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DIY Health: Comfrey, Nature's Bandaid

I first became aware of comfrey when a housemate pointed to a plant in our yard, and said that American Indians used the leaves as pouches. I wondered how that worked, so I rolled up some herbs inside, and the leaf stuck like velcro. But Comfrey's glory is in its healing qualities...
Comfrey Leaves
Comfrey Leaves
Comfrey Root
Comfrey Root
Comfrey Root Drying in a Bag
Comfrey Root Drying in a Bag
Dried Comfrey Leaves
Dried Comfrey Leaves
Comfrey aka "Knitbone:" Nature's Bandaid
By Kirsten Anderberg

I first became aware of comfrey when a housemate in Santa Cruz, Ca. pointed to a plant with huge leaves in the yard and said that American Indians used the leaves as pouches to carry things in. I wondered how that worked, so I picked one of the big leaves and put some rosemary leaves in it, and rolled it up. The tissues of the leaf actually held it in place, like a weak Velcro, and as it dried, it dried in the shape of the pouch, similar to a fried eggroll, but more fragile. After that experience, I have since used comfrey in lotions and oils, skin poultices and compresses, hair tonics, as pouches, and more. Comfrey (symphytum officinale) has been cultivated since approximately 400 BC, is used medicinally and cosmetically, as well as in glue, leather tanning, soap making, fabric dying, fertilizer, etc. It is native to Europe and Asia, and grows in temperate climates. It is used in England, America, Germany, the USSR, Kenya, China, Angora, Haiti, Spain, Turkey...

Because of its healing properties and the Velcro-like hairs, you can use a comfrey leaf just like a bandaid. If you want to sterilize it, dip it in boiling water, then let it cool and apply to minor wound. Comfrey is known for its healing qualities. It was referred to as "Knitbone" traditionally, as it is known for knitting together tissues and promoting cell growth. It was also referred to as "Bruisewort" as it is known to reduce swelling and bruising when applied to injuries as a poultice or compress. Leaves in poultices and compresses have been applied to varicose veins and arthritic joints, as well as diaper rash. Warm, smashed or bruised leaves applied to an inflamed injury are said to help reduce swelling and bruising, as well as reduce scarring.

Comfrey has more mucilage than marshmallow, which is why it has a softening effect in skin and hair products. Comfrey tea, made from root or leaves, poured over hair as a rinse, makes hair soft as silk. You can make a nice hair tonic by making tea from stinging nettles, comfrey, rosemary and mint. Strain tea, then pour over hair as final rinse in shower. You do not need to rinse it out. Hair will feel stronger, shinier, and softer. Make fresh before each use. Susun Weed says that rubbing comfrey ointment on a vulva every morning and night will make said vulva "noticeably plumper and moister within 3 weeks." She also recommends a comfrey sitz bath for itchy vaginal tissues in menopause, using comfrey tea, for a 5-10 minute soak. She says this makes the vaginal tissues stronger, softer, and more flexible. Comfrey root compresses are also recommended for this purpose. A compress is made from comfrey root soaked in boiling water for a half hour to an hour, strained and then a towel is soaked in it. The towel is then applied to the woman's genitals as she reclines.

Comfrey has long taproots, that can go 10 or more feet into the ground to bring water and minerals from below to the surface. Both the roots and the leaves contain allantoin, which is another key ingredient involved in the healing aspects of comfrey. To dry the root, dig up root, then scrub the outsides of the root clean, like a carrot. Then cut the root up, into slices, like a carrot. Then put into a paper bag and hang in a warm place to dry. Shake the bag regularly, and the root pieces will get darker and smaller, as they dry. Store in a jar once completely dry.
To dry comfrey leaves, you can take a needle and thread and string them like popcorn. Then hang the threaded leaves between two corners in a warm part of your home. They will dry in a short time.

Comfrey is most commonly mistaken for the deadly foxglove, thus it is important that you have certain identification of plants before using them. Comfrey grows to about 4 feet high, and has large leaves with visible white hairs on them, especially on young leaves, like peach fuzz. Comfrey grows like a weed and it is hard to get rid of once it has taken hold. It has drooping flowers, in colors ranging from purple to pink to blue to white. You can pick the leaves in spring and summer, they are best before the comfrey flowers. The flowers come in late spring and summer. And the roots are usually collected in fall and winter. The leaves are high in calcium and used to be recommended as an edible green and for teas to be taken internally, but there has been much controversy in the last 20 years about possible accumulations of toxins in the liver from ingesting comfrey, and thus ingestion is not recommended in many places at this point. The studies show prolonged and excessive consumption to possibly hurt the liver, but why take chances? Thus I have not included the many uses of comfrey traditionally as a tea and internal tonic in this article.

