When I first met her, we were on no uncertain terms — comfrey was not my friend.
I was a first-year student at The Evergreen State College in Washington state, and I was determined to have a garden. I biked down to the community garden and found my plot. It was buried in a sea of comfrey.
I didn’t know what comfrey was then. All I knew was that it wasn’t corn or tomatoes. And it was in the way. This weed was all over the garden! It turned out that someone had tilled through the comfrey patch and then tilled the rest of the garden. Within three seasons, comfrey had sprung up across the entire acre. Like a mythical monster, the smallest bit of comfrey root can sprout a whole new plant. You can chop comfrey to the ground, and it will come back in enough quantity to be harvested several times a year.
It was in trying to get rid of comfrey that I learned to appreciate this plant that helps promote healing. Whether it’s cuts, burns, scars, wrinkles or even broken bones, the same properties that enable comfrey to regrow a whole new plant from a bit of root can also help the body heal from injuries. Used internally, comfrey supports the respiratory, digestive and urinary systems, too, herbalists agree.
In Europe, comfrey was for generations a plant most people kept outside to reach for quickly, and this revered medicinal plant followed us to the New World. More a domesticated plant than a weed, comfrey has long been an essential part of the traditional herbal medicine chest, used to treat an array of ailments.
But today, most doctors don’t just discount comfrey, they warn against using it. Comfrey has been declared unsafe for internal use by the Food and Drug Administration. Many herbalists, however, dispute that contention.
In any case, safety issues apply only to using comfrey internally. And for many ailments, comfrey can be used externally. In addition, the leaves, which have lower concentrations of alkaloids, can be used instead of the roots. Alkaloids (which include caffeine and nicotine) have properties ranging from toxic to medicinal.
One way to get the benefits of comfrey is with comfrey oil. Both the oil and salve made from it (by melting in beeswax to achieve a firmer consistency) are soothing and moisturizing. Comfrey oil and salve are used for dry skin, chapped lips, eczema, cuts, scrapes and burns (in the later stages, after the initial hot sensation has subsided). I use comfrey salve after I bathe; it nourishes the skin and may help prevent wrinkles.
I got a call a few weeks ago from an elderly woman whose eczema was so severe the skin on her hands was cracking. She had used a variety of creams and lotions that doctors had prescribed over the years, all to no avail. After using comfrey salve for just two days, not only was the pain gone, the skin had closed over her knuckles.
Comfrey is so effective in healing wounds that people must be careful using it. If only the tissues close to the skin’s surface are in contact with comfrey, the skin can close and trap infection inside. For deep wounds, a plant such as plantain (Plantago lanceolata or P. major) is more appropriate (see “Plantain,” May 5, 2004 Xpress).
Comfrey also has specific uses for women, and many of my friends swear by it. During pregnancy, comfrey oil is a favorite for belly massage, promoting elasticity and preventing stretch marks. Many new moms rely on comfrey salve for diaper rash and quick relief and healing from sore and cracked nipples (apply after breast-feeding, and wipe the area gently before the next feeding). As a vaginal lubricant, comfrey oil helps moisturize and strengthen tissues without added fragrances or preservatives. Oil degrades condoms, however, so only water-based lubricants should be used with them.
Over the years, as I came to appreciate comfrey’s many virtues, I asked her to be my friend after all. Now comfrey is one of my favorites that I keep in the kitchen garden right outside the door. Comfrey doesn’t ask for much special attention. This plant will grow almost anywhere, but it’s happiest in rich, moist soil in full sun to partial shade. And it will behave itself if left alone. As long as the roots are undisturbed, comfrey will stay in its place.
How to make comfrey oil
1. Harvest comfrey leaves after the sun has dried off morning dew. Wet plant materials make moldy oils, so wait at least 36 hours after the last rain before harvesting.
2. In a warm, dry place (such as an attic, an oven with a pilot light or even a car) partially dry the whole, fresh leaves for 12 hours or until the edges are crisp.
3. Stuff a jar full of the whole, wilted leaves, but leave a little headroom. Add olive oil until the jar is brimming.
4. Tightly seal the jar, and label it with the plant name and date harvested. Put the jar in a dish on the counter, because herbal oils always leak.
5. Tend the mixture a few times a week by poking the plant material down to release air bubbles and topping it off so the level of the oil is above the level of the leaves.
6. After six weeks, strain out the plant material, and the infused oil is ready to use.
— Susun Weed, Be Your Own Herbal Expert
[Corinna Wood owns Red Moon Herbs at Earthaven Ecovillage and is the driving force behind the Southeast Women’s Herbal Conference in Black Mountain, scheduled for Sept.16-18. She can be reached at 669-1310 or through her Web site (redmoonherbs.com).]