No one told comfrey (Symphytum officinale) it is a restricted herb in Canada. It marches across gardens like a green Napoleon conquering more civilized plants that prefer to stay in one place.
If comfrey grows in the garden, no matter how strong the desire to move it is, don’t. A spade biting into the earth surrounding comfrey is like issuing marching orders.
Quickly comfrey begins sprawling across the garden like Calgary through farm land.
When my friend moved into her 60-year-old house in Didsbury, comfrey grew in the garden.
From that plant, my mighty comfrey plant has grown. It is not surprising to find comfrey in the Didsbury garden as other household medicinal plants grow there as well, valerian (Valariana officinalis), yarrow (Achillea millifolium), lady’s mantel (Alchemilla vulgaris), just to name a few.
Comfrey, 30 years ago, was a darling of the home herbalist.
Once called knitbone, bruisewort and boneset, it speeds the healing of cuts, bruises, strains and even broken bones.
At one time, it was a staple in homemade cough syrups and comfrey tea was brewed to relieve bleeding ulcers. Some have even called comfrey, The Healing Herb.
But no more! It is now banned from all medicine, internal medicine that is.
Sometime during the ’80s, while fed a diet of only comfrey leaves and roots over an extended period of time, lab rats developed severe liver damage and died.
A class of chemicals called pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) found in comfrey were discovered to be the culprits of the poor rats’ demise. PAs are found in many plants, as a matter of fact, honey when made with pollen gathered from PA containing plants, contains PAs.
Most PAs have no toxic effect.
In comfrey unfortunately, it is two particular uncommon PAs that damage the liver. Fortunately, if one stops using comfrey as soon as signs of liver damage appear, nausea, vomiting and pain over the liver, the liver quickly repairs itself.
Too bad those feeding the rats heaps of comfrey didn’t know that. It would have saved a few lab rat lives.
In countries where herbal medicine is preferred due to its cost effectiveness, comfrey is still a herbal darling.
Midwives in Mexico use it to heal tears after childbirth. In the Philippines, it is use to treat arthritis, diabetes, anaemia and lung infections. Traditional Chinese doctors use comfrey to increase yang in the body.
Increasing yang can be translated as building strength in a body weakened by illness. This is similar to the traditional European use of the herb. European herbal monastics named comfrey Symphytum. Symphytum means strengthen in Latin, suggesting it was used to strengthen where there was weakness.
In Europe not only celibate monks found comfrey useful but brides-to- be bathed in comfrey in hope of repairing their hymen and restoring virginity. This use of comfrey reflects is remarkable ability to heal wounds.
Comfrey’s remarkable wound healing ability is attributed to other notorious chemical, allantion, found in the plant’s leaves.
Allantion is principal ingredient in many commercial dry skin products used to heal cracked heals and red raw hands. Allantion enhances new cell growth.
This shortens the healing time for most wounds. Allantion is so effective, one must be sure that the wound or area receiving its attention is thoroughly cleaned. Otherwise, it can trap infectious bacteria in the rapidly closing wound. This can result in an abscess.
Generally, I mix a little tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia) or lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) in with powdered comfrey to disinfect the wound as it heals. Allantion is highest in comfrey’s juicy new leaves.
As the leaves grow larger and larger, develop a fuzzy five o’clock shadow texture and dry out, the level of allantion decreases.
Comfrey is also excellent garden medicine. Its leaves are high in nitrogen. Vigorously chop the plant back as it begins to tower over the yard and throw the cuttings in the rain barrel.
Don’t worry about cutting it right down; comfrey will bounce back like a kid on a trampoline. Over a couple of days, steep the comfrey and rain water in the barrel with the heat of the sun. Freely offer the flowers and vegetable the slimy brew and watch them flourish. This is the greenest way to fertilizer the garden.
Herbs for Life is written by Abrah Arneson, a local clinical herbalist. It is intended for information purposes only. Readers with a specific medical problem should consult a doctor. For more information, visit www.abraherbalist.ca. Arneson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.