Commonly known as Knitbone, Boneset (this should not be confused with the other herb named Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum).Knitback. Consound. Blackwort. Bruisewort. Slippery Root… Yalluc (Saxon), Gum Plant, Consolida, and less flatteringly as Ass Ear, Comfrey enjoys a rich history of use for medicinal purposes, being one of the old favourites for bone healing, though this is certainly not the only healing gift this plant bestows!
As another member of the boraginaceae family, Comfrey shares some of the characteristics of this plant family – the hairy leaves and stem, basic leaf shape and configuration of leaves bear a resemblance to that of Borage, covered in the last post. Comfrey grows easily in most temperate countries of the world, including North America, Europe, western Asia and Australia. The plant prefers to grow in damp, marshy soil, and can easily grow as a garden plant. I have one in a tub, and a rather pretty plant it is as well, though requiring a lot of water – in a warm, dry spell, the Comfrey and Valerian are always the two plants that keel over first! The flowers are small and bell shaped, usually white or pink in colour, and a marvel of delicate beauty when observed closely, resembling stained glass in direct sunlight, at which time they are heavily frequented by the bees. The plant grows up to 1 metre in height, in clumps, favouring wild land as well as thriving in gardens. We have quite a bit growing locally that has self seeded in the public green lands.
At the moment, Comfrey root, rhizome and leaf are all used in herbal medicine, though the root has rather high levels of PAs (pyrrolizidine alkaloids) in, so this part should be used with a certain amount of caution. The leaf has been eaten steamed as a leafy green vegetable for hundreds of years, and still is to this day despite the controversy concerning the alkaloids. Alongside the alkaloids, comfrey also contains allantoin, thought to be the constituent responsible for much of the healing effect due to its cell proliferant activities, as well as mucilage, steroidal saponins in the root and anti inflammatory phenolic acids.
Rueld by Saturn, I tend to view Comfrey has being a useful herb for helping the body to reimpose borders and boundaries, as well as to soften up overly rigid borders and boundaries. Being a bone herb, the link to Saturn can certainly be seen in this action, Saturn generally held as being the planet responsible for borders, boundaries, and rigidity – and what is bone if not rigid and an imposer of boundaries? The body would lollop all over the place without our skeletons, after all! Appropriately enough, the herb is associated with the Goddess in Her aspect of the Crone, i.e Hecate, Cerridwen and Death Goddesses such as Inanna – unsurprisingly enough the herb is cold and dry in temperament.
Comfrey leaf tea smells rich and earthy, rather like that of nettle in fact, though the colour is more of a soft, earthy brown. Within seconds of pouring, a rich, rainbow coloured surface has developed on the top of the tea, and the mucilage can clearly be seen adhering to the sides of the cup. The flavour of it bears little resemblance to nettle, possessing instead a slightly similar taste to that of dried Borage, its close cousin. Like Borage, the tea tastes cooling and dispersing, and seems to weigh a little heavily on my chest – again, I’m well aware that this is because my temperament tends to be cold and moist, and any more cold added tends to sit like a lead weight on me. Unlike Borage, however, there is less of a sense of the held breath, more a sense of astringency as the herb gently dries back some of the excess moisture. I can also feel the tea slowly seeping its way down to my stomach. The overall feeling is rather pleasant, much more comforting than Borage but no less effective and powerful. Comfrey is like a steadying hand on the shoulder – and is not a warrior herb, not in the way of Borage, with its encouragement towards clarity and calm assessment of a situation, whilst still being poised on the brink of action. Instead, Comfrey is like the grandmother, wise and calm and urging a feet on the ground, compassionate appraisal of a situation that will still not hesitate to give a smack if a smack is called for. After all, sometimes grandchildren need discipline! Interestingly, I can still feel Comfrey around my eyes, relaxing tense facial muscles, so perhaps it has something of the same gifts as its cousin after all? The astringent qualities come through a few seconds after a mouthful of tea, as a slight dryness develops in the mouth. I can feel myself breathing more easily – perhaps it is time to start using Comfrey as well as Plantain for the lungs, instead of sticking to what I have done previously, using Plantain for the lungs and Comfrey for the stomach. Again, I can feel Comfrey at work, reinforcing boundaries and pushing moisture out of the lungs. I have no tincture here at present, so will have to forego learning more of this herb through tasting the herb in alcohol. Perhaps it is time I added grandmother Comfrey to my dispensary! I do love these plant tasting sessions, such a wonderful way to add to my knowledge base and learn more about an individual plant. It is at times like this that I begin to ponder taking the time to conduct a few Goethian plant studies instead of merely dipping a toe in the water and declaring myself too busy.
