|Comfrey, Knitbone Symphytum officinale Boraginaceae
Comfrey from con firma, made firm referring to its ability to mend broken bones. Symphytum is from the Greek to unite.
Part used: Due to concerns about the toxicity of the pyrrolizidine alkaloids it contains in Ireland the root is no longer permissible for use. The leaves are only recommended for external use. The original Australian research was flawed in that they used a hybrid rather than the true species, injected the tincture rather than giving oral doses and used an inappropriate control. Judicious use is the key. Other comfrey species that are grown in Ireland and the British Isles include Symphytum uplandicum, Symphytum asperum, Symphytum x uplandicum,. Symphytum tuberosum – although these are excellent for horticultural use as fertilizers and compost accelerators they should not be used medicinally.
Location: A native of Ireland and Europe, it also grows in western Asia, North America, Australia and all temperate regions of the world. Be sure that you are using the correct species. The true species is a branching perennial with a substantial fleshy rootstock covered in a black skin and creamy white in the centre. The leaves are long and tongue-shaped and emerge from a rosette. The stem is covered in irritating hairs and is winged. The flowers are held in coiled forked clusters. The corolla is a nodding bell with a closed mouth; they may be cream, mauve, pink, purple or white. Traditionally the white flowers were thought to be more suitable for use with females and the pink for males. It prefers damp locations such as ditches, riverbanks and by streams.
Character: Cool, moist, sweet
Harvesting and cultivation: It can be grown from seed in the spring or from divided roots (traditionally in the autumn but root slips will take at any time). The leaves and flowering tops are harvested in the summer. In a good year several cuttings can be taken. Cut before seeding otherwise it will self seed and can take over. When harvesting comfrey you may prefer to wear gloves as the plant is covered in small hairs which can be quite prickly and irritating in the fresh state. It will also spread by its roots. If you wish to move it from one area then you must be assiduous about removing every part of the root. If you decide to use the root it should be harvested in the autumn when allantion levels are at their highest.
As well as being used medicinally it has a long tradition of use in the garden. If you need to cut it to prevent seeding but have more than you need to use at the present time or for drying then the aerial parts may be either added to the compost heap to help active it. Alternatively, they can be placed in a barrel and left to infuse for a couple of weeks to make and excellent liquid fertilizer. Do not use the roots in the compost heap otherwise it will become a comfrey heap. The fresh leaves should be used to prepare an infused oil by the hot method. Dried leaves can be macerated by the cold method. Allantoin encourages cell proliferation and therefore helps repair damaged tissue. For this reason it is also used in the cosmetic industry in its isolated form. It is important that it is only used on clean wounds otherwise there is a danger that the wound will heal over with infection still there. The phenolic acids contribute to the herb’s anti-inflammatory action. The pyrrolizidine alkaloids have given rise to a deal of controversy about the safety of comfrey for internal use. The initial research that was carried out used a different species of comfrey and injected the tincture.The isolated alkaloids are definitely toxic to the liver. However it is not clear whether they are toxic in the tiny amounts present in the correct species. They are often absent in the dried aerial parts and may be destroyed by heat, but are present in larger quantities in the root , which is banned for internal use in Ireland and other countries. The leaf is also banned for internal use in Ireland but is considered acceptable for internal use in the UK and many other jurisdictions.
Constituents Allantoin (up to 4.7%); Mucilage; Triterpenoids; Phenolic acids, especially rosmarinic acid; Asparagine; Pyrrolizidine alkaloids (0.02-0.07%); Tannins
Actions Demulcent; Astringent; Anti-inflammatory; Vulnerary (wound healing); Heals connective tissue – bones, tendons, ligaments; Cicatriscant (regenerates the skin)
Traditional/ current uses
Formerly used to treat stomach ulcers, IBS, respiratory complaints such as bronchitis and pleurisy. Plantago major and Pulmonaria officinalismake good substitutions in countries where this is no longer permitted.
Formerly used as a food plant and as fodder. Still considered good fodder for racehorses and used in other countries to make fritters by dipping leaves in batter, as a green vegetable which can be steamed or added to stir-fries. In France it is added to soufflés or white sauce after cooking. The young shoots were formerly steamed or braised like celery and fresh young leaves were chopped and added to salads. The root was formerly chopped , roasted and ground to make a coffee substitute.
Used to treat broken bones, sprains, strains etc in the form of compresses or poultices
Bruises and grazes (the combination of tannins and mucilage helps to heal and soothe.
Acne, boils, scars and psoriasis
Also valuable in the treatment of aching joints and rheumatism
Deep tissue repair salve (not suitable for use on broken skin due to the arnica)
250 ml Arnica/Helichrysum/ Bellis infused oil
250 ml Comfrey infused oil
250 ml Hypericum infused oil
250 ml Calendula infused oil
125 ml Capsicum infused oil
75 g beeswax
Heat these ingredients over a bain marie until the wax is melted.
5 ml Betula essential oil
5 ml Zingiber essential oil
10 ml Mentha x piperita essential oil
20 ml Lavandula x intermedia essential oil
20 ml Eucalyptus globulus essential oil
Pour into jars and allow to set.