This article is dedicated to my good friend Lori. Although I introduced her to comfrey, she has surpassed me in leveraging this wonderful plant in her garden.
My introduction to this herb was from a PC adventure game called Asheron’s Call. Foraging for herbs for use in spell casting and medicine making was one of my favorite aspects of the game. Comfrey was a key component in many recipes.
Fast forward a decade…OK two…and I’m reading Amy Stross’s book, Suburban Micro Farm. Comfrey popped up in the text over and over. As I learned more about permaculture, which puts great value on multi-use plants, comfrey is featured prominently in nearly every book. Naturally, I wanted to add this legendary plant to my garden and begin taking advantage of its many benefits. But I couldn’t find it anywhere. No one outside of the online gaming realms (and permaculturists) had ever heard of it.
So here’s what you need to know about comfrey and why you will want to have it too.
The Specs on Comfrey
Common Comfrey: Symphytum officinale (Viable seeds)
Russian Comfrey: Symphytum x uplandicum (Hybrid with sterile seeds)
Lifecycle: Herbaceous perennial
pH: Tolerates a wide range (6.5-8.5)
Mature Height: 3-4 feet tall.
Other Notes: Likes sun, but does fine in the shade. Likes water. Will go dormant during drought conditions. I don’t water mine, so they are dormant July-September.
Cool History Tidbits
Comfrey has been in continuous use as a medicine plant, mulch, livestock feed, and food plant since at least 400 BC in Europe and Asia. It was commonly called knitbone for it’s bone mending properties. Although it was also used for a myriad of injuries and internal and external conditions.
Today, herbalists know it is the allantoin content that promotes cell proliferation during the healing process. Comfrey is also rich in mucilage, which is a thick gooey substance that is soothing for skin. Although it is commonly ingested by people and livestock, it is important to note there are risks due to the pyrrolizidine alkaloids which are not friendly to your liver. So please don’t eat or use it internally unless you are under specific directions from an herbalist.
How to get a Plant or a Hundred
The best way is to find a permaculturist (lots of groups on social media) and take one of their volunteers, or get a division, or a root cutting. Many people prefer a hybrid called Russian Comfrey because the seeds are sterile. I ordered seeds for common comfrey from Amazon because I couldn’t find a single local nursery who had even heard of comfrey and wasn’t in the permacutlure circles yet. Of course it was a package of 100 or so seeds. So I sent half to a friend and sowed many to share. I have not had any problem keeping the volunteers from taking over my yard. If you catch an unwanted plant within its first year it is easy to remove, but more difficult once established. The best method is several layers of sheet mulch to smother it for about a year.
Five Great Ways to use this Amazing Plant
- Green Mulch (Green Manure)
Comfrey is a dynamic accumulator. It has a vigorous tap root that can bust through heavy clay and even hard pans to mine your subsoil for nutrients. The nutrients are accumulated in the leaves which release into the soil for your more shallow rooted plants as they break down. The process is easy: chop leaves off individually or chop your plant to within a foot of the crown. Then chop the leaves into smaller pieces and distribute. If you have a common comfrey, you will want to remove any seed heads before you do this.
- Comfert: Liquid Fertilizer
If comfrey’s root meaning is “come together”, then comfert means “stinky liquid”. It’s no joke. This stuff will make you gag, but your plants will put on such vigorous growth as to make you sad when you realize you haven’t made enough. This is the only fertilizer my friend Lori uses in her garden with excellent results. When you look at the costs of commercial fertilizer this is a significant savings.
How to make comfert:
- Fill a five gallon bucket about ¾ full with freshly chopped comfrey foliage.
- Fill with water
- Fit on a lid
- Forget about it for 3-6 weeks.
How to use comfert:
- Apply nose plugs.
- Open and give it a stir then allow to settle.
- Fill jugs and label.
- Dump black slurry back on your comfrey patch.
- You can use full strength or dilute with half water.
- Compost Activator
This is a great plant to add to your compost to get it cooking. The nitrogen fires up the process while adding potassium, phosphorus, and other nutrients to the end product.
- Nectar and Insectary
Bumbleebees in particular love my comfrey plant. I have heard it said that native insects prefer native plants–and I’m sure that’s true in general–but when it’s blooming all manner of bumblebee bees of many other bees varieties are on it always.
It is also a great host plant for many different beneficial insect species. For this reason, I rarely chop my entire plant down, instead preferring to take about ⅓ of the leaves at any one time. Occasionally, I will leave an entire plant to grow and die without any harvesting to avoid disturbing the insects who have made it their home.
- Makes a Wonderful Salve.
To make one is easier than you think.
Start with an oil infusion:
- Harvest some leaves and allow to dry until crispy. (Moisture will make the carrier oil turn rancid faster.)
- Crunch leaves into a jar until ¾ full.
- Cover with a good quality carrier oil like olive oil.
- Put on a lid and place in a warm area.
- Allow to infuse for 4-6 weeks.
- Give it a shake now and again.
- Gently warm it once or twice (some people use their crock pot, some leave it in a sunny window)
- Use a mesh strainer or cheese cloth to remove plant matter and capture your healing oil.
To Make your oil a Salve:
- You can use the oil as it is, or thicken with beeswax and/or shea butter. The general ratio I prefer is 1 part oil ⅛ part beeswax and ⅛ part shea butter. I use a digital kitchen scale and my I like to add drops of eucalyptus oil for the smell and the cooling feeling. I use this on my hands before I go out in the garden to work then again after.
- Using a makeshift double boiler out of a saucepan with water and Pyrex measuring cup, melt the beeswax and shea butter.
- Once melted, turn off the heat.
- Add your infused oil and stir.
- If necessary, turn on heat again and mix thoroughly.
- Add essential oil. (How to dilute essential oil. NOW brand.)
- Pour into jelly jars or tins.
- Allow to cool and enjoy!
Other Comfrey Tips
Grow it where you use it.
My favorite use for this plant is chop and drop mulching for my fruit trees so I planted several in each of my tree guilds. It has the added benefit of keeping pollinators nearby and providing home for beneficial insects that protect my trees as well. I also have comfrey plants in several other strategic locations.
If you want a continuous supply of fresh foliage from April to October, they will require water. I generally let mine go dormant in August when it’s hot and dry. They’ll look dead but they always bounce back with the first rains of the fall.
There is so much more to learn about this useful plant. Feel free to peruse the articles and books below to learn more.
Suburban Micro Farm – Amy Stross
Gaia’s Garden – Toby Hemenway
The Permaculture City – Toby Hemenway
Backyard Medicine – Brunton-Seal & Seal
Story Basics Books for Self-Reliance: Herbs for Common Ailments – Rosemary Gladstar
Alternative Field Crops Manual : Comfrey (Purdue University Horticulture – Please note that the advice to use tilling to remove a comfrey patch should be followed with the caution. Comfrey can be propagated via root cuttings. Tilling may instead spread and propagate the plant. I prefer to use thick sheet mulch to kill established plants.)
Comfrey: Its History, Uses, and Benefits (Permaculture UK)