The Knitbone Plant
In the 300s BC, the armies of Alexander the Great used this plant to treat wounds. It was used during the Middle Ages to heal fractures. Ancient Romans and Greeks valued it greatly for healing broken bones and wounds, stopping bleeding, and healing bronchial issues. And other than my Magic Cream, the most common herbal preparation I share with others uses this plant. With a husband that is a carpenter and fire fighter, I have put together mini herbal care packages for numerous injuries to fingers, heads, arms, legs, backs and shoulders. And I always hear back from people that use it, saying that they healed so much more quickly than they expected. Of course there have been numerous times when I have used it for my family: when I almost cut my knuckle off while learning how to carve a spoon, when the dog started limping and seemed to have twisted an ankle (do dogs have ankles?), and for other burns, cuts and sprains. But without further ado, let me introduce you to Comfrey!
Comfrey: I have read that the word comes from the Latin confervere, meaning ‘knit together,’ or perhaps con ferra, meaning ‘with strength.’ Both are appropriate descriptions. The scientific name for the plant is Symphytom species (S. officinale, S. uplandicum or Russian comfrey, S. caucasicum, S. peregrinum, S. asperum or Prickly comfrey). Symphytom comes from the Greek symphytis meaning ‘grown together,’ and phyton meaning ‘plant.’ Some of the folk names for Comfrey are knitbone, woundwort, and bruisewort. (Wort is an old English word for ‘plant.’)
You may have heard of the doctrine of signatures, which says that plants resemble the parts of the body they have an affinity for healing. This is not an exact science but nevertheless interesting! Comfrey has a hollow stem, which can be related to the way it has been used historically to help to clean tubes in the body like the bronchi and alimentary tract. Looking at the leaves close up, one can see what looks like the cells and hairs on human skin: comfrey is considered one of the most efficient skin healers and it can also be used to soothe internal ‘hairy’ areas such as the nose, throat, and intestines. Comfrey has a sticky mucilaginous sap: it is wonderful for soothing itchy skin. And lastly Comfrey can have white flowers, which some make a connection to the white color of bones.
So let me tell you a little about WHY this plant has been considered so valuable. One of the most active constituents is allantoin, which actually stimulates celluar proliferation! There are manufacturers that add allantoin to their lotions made to treat dry skin and wrinkles. But it is this component that helps to heal broken bones, fractures, and wounds, and even strengthening tendons and ligaments. Comfrey has also been shown to stop internal bleeding but there is controversy about using it internally (that I will address later) and I have chosen to use it externally only so I will focus on that.
Comfrey also has very high mucilage content, meaning that it has moistening qualities. This makes it useful for arthritis and rheumatism. It soothes and protects damaged tissue and help to heal irritated mucous membranes. The cool, moistening effect makes comfrey helpful when mucous membrane are inflamed. Even though I am not discussing using it internally, one can use it to gargle with (and then spit out) for sore throat and even tonsillitis.
Some of the other constituents are vitamin B12, vitamin C, germanium (comfrey is the second most common food source of this antioxidant, after garlic), iron, potassium, phosphorus, proteins, tannins, and steroidal saponins. The roots go deep and bring up many nutrients that are stored primarily in the leaves.
The Comfrey Controversy! It has been reported that the pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PA’s) in it are hepatoxic, that is, can cause liver damage. Because of this, the FDA has warned against using the comfrey plant internally. Some herbalists feel that it is safe if avoided in prolonged high doses; while others recommend it as a nourishing tonic. PA levels can be measured. S. asperum has been shown to have the highest levels of PA’s, while S. officinale has the lowest levels. And in all of the comfrey species, PA levels are higher in roots than in the leaves.
So how can you use comfrey?
- First, as I mentioned, you can use it in tea form as a mouthwash or gargle for throat infections. Just make a strong tea, steeping the plant matter for about half an hour.
