, freshly washed

Comfrey sends tap roots 3 metres down into the subsoil (about 10 feet) to find the yummy nutrients that make it the wonderful herb it is,  so a mature plant would be almost impossible to move, or remove. Comfrey is grown from root cuttings and any broken piece of root is a potential plant - you can cut away part of the root without destroying the rest. The author Jackie French tells of accidently ploughing over some comfrey plants, cutting them into small pieces, and she ended up with a paddock full of comfrey. A lucky accident I'd say.

Some leaves are eaten before I can pick them

The comfrey leaf is surprisingly hairy, thick, and sometimes bitter to taste. Flowers can be purple, pink or white and I'm delighted to discover this week that mine are purple.  The harvesting advice I've read is to harvest while in flower but others suggest waiting until the plant is over 60cms high (2 ft) but I pull leaves off whenever I want them.  I often have to race the insects though - they know it's an amazing plant.

So, what is it good for?

Comfrey plant a few months oldSo, what is it good for?  
Comfrey has been used as a healing herb forever - recorded use goes back to 400BC.  Originally from Europe comfrey was used by the ancient Greeks and then European settlers discovered the Native Americans also made good use of the herb. There is a wealth of information available in books and on the net. I've been reading about comfrey for many years, but these days I read and re-read Isabel Shipards book  - How can I use HERBS in my daily life?  One reason is she lives locally, so what grows at her place should grow at mine - the other reason is she provides so much information you feel full. But I do also look into YouTube to watch people making salve, ointments, fertilizer and doing other interesting things with comfrey.

TO USE ON THE OUTSIDE: The leaf and the root can be used as a poultice, a tincture, ointment or just the raw leaf (chopped with a little oil or hand cream to hold in place) as an external application for the healing of;  boils, bruises, burns, coughs and colds, cramps, eczema, inflammation, insect bites, fractures, gout, joint pain, rheumatism, skin ailments, sprains, strains, swelling and more.

Comfrey is also a softener for skin and hair. Make fresh comfrey 'tea' from a few chopped leaves, (bring to the boil in water, stew until water is green, cool, strain) and pour it over your head as a final rinse for soft and shiny hair. Make this fresh each time. You can also add a stronger comfrey 'tea', from fresh leaf or powdered root, to your bath water.  You'll find different ideas about making comfrey 'tea' on the internet.

With such wonderful healing properties comfrey is good for the skin and a comfrey oil can be used as body lotion and as massage oil for tired, sore feet. Rub it on your legs after your shower to deal with all those little cuts and scratches you get and to help with varicose veins and aching joints. Many different recipes for making the oil and ointments, are to be found on the internet.

A WARNING: Do not apply comfrey to deep open wounds or if infection is present as it's healing powers can work so well that surface healing may begin before the underlying wound has healed properly and skin healing over an infected wound is not good. It's better for a deep wound to heal slowly from the inside out.

Comfrey salve or ointment - comfrey infused olive oil
added to melted beeswax.

TO USE ON THE INSIDE:  Comfrey has also been used as a tea to drink, nibbled straight from the plant or as a food with the leaf eaten raw in salads or cooked in stews and soup to;  relieve allergies, anemia, asthma, bladder problems, bronchitis, coughs and colds, digestive problems, fatigue, fever, gallbladder problems, hay fever, psoriasis, respiratory and lung ailments, sinusitis, and more.

BUT I MUST ADD THIS DISCLAIMER: Do not eat or drink tea from any plant you have not fully studied and identified properly. Please consult with your local alternative herbal care specialist before using herbs you are not familiar with. In some areas internal consumption of comfrey is not encouraged, for a variety of reasons.

IN THE GARDEN:  I must make it clear that I am not a gardener. I sometimes say I am an organic farmer, but in reality my husband is the organic farmer and while we chat about the work and make farm decisions together, for me it is theory.  I don't dig dirt or pull weeds. The actual work I do is paying accounts, keeping the books, labeling boxes and making phone calls.  My interest in herbs is for food, health and treating ailments.

