A few Common Names: Knitbone, boneset,
Comfrey and I go way back! While yarrow was the first herb I was introduced to, Comfrey was the first herb I experienced. When I was younger I gashed open my knee while running around like a wild child. Most times I would just roll with it, no tears for this kid, especially not around the boys. But when I got a good look at this gash I was sure it needed stitches and the tears began to fall. My dear friend and mentor took me into the house, cleaned up the wound and made me a comfrey poultice to place on my knee. Not only did the bleeding stop and the bruising disappear instantly but it healed remarkably quickly with just a few more applications. No stitches for this girl!
Because this experience stayed with me, comfrey was one of the herbs on the top of my have to have list! This amazing herb gets used monthly at my house... we’re a bit accident prone.
What it looks like:
Comfrey has large, hairy, oval to lance like leaves. The hairs on the leaves are a bit prickly so use gloves when making your poultices or harvesting. The stems are juicy. The flowers are purplish to rosey white and bell shaped.
Where and when to find it:
I would just start with a plant. While you can find ‘wild comfrey’ it is not actually Symphytum officinale. There may be a few ways wild comfrey (Houndstongue, Cynoglossum officinale, or Wild Comfrey,Cynoglossum virginianum) can be used interchangeably with Common comfrey, Symphytum officinale, it is difficulty to find good information on this. What I have found is the constituents, pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PA’s), that have caused such a stir about using comfrey internally are much higher in wild comfrey than they are in common comfrey so never use wild comfrey internally if you do happen to find some.
Common comfrey grows in zone 3-9. It likes moist soil, (but will grow in most soil) moderate water and full sun to partial shade. It can grow very large so give it room to grow, 24 inches is recommended.
If you’re in the north plant comfrey in the early spring and if you’re in the south plant it in early fall. Comfrey is grown best through root divisions. Be careful where you plant your comfrey because if you try to move your comfrey and do not get all of the root, it will return where you left it. Side note, the root can grow up to 10 feet deep, good luck getting all of that dug up.
The parts used for comfrey are their Leaves or roots and they can be used dried or fresh. To harvest comfrey you’ll want a few things. A basket or bucket for your harvest, gloves and some clippers or snippers. You can take one leaf at a time as you need it for a poultice or you can take the whole stock for a large harvest. Comfrey can, and should be cut monthly to bring on new growth. It can actually be cut back up to 8 times a year. To do this, cut the entire plant about 2 inches from the ground. New leaves will soon emerge.
You can also harvest the roots for its medicinal properties. Plan on harvesting roots at the same time you are taking root cuttings for planting new plants. Harvest the roots in the spring or the autumn. This is when the allantoin levels are highest.
Comfrey leaves and roots can be dried, turned into an oil or a salve, frozen for use later as a poultice and tinctured. You can also make teas out of comfrey. There are contraindications for taking comfrey internally but the tea does not always have to be used as a drink. Many use the tea as a liquid fertilizer for their orchards and gardens.
Why it belongs in your apothecary:
Comfrey is amazing from skin to bone deep. The properties of comfrey make it a speedy healer! Personally I’ve used comfrey to disperse bruises, heal cuts, encourage healing broken bones, and to gain relief from sore muscles, just to name a few.
Side note: Comfrey is such an amazing healer that if care is not taken to ensure a wound is completely free of infection, it can heal right over the infection and cause an abscess. When using comfrey on open wounds do not use it on deep wounds or puncture wounds.
Poultice: The poultice of comfrey can be used for relief of stiff, sore joints that are found in arthritis. Poultices are also great for speeding the healing of broken bones or strains and sprains. Poultices can also ease the pain of cramps.
Salve: Comfrey salves are great for wound healing. Like I said above, avoid using comfrey on very puncture wounds or tunneling wounds. Comfrey can be used to enhance healing of boils, burns, scalds, diaper rash, eczema and psoriasis.
Tea or fomentation: Comfrey is an amazing healing herb but it is also a great garden fertilizer. Because of its deep roots it is able to pull more nutrients from the ground than your average plant. Many folks make a large bucket of tea of comfrey to water their garden with.
Fomentations of comfrey can also be used on sprains, strains and broken bones. They are also beneficial to burns, scalds, bruises along with eczema and psoriasis.
Drinking comfrey tea however is controversial. Many herbalists have and still do. I personally never have because I heard the warnings before I got to deep into the internal benefits.
As we’re all learning, the information that comes from certain studies is not always true across the board. Some say the studies done on comfrey internally were not done in accordance with the way comfrey is actually used by herbalists. I’ve also read that it was only tested on mice. All of these studies have to do with compounds called pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PA’s), which I mentioned above. As I mentioned above, these are found in high amounts in wild comfrey. And in lesser amounts in common comfrey. I’ve only done slight research on this because I have not found a need for comfrey internally that I can’t live without. Maybe the studies were done on different plants, maybe they were only done on mice and effect humans different. What I do know is that PA’s have been shown to cause liver disease and that is not something anyone should mess with. My advice to you is if you choose to use comfrey internally, do your research and weigh the risks and benefits. And if there is any chance of an already taxed liver situation, don’t risk it.
What Comfrey can do:
The allantoin constituent of comfrey stimulates the growth of cells which gives it the power to heal wounds quickly. Ensure wounds are thoroughly cleaned and free of any signs of infection because comfrey will heal a wound quickly. If skin is healed over an infection it will create and abscess. (I know broken record)
In this and the following herb profiles you'll want to reference the vocabulary list for deeper definitions of these properties. If they are not on the list, there is a link to a larger list here, I kept the list focused on the properties important to know for the information we talk about in the profiles.
Properties: mucilaginous, vulnerary, demulcent, anti-inflammatory, anti psoriatic, astringent, cell proliferation, hemostatic,
In this profile we only talk about using comfrey topically. So dosing is pretty easy.
Poultices, salves and fomentations can be used as often as necessary.
Poultices: You want your poultices to be moist. If they are dry it is time to change them out. I use frozen poultices as they thaw the juices flow better and you get the nice cool feeling of an ice pack if that’s what you’re needing. You can also take these frozen poultices and warm them up for a heat pack.
Salves: Re-apply as often as needed
Fomentations: These are best warm so remove and reapply to keep warm.
When identifying comfrey be aware the pre-bloom comfrey look similar to foxglove. Foxglove is very toxic so be sure you know what you are looking at.
One more time for good measure, make sure your wound is free of infection before using comfrey on an open wound.
And again the jury is undecided on comfrey internally so do your research and if you have liver issues avoid it completely.
As I mentioned (a few times) comfrey is not just an herb you want in your garden for medicinal uses. It is also an herb that can be used as a living mulch for the rest of your herb garden. If you find yourself with an abundance of herbal remedies but your comfrey could stand to be chopped. Go for it and lay out the leaves as a mulch for your garden that will add wonderful nutrients to your soil.