If you’ve done any reading on the subject of permaculture, then you have for sure heard of comfrey. This plant has become the permaculturists darling for good reason, as it has a multitude of benefits including, but not limited to, natural fertilizer, dynamic accumulator, living mulch, companion plant, compost activator, and numerous medicinal uses. Unfortunately it has also been maligned in recent years, namely by the FDA, and wrongfully so in my opinion.
Joel and I “foraged” for comfrey and its roots when we were at the UC Santa Cruz Alan Chadwick Garden. We asked one of the employees in the garden if we could take some and she told us to take it all! Of course we didn’t take all of it, but the reason she said that is because it tends to spread very quickly and easily. It is not native to the United States and thus is not really a traditional plant for foragers here, but because it spreads so rapidly after it’s planted, chances are you can probably find it out in the wild somewhere.
Here it is growing around fruit trees. It is often used as a component of a guild, which is a group of plants arranged to mutually benefit each other. Comfrey has a deep taproot and is a dynamic accumulator, which means that it brings up important nutrients from the soil that other plants benefit from, thus making it a great companion plant.
Here is that same patch of comfrey, one year later. Look at how much it has spread!
Comfrey is also great for mulching, especially in the chop and drop form, and for compost. It is especially good when grown with fava beans or other cover crop nitrogen fixers. Once these plants get to a certain size they can be chopped and left in place as mulch and compost. You can also make a wonderful compost tea out of comfrey leaves to use on your garden plants.
Comfrey has a nice flower that attracts bees and other beneficial insects. The flowers are generally white, pink, or purple, and they hang down from a central stem.
Joel dug up a bunch of comfrey roots for propagation as they grow very easily from root cuttings. He cut off all of the green leafy matter and planted the bare roots in pots. We are not 100% certain of the variety as there are two types that are commonly grown, Russian or Common. The Russian variety, however, is sterile and cannot reseed itself, so can only be propagated by root division or cuttings. Our guess is that this is Common Comfrey (Symphytum officinale).
Comfrey also has a multitude of medicinal benefits. This is where the FDA claims have been a little bit overblown. It has been used for ages as a wonderful medicine and Common Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) is quite harmless. It is a powerful wound healer and is often used in herbal salves and creams, usually alongside other herbs such as plantain, yarrow, calendula, and St. John’s Wort. It is also well known to help heal broken bones, hence the nickname “knitbone” that it has acquired. As with any herbs, use with caution especially when taken internally, but as long as you’re just using it for short periods of time you really should be just fine.
Here are some great posts about Comfrey and its use:
- What is Comfrey and How to Grow it and Does Comfrey Really Improve the Soil? from Tenth Acre Farm
- Comfrey, Symphytum officinale from Common Sense Homesteading
- Growing Comfrey: A Natural Mulch Plant from Untrained Housewife
- In the Garden ~ Growing Comfrey from Schneiderpeeps
- Comfrey, It’s Culture and Uses by North Country Farmer
And here are some more specifically about Comfrey’s medicinal value:
- Comfrey Uses and Remedies from The Herbal Academy
- DIY Herbal Healing Balm from Learning and Yearning
- Herbal “Heal All” Salve from One Ash Farm and Dairy
- Natural Dandruff Remedy from Simple Life Mom
- 3 Natural Ways to Help a Lamb with a Broken Leg from Joybilee Farm
I have plans in the near future to make a salve with comfrey and other healing herbs, so keep a watch out for that. In the meantime, the more you read about it the more you will want to be growing and foraging for comfrey! It has so many uses, it really is a wonder plant.