Externally, Comfrey has a well deserved reputation as a wound healer due to the presence of allantoin in the herb, speeding the healing of sprains, strains and broken bones. It was previously used to heal minor cuts and grazes as well, though I personally wouldn’t recommend this – Comfrey speeds up healing to such an extent that if you are not extremely careful, muck can get trapped in a wound and result in an abscess as the top heals over faster than the bottom of the wound. Instead of Comfrey, I’d use Calendula for open wounds. The herb can be used as an infused oil or salve to treat strains, sprains, fractures, breaks, damaged ligaments and tendons and related injuries that do not have damage to the surface of the skin, though again some caution is urged – while some herbalists will gladly use lots of this herb, others caution that cell granulation can occur on the site of broken bones due to the allantoin speeding up healing too much. I tend to use it as a lovely infused oil, alongside Arnica and St Johns Wort in the healing of sports injuries – I used to do a lot of martial arts, and found that this mixture worked beautifully on a torn ligament I sustained that pretty much drew all such pursuits to a halt for some weeks.
Internally, the plant can be used to treat overly hot conditions affecting the digestive system, such as acid indigestion, peptic ulceration and as part of the treatment for IBS, as it calms spasms. The mucilage content also provides a protective layer over the surface of the villi, allowing time for inflamed, damaged areas to heal properly. The herb is astringent, and can also be used to treat haemorrhage and diarrhoea. The mucilage content means that the herb can be used in the treatment of lung troubles and coughs as well as in digestive complaints. I’ve always used it primarily for stomach complaints and used Ribwort Plantain for the lungs instead, though perhaps it is time I broke myself of such a limited approach!
I use Comfrey to help people build structure and form in their lives, creating order out of chaos and allowing them the strength to be themselves and organise their lives accordingly. The herb can also be used to help heal emotional traumas, grounding and soothing the person so that they can heal and get on with their lives. I think this herb brings steadfastness, and the courage to face the future, possibly as the result of its ability to ground and heal emotional wounds. If a person is especially ‘scattered’ then I might back up the action with a little Dandelion root and a little Horsetail for extra grounding and to reinforce the lesson on how to impose borders and boundaries, but again, this is personal preference. I think that Comfrey possesses the ability to reach down into a person’s underworld, the murky, swampy parts of the psyche, and offer clear vision as well as a hand up into the daylight again. Better yet, it allows a person to take a good, long look at their own personal underworld, and to bring back wisdom with them.
In the garden, Russian Comfrey (Symphytum x uplandica) can be mixed with Nettle and left in water to ferment, as this makes a gorgeous rich plant food that stinks to high heaven – the plants love it though!
Food for Thought
While there is some debate concerning just how safe Comfrey is, I personally would go ahead and use it as normal if I thought it would serve a purpose that could not be adequately served by any other herb. The big issue with the PA content is that it can be liver toxic in large doses or when consumed over a long period of time. To me, the answer to this seems pretty clear – use your head, and don’t use it in large doses or over a long period of time! The tests and whatnot that have been done thus far seem to concern doses of the PA excerpt only, administered to rats (poor rats…) – which seems a bit odd to me, as rats and humans have rather different physiology. As usual, the answer would seem to be that common sense is the best way to go. Use your head, do your research and make your own mind up! Don’t write Comfrey off just because of the damning alkaloids – treat her with respect and she’ll work with you well!
Next up will be Lungwort (Pulmonaria officinale) – one of the first herbs I worked with when I first got interested in herbs!