Comfrey: the vegetable gardener's best kept secret
Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) is a perennial flowering plant of the Borage family. It is native to Europe and thrives in damp, grassy places near farmyards, in ditches and by riverbanks.
Comfrey is a hardy plant and can grow a metre high. It has a black, turnip-like root and broad, hairy leaves that grow from a basal rosette into upright stems. Comfrey produces clusters of narrowly bell-shaped flowers between May and June; they are coiled at first and open out in colours ranging from cream to white, and pink or purple.
The bell-shaped flowers of Comfrey grow in clusters and are coiled at first
The beautiful flowers of Comfrey attract pollinators and its large leaves shade the soil and provide habitat for beneficial insects. Because of the long tubular shape of the flowers, only insects with long tongues can reach the nectar, and bumblebees have been known to bite into the side of the flower to reach the nectar.
Comfrey is the organic gardener's best friend. It is known in Permaculture circles as a dynamic accumulator; its long, thick taproots reach deep into the soil and draw potassium, calcium, and magnesium up into the above-ground parts, where they accumulate in the foliage. Along the way, they break up compacted soil and enrich it as the roots die back and decompose.
The leaves can be harvested easily (just wear garden gloves as the plant is hairy!) and they can be used as a fertilizer or a green manure to improve the nutrient quality of the soil and support the growth of other plants. They can be incorporated into compost piles to accelerate the process: the high level of nitrogen available in the leaves can balance out a high carbon to nitrogen ratio and helps jump-start decomposition; the leaves can also be chopped and dropped several times a year and used as a nutrient-rich green mulch. Made into a tea, Comfrey leaves provide a much-needed source of potassium, an important plant nutrient - i use a mix of Comfrey and Nettle to make a potent fertilizer to boost the growth of my tomato plants and encourage them to flower. Research into the use of Comfrey also reveals that it prevents the spread of powdery mildew.
The name 'Comfrey' comes from the Latin word Confervere which means ‘to join together, to mend or to heal’. Its early common names ‘knitbone’ or ‘boneset’, reflect its historical use by poultices of leaves and roots to treat sprains, bruises or bone fractures.
Comfrey salve is applied on the skin to help with sprains and fractures
Comfrey contains allantoin, a substance that helps new skin cells grow, along with other substances that reduce inflammation and keep the skin healthy. Scientists have recently discovered that this compound can help to keep the skin youthful and less susceptible to the formation of wrinkles, but the plant is to be used in moderation as a long-term use can lead to liver toxicity.
I make a salve with the roots of Comfrey which I chop up and thoroughly dry before infusing them in oils. Once the oils turn a light brown colour, i know all the goodness of the plant has been infused and I melt beeswax into the strained mixture before letting it set in little aluminium tins. The resulting ointment is applied to the skin to help with sprains and fractures. I have a small batch of Comfrey salve available - follow the link to the shop to get some.
Is your Comfrey plant teeming with life these days? How do you use it in your garden? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!
📷 Agnieszka Kwiecień