Comfrey's skin-healing agents make it an invaluable cosmetic herb. You can add comfrey to your bath water to soften skin, using a muslin tea bag filled with dried or fresh leaves or root, hanging under the running spigot, and soaking it in the bath like a big teacup. You can make your own comfrey oil by putting 1 pint of oil, such as olive, almond, or coconut oils, into a glass bowl big enough to fit over a pan and not fall in. Then add 8 ounces of dried comfrey leaves. Simmer bowl over pan of boiling water for 3 hours, then strain, and bottle. It will keep about a year. You can use this oil on dried and rough skin. You can also make comfrey ointment by taking cup of comfrey oil you made, and mixing it in the glass bowl with ounce of grated beeswax. (You can get beeswax, coconut oil, dried herbs, and more, at www.mountainroseherbs.com) Melt the beeswax and oil together, stirring until they are combined. Pour into a jar while still hot and liquid. Will set and gel as it cools. This ointment is excellent for babies, apply after each cleaning, before putting on a new diaper, to help heal diaper rash. But do not use comfrey and comfrey oils and ointments on deep wounds or infected skin, as it may promote surface healing before a wound is healed underneath. Comfrey aids in speeding healing to such a point that this warning is warranted!

Lastly, comfrey is used for fertilizer. The leaves decompose easily, thus are used to accelerate compost. Comfrey leaves are used as mulch, as well as to line potato, sweet pea and bean trenches for nutrients. A fertilizer can be made by taking a water-tight container and putting a bunch of ripped up comfrey leaves in it, then water to cover them. Seal and leave alone for 2 weeks in hot weather and 4 weeks in cold weather. Drain off the foul smelling liquid, as it is full of potash, which tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers and peppers thrive on. Mix 1/3 of the comfrey liquid with one gallon of water as fertilizer to water plants with.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy Kirsten's article, "Nettles, Nettles, Everywhere!" at www.angelfire.com/la3/kirstenanderberg/articlenettles.html.

homepage: homepage: http://www.kirstenanderberg.com
address: address: Seattle, Wa


yes, thanks 09.Apr.2004 11:29

still an incredible mess

I trotted out some trivia about comfrey replying to a post about the "Deadly Dozen" herbs as it was listed as one of them. That's another thing that I've heard that I should have included, is that comfrey can be used topically / externally because the alleged liver damaging alkaloids are not absorbed through the skin. Also if in doubt, allantoin may be amongst active ingredients, so you might substitute aloe vera in some applications if you are so inclined and greatly concerned.

Some of the other info there is important. Comfrey is a rapid and easy grower, you might start it from bits of a rootstock, possibly you can order starts as such. I've received rootpieces by post that were wrapped in damp newspaper, just buried them and viola! (If I remember right the seed has a very short period of viability and finding seeds may not be easy because of it). In fact, if you ever want to get rid of a comfrey plant for some reason, dig thoroughly because any root bits left in the ground can form new plants, I've had many new plants appear where I moved a plant from. This is indeed a very handy and easy plant to grow for biomass, mulch, compost or green manure most likely.

Most of what I know (me personally anyway) about dangers of ingestion actually concern grazing animals, who can be poisoned by the alkaloids by grazing what are probably large amounts of this or other members of the Borage family, which is also the case with St. John's Wort, I'm much more familiar with bad black & white photos of ill grazing animals than human case studies. It's been ironic to see SJW aka "Klamath Weed" grown commercially in sight of wild populations in the ditch, and more so to see it happen in states where sale, cultivation, transportation etc of seed or plant might be illegal because of the weedy quality, and if there were any difference seen from the wild form, the cultivated stuff was higher in the offending photosensitizers for their medicinal applications.

On the other hand, Russian comfrey is probably similar to "ordinary" comfrey, and while I don't exactly know how wise it is, I've seen it raised on farms fed to chickens to make their egg yolks a more attractively bright color.

There are also several different forms of comfrey for those so inclined, there is a golden-leaved form which is rather ornamental, and a variegated form which is particularly ornamental, offhand I don't suppose they are chemically different from the ordinary herb.

Should I expect someone will be coming to defoliate my specimens, or should I expect that any bans resulting from the "Dirty Dozen" propoganda are simply far too ambitious to take very seriously? While they have our attention with those ominous warnings, though, I wish they would take the time to actually educate instead of just frighten.

Yes, but be careful... 09.Apr.2004 12:24

portland herbalist/ ethnobotanist

Thanks for posting this. I, too, use and love comfery.
I also use it in my Permaculture Garden. I grow many bunches of comfery: about seven times through the season, I cut down the leaves and leave them as mulch and compost tea. They grow back vary fast. It is said that a combo of comfery tea and urine is a better nutrition for your garden then miracle grow!

I want to add a little warning:

Make sure you only use comfery for CLEANED, SURFACE wounds.

Comfery is so powerful in it's ability to weave together damanged tissue that it can prematurly heal the surface of puncture wounds and cause problems.

Also, if your wound is not cleaned, it will heal skin over the wound and trap the infection below the surface. Cats have a condition similar to this and if you've ever seen it, you know that it is no fun.