In the kitchen garden comfrey is a wonderful fertilizer, especially for tomatoes. I have a bucket of, what is also called 'tea' waiting to be used as fertaliser - a half cup full added to five litres of water, sprayed around the veggies makes them very happy and healthy. I might experiment with some of our ginger plants one day.

Comfrey fertaliser ‘tea’ - I pick the leaves and let them dry out for a day or two
before putting into a tightly covered bucket, just covered with water. This is
two months old and almost ready. Add half a cup full to five litres of water and
water your vegetables.

The leaves also make a rich mulch. When I find dead leaves around a plant I leave them to mulch the parent plant and find they are quickly absorbed into the surrounding soil. Comfrey leaves and stems can be used to accelerate the action of your compost heap. Many websites offer advice on how to make the fertilizer tea and how to use it in compost.

I have heard that when fed to cows comfrey aids milk production and gives longer living, healthier cows, but I've not had any experience with that. I've also heard that horses will eat it but I imagine if it was used regularly you'd need a huge amount of leaves and you'd have to have a comfrey farm. I know chooks like it, but don't seem to seek it out like caterpillars do. A few days ago R spotted a wallaby in the comfrey garden, but I can't say it was comfrey that brought it so close to the house.

Our beloved dog, Rufous, is 12 years old and while he has survived cancer in the past, he now has several more tumours growing on his body and something wrong with his digestive system. The vet doesn't know any more about his stomach problem than we do. We have decided not to put him through the trauma of more surgery to remove misc growths at his age, as he has had more anesthetics than most humans.  I am giving him comfrey in his food and also rubbing it on, and if it does not fight the cancer I hope it will at least give him some quality of life for the time he has left.

Rufous under the frangipani

Last July I bought 5 comfrey roots to grow. I kept them in self watering pots until they had decent leaves, before planting in the garden under my frangipani trees.  I'm not sure if this is the best place for them as they do not get a huge amount of direct sunlight, but they will have the sun for the winter months. The insect damage is the worst problem, as they eat more of the herb than I pick. I do know what type of comfrey these plants are and where they came from.
Then in October I was given an exciting birthday present in the form of a plastic bag of woody bits and dirt, which I recognised as a comfrey root! What an amazing gift!  I had been speaking to an interesting lady at a school fete, and we got onto comfrey, which this lady had growing in her garden. I told her how I'd used a comfrey poultice when I cracked the bone in my elbow. (I made the poultice with leaves from my mother-in-law's comfrey plant, which is twenty years old and a lot stronger than my little babies). A week later that ladies daughter sprained her ankle, so she dug up her own comfrey root to make a poultice and also sent me a clump of twisted root as well. Some of this root I used to in oil and the rest, seven pieces, I planted in my home made pots. Two pieces failed to root, possibly it was the wrong section of wood. As our weather has been extremely wet I've been protecting them and they are not in the garden yet - I'm still looking for the right spot, but that is a job I'll be doing this week.  I plan to put them on the other side of the garden to my first five plants because I do not know their history and I'm not sure if it's the same type of comfrey.  I'll be taking my own advice above and waiting to have it properly identified.

Baby plants waiting for a permanent home

After an eight month wait I'm very excited to find that one of my original five comfrey plants has flowered. This little one, below, was left as a sort of control plant, mainly because it was hard for me to reach. I've already used leaves from the other four plants to make oil infusions, tinctures and ointment, and I'm looking forward to experimenting more with comfrey recipes as all my plants mature.

Purple flower on a full grown plant

The early bird might get the worm, but the second mouse always gets the cheese.


  1. This is very interesting.

  2. Comfrey was also one of the nicest moles in William Horwood's Duncton Wood chronicles.

  3. I haven't read those books - but have now looked them up - something like Watership Down but with moles. I might read them sometime and get to know another nice comfrey. Thanks for that mention.

  4. FROM
    Lilli Hass - I looked up what it is in German. I think we have it in our garden with yellow flowers. I have a close look this summer!


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