Everything I Know About Comfrey (So Far)

Apr 8, 2016

Comfrey varieties The first thing to get clear on is that there are *many* comfrey varieties with different characteristics. The more common ones include: aaaaaaaaa1_2 Creeping comfrey (Symphytum grandiflorum) is also known as dwarf comfrey and as its name suggests, it will creep through the whole space that you plant it in. Therefore only plant it if this is what you want. It’s also been described as ornamental comfrey. This is the comfrey that will quickly become a “weed” in your garden, so be careful where you place it. Image from here. . Russian comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) is the most popular type of comfrey for the grower, it’s a hybrid of Symphytum officinale (common comfrey) and Symphytum asperum (rough comfrey). There are two main cultivars used, Bocking 14  and Bocking 4, both were developed in the 1950s by Lawrence Hills (founder of the Henry Doubleday Research Association) and named after the place they were  developed, Bocking in the UK.

12105803_1123590424341868_7627898172855497658_nBocking 14 was apparently chosen from over 20 different varieties trialed by Hills due to having the highest yields with high potash content. Bocking 14 is sterile, so doesn’t set seed and can only be propagated by division. However it will still slowly increase in size so it’s wise to dig it up and divide it up every few years.

Bocking 4 is said to have a deeper tap root – up to 8-10 feet, while Bocking 14 is around 6 – 8 feet. It’s described as the preferred type for a farming context as it has the highest concentration of protein, is more rust resistant and is also recommended as a good fodder for livestock, including pigs and chooks. Image from our garden.

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Its reputation as a dynamic accumulator

Along with a decent list of other plants, it’s known as what’s called a dynamic accumulator. However there isn’t actual solid, scientific evidence on how effective comfrey is in this regard. There are some well written, clear articles you can read about this here and here which summarise it nicely. My personal approach is that while the science it still out on its role as a dynamic accumulator, I still recommend this plant be included in your garden for a *range of reasons*. We use it to stablise slopes with its great root system, medicinally, as mulch in our orchard and as fresh food for our chooks. 12806214_1122765354424375_1562489664431605907_n 12932943_1134525449915032_7214175053786806667_n

In our young orchard, comfrey is planted directly downhill of the trees, stabilising a steep bank, we slash the leaves and use them as mulch (image on right), cycling the nutrients back into the soil.

How to use it for my garden

Despite the science not being bullet proof, you can’t ignore the countless gardeners who swear that by adding comfrey to your garden you end up with healthier soils and crops. There are endless methods you can do this, have a read here and here for just some of them.

Comfrey’s antifungal – isn’t that bad for my soil?

I’m not sure. In our own garden we haven’t seen any evidence of this and we’re really big on encouraging fungi in our soils through strategies like using ramial woodchips. The only references I could find to its antifungal properties were in a medicinal context, rather than gardening.

Am I allowed to eat it?

No, is the short, legal answer. In 1984 the Poisons Advisory Bureau (through the National Health and Medical Research Council) placed it on the Poisons Schedule in Australia. The Council listed comfrey as a dangerous poison, only to be available through pharmacists, by doctor’s prescription. This decision is thought to have come about due to a public scare in the late 1970s with newspaper headlines reading things like ‘Liver damage can be done by herbs’,  ‘Popular Herb is a Killer’, ‘Scientist Warns Herb is a Killer’, ‘ Health Drink Causes Cancer, says CSIRO expert’ and ‘Comfrey is a Killer’. Why are people scared? Comfrey has pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PA’s), these are regarded as potentially hepatoxic, carcinogenic, and mutagenic. PA’s are believed to have an accumulative effect in the body and may cause hepatic vein blockage and liver toxicity. In the early 2000s the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also removed comfrey products from market for this reason.

Can I feed it to my animals?

My understanding that in moderation, yes. I feed it to our chickens as part of a mixed leafy green mix and they love it. Some folks say their chickens will only eat dried or aged comfrey (so the prickliness of the leaves goes away) – if you have rough comfrey (Symphytum asperum) this may be extra important to do. If you’re unsure – do some local research, talk to some animal experts or don’t do it.

