Sunday, May 08, 2011

Get Comfy with Comfrey

Published in the Hoopa People Paper 6.07
Copyright Harvest McCampbell

Whether you are interested in herbs or a seeking a hardy perennial flowering plant that can star in your borders and flower beds there is a comfrey for you. These ornamental and historical plants are useful for natural skin care, as an ingredient for mulch and compost, and they look great in the garden. Their graceful flowers also attract hummingbirds. That’s a whole lot of benefit from one plant that can be easily grown in full sun or part shade.

Comfrey has been grown in herb gardens since at least 400 BC. This ancient herb was used for its healing properties in early Europe and Asia. In fact, comfrey is still well known for its soothing effect on the skin. If you purchase natural skin care products check out their labels. Sometimes extracts are identified as allantoin, one of the main constituents found in comfrey, particularly the roots. Allantoin, which is also found in mother’s milk, promotes healing by stimulating cell growth and division.

The soothing and healing properties of comfrey can easily be used at home. Comfrey water can be made by pounding three or four fresh comfrey leaves and stems with a mortar and pestle. No mortar and pestle available at your house? Chop up the leaves and stems and whiz them in the blender or food processor with just enough water to keep everything moving. Place your pulverized comfrey in a large pitcher or gallon jar and fill the rest of the way with water. Cover your brew and leave it out on the counter over night, then strain it carefully through a fine sieve or a few layers of cheese cloth. Comfrey has fine hairs that some people find irritating – so don’t skip the careful straining. The comfrey pulp can be added to your compost heap or tucked under the mulch in your garden. It is especially beneficial for seedlings and transplants.

Your comfrey water should be kept in the refrigerator (after a few days use any leftovers to water your plants). Pour some into a spray bottle and use it as moisturizing and cooling spritz for skin and hair. It will give your skin an invigorating glow. You can add a cup or two to your bath water for an all over salon skin treatment. If you have aches and pains try soaking a cloth in the comfrey water and applying the cloth to the painful area. As the cloth picks up your body heat you can rinse it and dip it into a bowl of the cool comfrey water and reapply. This also makes an easy at home facial for when you come home from work hot and exhausted.

Before applying any comfrey preparations to large amounts of skin, be sure to patch test to check for sensitivity or allergy. This is a good idea with any new products or preparations you might want to use. If you are going to get hives, which is unlikely, it is much better to get them in a tiny patch than all over. (Speaking of getting hives all over, someday I will have to tell you what I did to myself with some nettle tea – but that is a different story.)

In addition to using comfrey externally, ancient people also considered it a pot herb and used it much like spinach or kale. The roots were dug and scrubbed and used to thicken stews and soups. Today comfrey is no longer recommended as a food. Science has discovered it contains constituents that, in large quantities, can harm the liver. Many herbalists still stand by comfrey. You may find it listed as an ingredient in various herbal preparations. I would recommend doing some diligent research before ingesting comfrey or feeding it to your animals. Even if you have no intention of utilizing comfrey, it still makes a hardy ornamental plant for the landscape.

Fine Gardening Magazine recently featured a lovely variegated comfrey in their April 2007 edition. The article, “Variegated Plants Create Drama,” had a full page color photo where ‘Axminster Gold Comfrey’ was the star. This selection from the more common dark green Russian comfrey sports broad irregular bands of gold along each twelve inch leaf’s border. Clumps grow to two feet tall by two to three feet wide and will produce small showy blue bell type flowers in late spring and early summer. These plants thrive in partial shade or full morning sun with afternoon shade. A closely related plant, ‘Goldsmith Comfrey,’ is much easier to find. Goldsmith is nearly identical to Axminster, except the clumps only grow to about a foot tall and wide and the flowers are a creamy yellow.

Also with creamy yellow flowers, Creeping Comfrey will slowly spread to form a care free ground cover. It grows from eight to eighteen inches high. It is especially appealing when planted just under the edge of taller shrubs and perennials. I grew this plant for many years near Sacramento in a spot between two buildings. It had shade most of the day, but when the sun hit, it was harsh. Rare plant collectors may find varieties of creeping comfrey with variegated leaves or red flowers. These types are not as hardy as the commonly available creeping comfrey.

Red Flowered Comfrey forms clumps to two feet tall. It is often sought out by herb gardeners as a novelty plant. It is more tolerant of full shade than some of the other varieties. Hummingbirds are particularly fond of this one when it is in bloom. I have grown Red Flowered Comfrey in several different locations over the years and find that it is not nearly as hardy or long lived as Russian Comfrey.

My favorite comfrey plant has to be the old standard known as Russian Comfrey. I have two plants in my garden here in Hoopa, where they have been thriving for many years. I started these plants from divisions of the ones I previously grew in the Sacramento area. The original plants are still thriving in that garden, over eleven years since I moved. I know the gardener there very well, and I can guarantee they are not getting watered with any regularity. Russian comfrey is the type preferred for use in skin care. It forms clumps up to three feet tall and four feet across and has lovely blue bell type flowers in late spring and summer. While it needs regular watering through its first summer, it is fairly drought tolerant once established.

Pest very rarely bother comfrey, including gophers, so it is safe to plant it directly in the ground. The main consideration in planting comfrey, especially Russian comfrey – is that it is very hard to kill. The good news is; it won’t spread around your garden, as long as you don’t disturb its roots. Don’t plant it near where you till or plough, unless you want lots of comfrey. Clumps go dormant over winter, which is the best time to divide them, if you want to start more plants to share with your friends.

Plants are often available at local nurseries, health food stores, and through mail order and on-line catalogs. If you don’t find comfrey where you shop for plants, Richter’s Herb Catalog carries most of the comfrey varieties mentioned above. You can find them at You can also call to request a very complete and informative free catalog: 905-640-6677.

1 comment:

Harvest said...

Comfrey is usually divided by crown divisions when the plant is dormant . . . but you can lift the leaves and look under to see where they are emerging from the ground, and using a trowel after you oak the plant--pry a bit from the main clump and if babied along it ought to grow . . .