- Second, you can use comfrey as a poultice, which basically means breaking up plant matter and placing it on an area of the body for healing. In the case of comfrey, it works best to break up the leaves in a blender, adding water as needed to make a paste of sorts. You can spread this on a cloth and put the cloth directly on a burn, wound, surgery incision, sprain or fracture. I also recommend spreading it on a few cloths and wrapping these up to store in the freezer for first aid situations as they arise!
- Third, you can use comfrey infused into oil, or as a salve. As with the poultice, comfrey oil or salve can be used on burns, wounds, sprains or fractures.
- Lastly, comfrey is a wonderful fertilizer! You can add the chopped leaves as mulch. Or you can make a ‘comfrey tea,’ which has been shown to have three times the amount of potassium as regular manure tea. Unlike when you make comfrey tea for humans, comfrey tea for plants is made by putting leaves in a bucket, weighing them down with a rock and covering them with water. Cover the bucket with breathable material (to keep out pests) and let this steep for 2 to 3 weeks. It will become dark, thick and smelly. Then dilute it 12:1 with water before applying to plants.
While you can buy dried comfrey leaves, I highly recommend growing it if you can. I have grown S. officinalis (it is perennial and hardy in zones 4 through 9), and it left an impression on me. I actually only starting using it after welcoming it into my garden. The plant’s personality seems firm but not gregarious. It reaches a height of 2 to 5 feet and the roots are tuberous and thick. The stems and lanceolate leaves are hairy and the leaves towards the base of the plant are larger than those toward the top. Small, bell-shaped flowers grow at the stem ends from May until Fall. They are white, pink or purple and I was surprised to see that my plant had both white and purple flowers! Comfrey enjoys partial to full sun – in the wild, comfrey is found growing in open woods, along streams, and in meadows. In cool climates, it will die back in winter and shoot back up in the Spring. In warmer climates, it will rarely flower due to lack of a winter chill, but it will not die back, making leaves available all year. Comfrey does tend to take over and is difficult to eradicate once established. I have heard from some that it will not spread considerably in dry conditions but it does spread via root growth. I had mine growing in a small raised bed and after two years, I dug it up when I was moving and the roots had not travelled far but they had definitely grown and multiplied. You can dig down and make divisions in the Spring and it grows easily from root cuttings.In fact, if you were to run a rototiller over a patch of comfrey and break the roots up, new plants would sprout up from each root piece!
It is extremely satisfying to be able to harvest a plant yourself and I have already explained how simple it is to use it. A single comfrey plant can be harvested about 4 times a year (usually plants that give of themselves so readily do so because we need their medicine often!), the first time around mid-Spring. You may want to wear gloves because of the fine hairs on the leaves and stems. You can cut the laves back to about 2 inches above the soil, or just take individual leaves once they have reached about the size of your hand. You should be able to cut about every 6 weeks until early Fall. Then leave the plant to build up its own Winter reserves. Prepare poultices, dry a little and infuse into oil, or dry completely and store the leaves whole and flat, or gently crumbled.
As with any plant, it is important to know when to avoid it. Comfrey is not recommended for internal use, especially for those that are pregnant, breastfeeding, of having a history of liver disease. Don’t apply directly to an open wound wear there might be infection as there is risk of sealing it in. Don’t apply to a fracture until it has been professionally set. And comfrey is contraindicated for people whose bones are growing too fast (for example, Osgood-Schlatter disease seen mostly in adolescents). Lastly, be sure to correctly identify plants in the wild before using them. People have been known to mistake the toxic foxglove for comfrey.
Cultivating a relationship with a plant is more meaningful than many realize, in this age when we barely have time to maintain our human relationships. I hope that I have inspired you to welcome Comfrey into your garden this year!
Note: The cover photo is an observational drawing I did of my comfrey plant a couple of Summers ago. I just wanted to capture the shapes of the leaves – so solid and yet graceful – and the dainty flowers. I am having technical difficulties and lost a number of photos I was going to use but I will update with some photos of comfrey when I have them!