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Comfrey – Why Everyone Should Grow It

Comfrey, simply put, is a miracle plant. It is easy to grow, easy to propagate, and has numerous valuable uses around the homestead. Until recently, I had never grown it or even used it. When I started learning about permaculture, I kept hearing comfrey mentioned. I decided to investigate further and learn what all the fuss was about. It turns out everything I had heard was true. Comfrey has several important uses on our homestead and it has lived up to all the hype.

Comfrey Plant

Comfrey Plant in Our Swale Berm

Comfrey has been unfairly criticized. Government run organizations have banned the sale of it for internal use, claiming health risks such as liver damage. Is it possible they are influenced by drug companies that have a vested interest in keeping us away from natural remedies? Comfrey has been used internally for centuries. The deer, rabbits, and chickens on my property sure like it and they seem healthy. Even if you don’t eat it, there are plenty of other benefits.

It is easy to grow. It likes a lot of water so consider that when you decide where to plant it. Typically it is sold as root cuttings. Most people recommend that you obtain a sterile cultivar. That means it will not reseed itself so the only way to propagate it is by making your own root cuttings. It is a very aggressive plant so the sterile version allows you to control where it grows. I purchased 20 root cuttings of the Russian Bocking 14 variety last winter. When I received them, I was surprised to see how small the cuttings were. I planted them following the instructions. For a while I thought that many of them wouldn’t survive. Slowly every single cutting grew into a plant. During the dry, hot period of our summer, some of the plants started to look pretty rough. Others were eaten to the ground by deer. In each case, the plants eventually came back and took off growing again. They really are very robust.

Here are some of the most important uses of comfrey around our homestead:

Compost
Comfrey is a dynamic accumulator. This means it brings nutrients to the surface. It has a deep tap root which allows it to mine nutrients from deep within the soil. The nutrients are brought to the surface and deposited there when the leaves break down. For this reason, permaculturists often use the practice of chop-and-drop with comfrey. This is when you allow it to grow big leaves, then cut the whole plant off at ground level. The severed leaves begin to break down and build the soil, while new leaves grow back. If you let it go and don’t cut it, it forms attractive purple flowers but it is at its most effective as a compost before it flowers. I like to continuously cut the outer leaves and allow the inner leaves to keep growing. Either way will work and you can’t hardly kill the stuff. Because of these characteristics, comfrey is a great understory plant for fruit trees, helping to fertilize the trees and build the soil.

Compost Tea
Comfrey leaves can be used to make a compost tea rich in nitrogen and potassium. Simply fill a bucket with cut leaves, weigh them down with a rock, and cover with water. Cover the bucket and wait a few weeks. The longer it sits, the better it is. The tea is great for fruiting garden vegetables. But be warned – it stinks!

Natural Remedy
Comfrey contains a substance called allantoin which accelerates cell regeneration. There has been much discussion about comfrey being toxic to the liver. For this reason, you should do your research before using comfrey orally. However, it has many wonderful topical uses. It is a great remedy for insect stings. I have personally had great success using it for fire ant and yellow jacket stings. If I get bitten or stung, I grab a fresh leaf from a plant and squeeze the liquid from the stem applying it directly to the affected area. The results are usually immediate. My neighbor Michael gets a bad reaction from fire ant bites. He applied comfrey to a bite while he was visiting and said it was the fastest relief he had ever had from a fire ant bite. I was stung by a hornet on my finger recently. That is a nasty sting. I applied comfrey within a couple minutes. Most of the pain from the sting went away almost immediately. I had minimal swelling that night and it was almost unnoticeable the next day.
Comfrey can also be used for rashes, poison ivy blisters, and other skin irritations. Some recommend not using it for open wounds. Once a wound begins to heal, I use comfrey to speed up the healing. Boil the leaf to soften it and apply over the wound, holding it in place with a bandage. Comfrey is also supposed to aid in the healing of broken bones, although I’ve been lucky enough to not have to test that use. Read the links in the resource section for more ideas about medicinal uses.

Propagation
As I mentioned before, comfrey can be invasive. For that reason, it is best to grow a sterile variety and control the propagation with root cuttings. I purchased my first comfrey root cuttings on Ebay. It is so easy to propagate that I shouldn’t have to buy it ever again. Here’s how to do it. Dig up the entire root system. Cut off pieces about the size of your finger. When all the finger-sized pieces are removed, replant the remaining root crown in the original hole and water thoroughly. Plant the cuttings by digging a 2” deep hole, laying the cutting horizontally, and covering with soil. Water well to get them started. More than likely you won’t even have to plant a root where you dug it up because it will probably grow back.

Comfrey Root Cuttings Photo credit: Nantahala Farm and Garden

Comfrey Root Cuttings
Photo credit: Nantahala Farm and Garden

Jack Spirko at The Survival Podcast did a great episode on comfrey awhile back – check it out here: http://www.thesurvivalpodcast.com/episode-1371-all-about-comfrey-the-miracle-plant. It’s full of useful information about uses and propagation. Comfrey is one of the great plants to grow on your property, if for no other reason than the occasional fire ant bite. Give it a try and you’ll see how easy and useful it is.

Resources for this post:
The Survival Podcast episode about comfrey: http://www.thesurvivalpodcast.com/episode-1371-all-about-comfrey-the-miracle-plant
Mother Earth News article from 1974!: http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/comfrey-leaves-zmaz74zhol.aspx
Making compost tea with comfrey: http://www.harvesttotable.com/2009/05/how_to_make_comfrey_manure_tea/
Botanical.com article: https://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/c/comfre92.html
Good discussion of internal use on Permies.com: http://www.permies.com/t/37681/plants/Comfrey-internally-figure-research#294419

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