Medicinal uses

I use comfrey medicinally in two key ways – I’m sure there are many, many more, but this is what I know:
  1. Also known as “knit bone”, comfrey leaf can be made into a poultice and applied to breaks, sprains and bruises. I’ve used this my whole life and there’s a notable improvement, i.e. decrease of swelling, bruising and pain, each time I’m able to apply a comfrey poultice quickly.
  1. As outlined above, you’re not meant to ingest comfrey at all. However I grew up drinking comfrey and dandelion ‘green drink’ my mum would make us when sick –  without a doubt it helped us feel better (other ingredients included fresh apple or carrots and ginger).

I actually have a memory refusing to drink it as I knew I’d get better quicker and was trying to take as many days off school as possible. But I’m not a health professional, so please don’t take this as advice, just note that I’m still alive, healthy and that to this day I continue to eat and drink comfrey sporadically (not every day) as I want to.

Where should I plant it?

If you’d like your (non-creeping) comfrey to remain a blessing and not a curse, don’t plant it in your annual vegetable garden/s. No matter what variety you choose, the seasonal digging that you do to harvest crops and prep the bed will inevitably result in you digging into the comfrey’s root zone. Each time you chip a bit of the root off it will blossom into its own vigorous plant and eventually take over the whole veggie patch. Instead, plant it somewhere where you won’t be digging – like your orchard, a designated bed or beneath/amongst some perennial vegetables/berries. Saying all that, I do know people who like to grow it on the edge of the annual gardens as a border to prevent grass from creeping in – this is risky business as I’ve outlined above. You could however plant comfrey on the *outside* of the annual garden which I’ve seen many times. There’s a border (i.e. timber sleeper) between it and the actual garden bed, keeping it contained while still highly accessable to chop and drop as mulch onto the garden.

How to grow it

Comfrey is dead easy to grow. In short, hack a small chunk of root off and pop it in the ground – it will grow. You can read our blog about how to do it here. IMG_0759 IMG_0761 I’m no expert on comfrey and am always interested to learn more, so please send through your own experiences and information on what works (or doesn’t work) for you.

Want to know more?

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your thoughts:

32 Comments

  1. Kathy M Finigan

    A comfrey salve I made last year has been an absolute god send for my funny elbow. It really is an amazing plant to have in the garden! http://bit.ly/1v9FrOT

    Reply
    • Julie

      Hello, Does anyone know where i could buy comfrey in the Toowoomba area? Cant find it at any of our local nurseries and all the online seed sellers seem to be sold out? Would anyone be willing to post me a few roots I could plant?

      Reply
      • Heather

        Can you just give a shout out on your community Facebook page? Or a gardening group? Or your community gardens? Someone will have some, and you don’t need much to get started.

        Reply
      • Glenn Brooks

        Yes Julie,
        I grow and harvest Comfrey weekly.
        I would be happy to post some root material to you 🙂

        Reply
        • Rebecca

          Hi Glenn, I would very much appreciate some of your comfrey root material as well, if you have enough, as I also have not been able to find any. Thank you in advance!

          Reply
          • Lou

            Mudbrick herb cottage garden sell comfrey seedlings. They ship them! Got mine growing now

        • Julie

          Hello Glenn, I lost this website and didnt find your answer until today!! I would love some of your comfrey roots if you are still able to post them to me. Not sure how I contact you directly? Or do I just list my address on here? Please advise as Im not a regular internet user so not sure how these blogs work.

          Reply
        • Karamea Falwasser

          Hello,
          I’m in Western Australia.
          Can I have some comfrey roots please. I’ll be happy to pay postage.
          Would very much appreciate your plants, please.

          Reply
  2. Sheree

    In the late 60s my mother would make a green drink with a couple of comfrey leaves and vege tops from our organic garden – carrot beetroot been leaves herbs – along with tomato juice salt and a little honey. It had to be strained after being blitzed! It tasted great and had loads of healing vitamins. It was our once a week helping tonic.