So, use comfery a lot! But just be smart about it.

another use for comfrey 11.Apr.2004 09:06

healer

I've been using comfrey to heal tendon strains & sprains for many years. In a poultice, I've seen it do wonders. For bruised ribs, people see results in less than a week, even if the ribs were broken. They report being able to breathe without pain for the first time in weeks/months.

For tendon strains, a poultice can be made by boiling the leaves for a short time, 3-5 minutes, blanching it like spinach till the water turns green, then wrapping around the injury with a towel when the leaves are cool enough to not burn the skin, redipping the towel as it cools in the green water, and keeping this on for around 20 minutes once or twice a day. Amazing results are seen within a couple days most of the time.

This is much easier to do with the fresh leaf. Cultivating comfrey is a really good idea...

Don't know if anyone's noticed, but we have very few stores that sell dried herbs around here. Since the Wildflowers on Hawthorne Store & the one across from Food Front closed, I've been going to Alberta Street Coop to get reasonably priced herbs, and People Coop has exclusively organics I believe... Food Front Coop also has a pretty good selection... I think we should pressure New Seasons to hire an herbalist or two and carry a large selection of bulk herbs... They can afford to do this & it would be a huge benefit to our community if there were another place to get a good selection of herbs and someone to consult with at the store about how to prepare and use these medicinals.

Take with Care 11.Apr.2004 10:59

herbalista anarquista

Thanks for your work, Kirsten. But I think that the internet isn't an optimal medium for teaching herbal skills.

Don't get me wrong -- I think that just about anybody can learn to be an herbalist. But recently a friend of mine made a comment about Wal-Mart herbal supplements: "They try to have herbalism without the herbalists." And I think that, unfortunately, that's one place where D.I.Y. culture overlaps with capitalist culture.

Herbal medicine is, at its best, simple and elegant, but that doesn't equal quick and easy. Comfrey is a great example of a plant where in-depth study of the plant & its historical uses should be paired up with some information about physiology, sociology, medicine, and magic. It's a plant that can do harm internally and externally when poorly used.

I encourage you to find another venue to share your love of plants, where it'll be supplemented with knowledge of human (&/or animals') bodies and lots of "know-your-limits" training.

a note to 11.Apr.2004 22:08

herbal anarquista

Well, that's simply your own opinion.
Kirsten introduced a plant to readers. It also stimulates readers towards alternatives, whether they grow it themselves or seek an herbalist.

You said "Comfrey ...should be paired up with some information about physiology, sociology, medicine, and magic. It's a plant that can do harm internally and externally when poorly used."

Your indoctrination is showing. Herbalists of times past utilized intuitive communication with various plant species. They did not go study physiology, sociology and medicine. I do not include magic in this as it falls more in line with intuitive nature.

Kirsten did give warnings on usage. Herbal anarquista you are welcome to trap yourself. Please let others think for themselves. I enjoyed Kirsten's piece.

where can i find them. 03.Oct.2004 06:03

tiffany srammes

hi im doing a project about that leaf and i was wandering where i would get some to show to my class. If i do find some i can gradguate collage. so if you would please tell or show me where to find or get some that would be appreshiated very much so thank you very much.

Comfrey 06.Aug.2007 11:46

Hipppy groovyhipppy@icqmail.com

I enjoyed your article, and found it very interesting.

I want to get involved in growing natural healing herbs, and get back into Mother Nature's healings.

I think that the compost, and the fertilizer idea's are great.

Thank you for your post, and of course people will always tell you things you did wrong, or could have done better. I think you advised everyone, and I respect the fact that you shared this with us.

I copied your article, and will surly plant some Comfrey!

with Butcher's Broom I added Comfrey to my tea to heal my vericose veins 15.Sep.2008 23:23

using only Butcher's Broom the next time my veins did not go evalentine@persona.ca

I am really happy to see what has been said about Comfrey here. I had heard that Butcher's Broom would clean out my veins. The first time that I used the Butcher's Broom for some reason I also added Comfrey from my garden. My veins went down from large bumps to a smooth leg. I thought tha the Butcher's Broom was a God send. The next time I used only Butcher's Broom and my veins would not deflate. I kept drinking the tea but still nothing happened. Today I thought that maybe it was the Comfrey that took them down. I drank the Comfrey tea leaves and it wasn't long before the veins went down. I also felt the knots in my ankle crackle and now there is no pain in them. Sometimes I have stiff ankles which I believe comes from falling off the wagon and eating butter on my vegetables. Today that stiffness has gone. I read here that I shouldn't take Comfrey for more than 4 months at a time. I think that I will just drink the tea whenever I feel a tightness. I thank God that He has made our bodies in such a way that the herbs He has provided will heal them. He tells us in His word to be moderate in everything that we do. So let us use this wonderful herb as a precious gift. sincerely Evelyn Valentine

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