by Kathie Hoyer – June 26, 2020
Regular Bowood customers may have noticed some new additions to our already large selection of herbs and I am very happy that one of them is Symphytum officinale — Comfrey, beloved herbal friend of permaculture farmers and gardeners everywhere. I consider it a secret garden helper that everyone needs to have in their garden.
knitbone, knitback, consound, blackwort, bruisewort, slippery root,
boneset, yalluc, gum plant, consolida, ass ear
We’re selling Symphytum officinale, which if you know your botanical Latin, is the best species to use medicinally: “officinale” indicates its place among herbal remedies. In the past it was used internally due to its mucilaginous qualities. Although internal use is no longer advised, comfrey’s use as a poultice for bruises, sprains and even broken bones is still prescribed by herbalists. (A little tip: I’ve used it to relieve the aches and pains of too much gardening and since it is a slippery sort of plant once it has been soaked, I recommend having an old towel handy or some plastic to place over the leaves to keep the goopiness from dripping everywhere.) Comfrey is also a prime source for allantoin which is an active ingredient (usually lab-created) in many cosmetics as a moisturizing agent, especially in those promoted as having anti-aging benefits.
In the garden, however, there is no room for doubt or skepticism. Simply put, comfrey is a very attractive plant, with large, coarse, sage-green leaves and nodding bluebell-like flowers. It loves the sun but does well even in the shade of my large oak tree and because of its speedy growth, can be harvested up to four times per growing season.
Comfrey was one of the first herbs that I added to my garden and, due to some inevitable construction, had thought I’d lost. Then two years ago when my husband cut down some shrubs to make a new tomato bed, I found some sprouts and transferred them to my new herb bed where they have thrived. Once they reach about 2’ tall, I regularly chop them down to about 4-5” and cut them into large pieces. Then I run them over with the lawn mower on the driveway. The resulting fluff makes a great mulch in my garden beds, holding down the weeds and holding in the moisture, until it breaks down into a nutritious compost.
You can see in the photo that I procrastinated until my plants had flowered – like the wonderful herb borage, which is in the same family, comfrey is a super great bee plant, so I wait until its flowers have welcomed the pollinators to my vegetable bed before chopping. My plants are actually Symphytum x uplandicum – Russian Comfrey – which has sterile seed so I don’t have to worry about excessive spread by seed which may occur with Symphytum officinale.
Because of its great root system, permaculture farmers use comfrey as a soil builder, planting it along swales to help create soil and feed the understory and overstory of their forest gardens. It’s considered one of the nutrient accumulators, mining the soil for potassium, phosphorous, calcium and other minerals – that’s what makes it such a great green manure to feed the soil. Lastly, comfrey makes a great “tea” for the garden. I found this out by accident last fall when I made my last chopping and left it all in the wheelbarrow. An unexpected heavy rain followed by an early freeze left me with a wheelbarrow full of frozen brown goo! By the time it melted, I’d moved on and by the time I noticed it again it was quite fragrant – phew!!! – and slimy… but I poured it around the boxwoods and I do think it’s done some good there.
Meanwhile, I’ve noticed the comfrey is ready for another chop and drop, so I’d better get out to the garden!
While you are shopping, consider picking up one of our other new additions to the herb program:
Chamaemelum nobile/Roman Chamomile – a perennial groundcover with sweet-smelling foliage and flowers.
Spilanthes oleracea / Toothache Plant – back by popular demand for all you home-based mixologists.
Porophyllum ruderale / Papalo – if you are a cilantro-lover, try this tasty addition to soups and salads.
I’ve learned a lot about gardening and specifically about comfrey from the following websites and I hope you will enjoy them as well:
Amy Stross at Tenth Acre Farm shares a wealth of information: 7 Comfrey Uses in the Permaculture Garden and How to Make Herbal Salve with Calendula and Comfrey are great places to start.
Milkwood is an essential and fascinating permaculture site with excellent advice on a wide range of ecological subjects: Making Seaweed Fertilizer with added Nettles, Comfrey and Borage is a good introduction.