    Reply
  3. Kate

    Having planted bocking comfrey at the edge of my garden several years ago, I am now seeing very significant allelopathic properties at that garden edge. I wanted a dense line of comfrey plants to keep the grass, particularly crab grass, from encroaching. It works. But it also causes largely denuded soil where very little grows. My line of comfrey is exactly at my garden edge, so half the leaves go towards the lawn and half into my garden. Those that grow towards the garden are over mulch, while the lawn-ward leaves were originally over grass. Now no grass grows there, in a strip about 16 inches wide. It’s most obvious now in spring time. Once the comfrey leaves come up they will hide this bare strip. I do wonder if the leaves that die down over this area long term are really benefiting the soil or damaging it. The only other possibility I can think of is that nothing is growing there simply due to the comfrey shading it out so thoroughly through the growing season. But the bare patch just doesn’t look good to me when considered from a living soil perspective, so I am somewhat troubled by this effect of the comfrey. Any thoughts?

    Reply
    • Hannah Moloney

      Interesting Katie. Personally I haven’t experienced it being detrimental to soil life so I can’t really comment on your soil. As long as it’s not being detrimental to your lawn and not vegetable garden I wouldn’t worry!

      Reply
  4. jon

    Ive purchased root cutting and crowns from Marsh Creek Farmstead before. Quality Supplier

    http:/marshcreek.farm

    Reply
  5. Scott Foyster

    Hi Hannah thanks for the information. Have you had any good impact with comfrey on stabilising slopes. I was reading about that somewhere and thought of trying it on a slope at our place in Lucaston. Also do you know anywhere you can get a dozen or so plants in the Hobart/South Tassie area?

    Thanks

    Scott

    Reply
    • Hannah Moloney

      Hi Scott, Absolutely – this is the main way we grow it (on steep slopes). You can read a bit about that in our blog here (about our young edible forest garden) https://goodlifepermaculture.com.au/edible-forest-gardening-food-forests/. In terms of where to source plants – I’m not sure commercially. Get on the phone and call around. I literally got two small plants from the local school fair 3 years ago and I now have hundreds through propagating them myself.

      Reply
    • Caro

      Hi Scott
      We live in Lucaston too, am very happy to pass on some comfrey plants to you! Just email me at tassie87@bigpond.com with yr contact details.

      Thanks Hannah for this interesting piece on comfrey – like you I feed it occasionally to our chooks. Have also heard it accelerates or promotes the breakdown of compost; have you tried it this way?
      Really love your blogs, thanks for sharing some of your incredible knowledge 🙂
      Cheers
      Caro

      PS. And by the way Scott, Hannah did our PC Farm Plan when we first moved into the Huon Valley which has been very useful!

      Reply
      • Hannah Moloney

        Hi Caro! Thanks for your kind offer of comfrey and yes I do add it to my compost (liquid and in piles) – there a few things that didn’t make it into that blog! Perhaps I can write a sequel :-). All the best.

        Reply
  6. Dan

    Do you know how salt tolerant comfrey is? I am losing a battle to salt inundation owing to sea level rise. I need to build up soil in a sandy soil patch behind a beach (zone 6b) to try to get the spruces growing there again. Every 3-5 years violent winter storm may dump a large amount of salt water around the area. Would comfrey work in such a situation to build soil?

    Reply
    • Hannah Moloney

      Hi Dan, I don’t know – sorry. But it’s so hardy it’s the type of plant I’d try and grow for your context. That and lots of local natives for your area to foster soil life and carbon/organic matter in the soil that can then support other plants to thrive.

      Reply
  7. Allan Christensen

    You are really knowledgeable when it comes to comfrey. I had fun reading your article. Thank you for sharing it. Cheers mate!

    Reply
  8. Sandra Stevens

    Hi, I’m a little confused about my ‘Comfrey’ plant.
    I’s leaves look the same as the ones in your photo’s but I planted it, thinking it was a small shrub and it is now about 3 metres high. It does have mauve flowers but they look a little different to yours, mine grow on clusters of green berries which turn yellow and drop to the ground.
    I am worried it’s not actually Comfrey and it might do me harm

    Reply
    • Hannah Moloney

      Take it to a local nursery, or back to where you got it from to get some help to ID it properly :-).

