Comfrey is the queen of permaculture plants, and is a powerhouse in the permaculture garden – attracting pollinators and beneficial insects, providing medicinal value, and enriching soil with nutrients.
Varieties and Cultivars
There are several different varieties including Symphytim officinale (medicinal comfrey), S. ibericum (dwarf comfrey) and S. uplandicum (Russian comfrey). Sizes of these vary.
‘Bocking 14’ is a sterile variety of Russian Comfrey and so is worth considering if you want to plant comfrey in discrete areas in a small garden and not have it self-seed in other places.
Due to the deep tap roots, once establish, comfrey is very difficult to remove, so it’s important to give consideration to where you plant it in a small urban garden. However, it is such a valuable permaculture plant, that once you start using it, you’ll be grateful for its virtues.
I have to admit, knowing this initially made me very nervous about first planting comfrey in my garden, but the sterile varieties are slow to spread and can easily be kept in check with regular harvesting of the leaves. It has so many uses, I’m seldom over run.
All varieties can be propagated from root or seed,with the exception of ‘Bocking 14’and Russian comfrey varieties, which can only be propagated from root.
Soil & Fertility
Mineral accumulator – Deep tap roots of up to 2 meters (!) penetrate well below the humus layer to mine nutrients deep in the sub soil. Roots are fantastic for breaking up compacted soil.
As a clump-forming herbaceous perennial, comfrey can be used as a permanent ground cover crop. The potassium-rich foliage that can be cut several times a year and used as mulch. Minerals mined from deep in the subsoil are then made available for shallow rooted crops. Leaves can be harvested 2-5 times a year.
Easy Plant Feed
- Throw a few decent handfuls of the leaves into the bottom of a bucket and cover with water.
- Leave for at least a week, then dilute 1:10 with water.
- This makes a fantastic plant food, especially for plants that like a feed of potash, like tomatoes.
Animals & Biodiverstity
Chickens favour the leaves over many greens for food, so can be a useful fodder crop. The scorpioid flowers are also attractive to bees.
Comfrey is very good planted beneath fruiting trees and shrubs and makes easy chop and drop mulch. The roots go straight down so they tend not to compete with most fruit trees.
Due to the pyrolizidine alkaloid content, comfrey has the potential to cause liver damage and so is not recommended as a regular food source.
S. officiale is the medicinal comfrey, although I suspect most varieties have similar properties
The roots and leaves have long been known for their ability to speed the healing of bone, testament to its common folk name, knitbone. This is due to in part to its allantoin content, which stimulates cell proliferation.
The mucilage content of the plant makes it valuable in the treatment of gastric and duodenal ulcers. The mucilage is tempered with astringency making it useful for hemorrhages of all kinds. Due to the pyrolizidine alkaloid content, it is recommended that comfrey is only taken internall under the advice of by a qualified Medical Herbalist.
Externally, comfrey can be used for healing open wounds and to stop bleeding. In the case of deep wounds, it is advisable to allow the deep tissues to start to heal first, before applying comfrey, as it can be so effective that it may heal the dermal layer over the top of the open wound, leaving potential for infection.
How to make Comfrey Cream
Creams are a mixture of water and oil based ingredients. As oil and water don’t naturally combine, creams use an emulsifying agent to help bind them together. This recipe uses beeswax as an emulsifier.
- 50 ml organic olive oil
- 15 g beeswax
- 50 ml comfrey juice OR 50 ml strong infusion of comfrey leaves, made by pouring boiling water over a cup of comfrey leaves and leaving to steep for 10 minutes
The beeswax first needs to be melted into the oil- this is done in a water bath. To do this, place the infused oil and beeswax in a small bowl. Then place the bowl into a larger pot or roasting pan, fill the pot with water to just below the level of the liquid. If using comfrey juice, this will need to be warmed to the same temperature as the oil so put it in a separate bowl and place this bowl into the water bath also. Fill the larger pot/ roasting dish with water to just below the level of the liquids and heat on a stove until the beeswax has melted.
Remove the roasting pan from the heat and allow it to cool slightly. Using an oven glove, pour the juice/ infusion very slowly into the oil, beating the mixture constantly (easiest to do with a food mixer). It is important to pour slowly, just a few drops at a time and to set the food mixer at its slowest speed. The mixture will thicken to a cream consistency as the oil and water are emulsified.
Pour the cream into sterilised jars. To prolong the shelf life of creams, they are best kept in the fridge. A few drops of lavender essential oil addedcan also help them last longer.
Use the cream to aid the healing of wounds, or for hot skin inflammations. Great addition to the herbal first aid kit.