Fleetneedles' Forage: Comfrey

Plant
COMFREY (Symphytum officinale)

Useful as a garden feed and as a medicine, comfrey #foraging #lifeonpigrow

Description
Wild, or common comfrey grows between two and three feet tall. It has a tuberous hairy stem and large oval leaves which are also hairy and have a fibrous thick feel. The flowers are small and bell shaped and are usually white, pale pink, or cream. Whilst there is a cultivated version of comfrey with darker pinkish purple flowers called Russian comfrey, this article is about wild comfrey.


Nutrients           
Contains vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12 ( in the flowers) , C, and E plus calcium, chromium, cobalt, copper, iron, lead sulphur, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and zinc.

Caution
Comfrey contains small amounts of pyrrolizidine alkaloids which have been known to cause liver damage. Due to this eating comfrey or using it for medicinal purposes is restricted in some countries. In normal doses I can find no evidence that it has caused illness. I would avoid eating or ingesting the root to be on the safe side, and I advise avoiding the plant altogether if you have liver problems.

Benefits
Antiseptic, astringent, anti-oxidant, body balancer/tonic, expectorant, healer, natural moisturiser, nutritive, skin soother, stops bleeding, and wound healer.

Everyday Use     
Wild comfrey is from the borage family and has had many names throughout the centuries such as Knitbone, Boneset, Bruisewort and Slippery Root. It has a long history as an edible and medicinal herb but I have read conflicting information about the safety of eating it. Some sources claim it can damage the liver due to some of the constituents of the plant, however vast quantities would have to be consumed. The leaves have a slightly cucumber flavour and have a high nutritive value, I have eaten them with no side effects on several occasions. However, be warned, their raw texture is rather hairy and in truth is not very pleasant; they are more palatable when cooked or taken as a medicinal tea. 

Drinking the tea made from the leaf is thought to help the body balance itself and acts as a tonic and detoxifier for the kidneys, pancreas and gall bladder. It is believed that the astringent element improves digestion and relieves internal irritations in the intestines. The plant was thought to be the perfect healing and recuperative remedy.

Historically a tea made from the root was drunk in the treatment of hiatus hernias, colitis and diverticulitis, although I would not advise this without the guidance of a herbalist. The root has many external medicinal benefits though, and is traditionally made into a salve or oil. I have used it many times in eczema creams, combined with chickweed and mixed into aqueous cream.

When fresh and peeled the root is incredibly slippery and a sappy substance seeps out of it. This sounds revolting but the substance is very beneficial for the skin and can be used as a skin moisturiser. The root has also been used for a number of skin complaints, such as eczema and psoriasis. The ointment has also been used to prevent stretch marks, reduce bruising and scarring and to soothe and cool sunburn. In fact, Wild Comfrey root was once the main ingredient in anti-ageing type creams.

The soothing constituents of the plant have also been known to ease dry coughs, asthma and lung problems when made into a syrup. In folk medicine comfrey was used to treat colds and dry chest infections like pleurisy. As late as the 1950’s the plant was being used to make pharmaceutical drugs for bronchial and other inflammatory illnesses.

Its ancient names of Knitbone and Boneset are partly due to the use of the mashed root on broken bones in the same way as plaster of Paris is used to set bones. Used either externally or internally Comfrey is known to aid the rapid healing of fractures, sores, ulcers and wounds. When applied neat the slippery substance from the root creates a membrane over the skin therefore protecting whilst it heals. The antiseptic action speeds healing and its ability to stop bleeding sealed its reputation as a battlefield wound plant and a treatment for haemorrhages.

Comfrey’s also has a reputation as the ‘gardener’s friend’ which is well earned, and not just because the leaves are soothing for sunburn or to wrap around a bruise, sting or scratch.

When I had an allotment the plants high mineral content was extremely handy in a variety of uses. The leaves can be added to a compost heap and I also added them to my homemade nettle fertiliser and even placed them at the bottom of plant pots or on top of the soil to act as a slow release feed. Tomatoes and potatoes seem to find this particularly beneficial.

Bear in mind that Comfrey tends to spread rather fast so, if you have a small plot, I would advise growing it in pots to avoid the plant taking over.

These are some of my personal experiences using Wild Comfrey combined with information I have researched over a number of years. I am not encouraging people to self-medicate, in the treatment of specific conditions it is best to consult with a herbalist or your GP. If you should develop an adverse reaction to any of the above please stop using the herb immediately. And always take care when identifying the plant.

Happy Hunting, Claire Fleetneedle

LIFE ON PIG ROW DISCLAIMER: We’d like to thank Claire for this wonderful piece, as she points out, this is her personal experience and common sense must prevail in homemade herbal remedies. Therefore, if you are out and about foraging and aren’t confident that what you are about to pick is edible or medicinal the best advice is to leave it where it is. In the event of an adverse reaction to any homemade herbal remedy or foraged edible food you are advised to seek out medical advice. While every care is taken in the production of these posts neither Claire Fleetneedle nor Life on Pig Row are responsible for adverse reactions. Please remember to check local by-laws before foraging and never forage on private land without permission. Please use common sense when foraging.

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