      Reply
  9. Emily

    I would STRONGLY disagree with the paragraph about being “allowed to eat it”. Without even knowing its history for healing people of all sorts of conditions made famous by Dr John Christopher and I’m sure others, one should be able to figure out that if animals can eat it who are mammals as we are, than it isn’t going to harm us.

    Everyone should know by now to verify everything the F.D.A. says.

    Dr. Christopher was the only medic during WW2 that was not only allowed to use herbs, but was given Carte Blanche to use them whenever he wanted by his commanding officer because he so skillfully demonstrated their healing power to his commanding officer and all the other staff healing a terrible case of Impetigo on a soldier who had terrible scabs covering his head. Western medicine failed to help him. He who was going to be sent home, if not for Dr. Christopher’s knowledge of herbs.

    Dr. Christopher used Comfrey often and one of his most famous formulas, “Complete Bone and Tissue” formula’s primary ingredient was Comfrey. Here is a link to an introduction to all the benefits of Comfrey people miss out on if they are afraid to take it internally. https://www.herballegacy.com/Hoover_Medicinal.html

    Here are a few testimonials from some of his patients who benefited greatly taking Comfrey. https://www.herballegacy.com/ComfreyTestimonials.html

    Reply
    • Hannah Moloney

      I hear you Emily. I’ve eaten it my whole life. As I’m not a medical professional I err on the side of caution in recommending it to others 🙂

      Reply
    • Ginger

      Generally I would fully agree with you, but not as a statement to be taken literally and blindly.

      e are mushrooms that squirrels (also mammals) can eat the people should not or can not (forget if they are poisionus or toxic to humans) eat, so clearly just because some mammals can eat some things does not mean that all mammals can safely eat all the same things.

      As for comfrey, I am just learning about it :o)

      Reply
  10. Linton Young

    Does anybody know if Bocking 4 is available here in Australia. I can’t seem to find any suppliers of tubas or even seeds if they are allowed into the country. I’m thinking it’s not allowed but after advise if anyone can help.

    Reply
    • Hannah Moloney

      I’ve found it hard to get clear varieties, i.e. often just sold as “comfrey”. It’s not illegal to sell it in Australia but some people want sell it as some varieties can become too weedy. Look for a clumping type instead.

      Reply
  11. Frances

    Hello, I have an urgent need of fresh comfrey leaf – I am in Sydney, NSW- does anyone know where I could source it?
    Thanks in advance, Frances

    Reply
  12. Joel

    Thanks for these tips! My friend gave me some Comfrey a year ago (I think the Russian kind) and I put in in my no-dig veggie patch because i heard it was good for the soil. I use it for mulch and to feed my chickens. Now a year on it has definitely taken over and is popping up in places I didn’t put it (I suspect from my chickens scratching around it). I’d like to move it under my fruit trees as you recommend. I’m just wondering how to get it out of veggie patch now that it’s pretty established. Any tips?

    Reply
  13. Ray

    I’m curious how to split it without causing it to spread? I have some that’s gotten quite large and I’d like to add some to another area where my small orchard will be, so I thought about splitting it, but I don’t really want the plants I already have planted to multiply when I split them…any ideas on this dilemma?

    Reply
  14. Jay

    From what I understand, the “experiment” that was used on comfrey, was quite skewed. In order for a human to experience any negative effects from Comfrey, they would have to eat 75 pounds of the stuff each day for 2 weeks. You know, if I ate 75 pounds of anything in one day, it would kill me! That is a very skewed experiment, if you ask me. Sounds like the soybean farmers may have lined someone’s pockets to scare the public and other farmers away from such a great protein source? I don’t know for sure, but many people claim to eat comfrey weekly, if not daily.

    Reply
  15. angela oneal steininger

    I am interested to know what comfrey is best for medicinal use . The old text on comfrey predate the hybrid I think. Do you know ?

    Reply

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