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Comfrey

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MAY 2011: COMFREY (Symphytum officinale)

Comfrey Description and Habitat: A native of Europe and temperate Asia, Comfrey is common throughout England on the banks of rivers and ditches, and in watery places generally. A member of the Borage and Forget-Me-Not family, the plant is erect in habit and rough and hairy all over. There is a branched rootstock, the roots are fibrous and fleshy spindle-shaped, an inch or less in diameter and up to a foot long, smooth, blackish externally, and internally white, fleshy and juicy. The leafy stem, 2 to 3 feet high, is stout, angular and hollow, broadly winged at the top and covered with bristly hairs. The lower leaves are very large, up to 10 inches long, ovate in shape and covered with rough hairs which promote itching when touched. The upper leaves decrease in size the higher they grow up the stem, The stem is terminated by one-sided clusters of drooping flowers, either creamy yellow, or purple, growing on short stalks. Comfrey is in bloom throughout the greater part of the summer, the first flowers opening at the end of April or early May.

Common Names: Common Comfrey, Knitbone. Knitback. Nipback, Consound. Blackwort. Bruisewort. Slippery Root. Boneset. Yalluc (Saxon). Gum Plant. Consolida. Ass Ear, All Heal, Healing Plant, Wall Wort.

Formerly country people cultivated Comfrey in their gardens for its virtue in wound healing and the many local names of the plant testify to this. In the Middle Ages it was a famous remedy for broken bones and widely used for that purpose during the Crusades. This property has been known at least since Roman times, when it was named ‘conferva’, meaning to join together. The name Comfrey, is a corruption of this Latin name and the botanical name, ‘Symphytum’, is derived from the Greek ‘symphyo’ (to unite).

Comfrey

There are 25 different varieties of Comfrey. The creamy yellow-flowered form is stated by Hooker to be ‘Symphytum officinale’ proper, and the purple flowered he considered a variety and named it ‘S. officinale, var patens’. A variety with flowers of a rich blue colour ‘S. Asperimum’, Prickly Comfrey, was introduced into this country from the Caucasus in 1811 as a fodder plant. This species is the largest of the genus, rising to 5 feet and more, with prickly stems and bold foliage, the leaves very large and oval, the hairs on them having bulbous bases. It was extensively recommended as a green food for most animals, it being claimed for it that it contained a considerable amount of flesh-forming substances, and was, moreover, both preventative and curative of foot and mouth disease in cattle. It has the advantage of producing large crops, two at least in a season, if cut before the flowers quite expand, and in favourable circumstances even more, so that 40 to 50 tons of green food per acre might be reckoned on. At the time of its introduction, a number of farmers and smallholders planted it. It was found, however that though horses, cattle and pigs would eat it, they never took kindly to it as a forage. Horses in time of scarcity will eat it in small quantities in the green state, though do not care for it dried. It is a useful food in the green state for pigs of all ages, but it takes a little time for them to get used to it. Its feeding value, however, has been proved to be not so very much more than that of grass and though it grows luxuriantly in all moist situations, where the soil is good, it is not adapted for either dry or poor land.

Parts Used Medicinally: The root and leaves, generally collected from wild plants. Comfrey leaves are sometimes found as an adulteration to Foxglove leaves, which they somewhat resemble, but may be distinguished by the smaller veins not extending into the wings of the leaf-stalk, and by having on their surface isolated stiff hairs. They are also more lanceolate than Foxglove leaves.

Medicinal Action and Uses: The impressive wound-healing properties of Comfrey are partially due to the presence of allantoin which stimulates cell proliferation, thereby accelerating wound-healing both internally and externally. In superficial wounds this acceleration of the healing process can prevent scar formation, but one must take care when dealing with infected wounds to ensure that the infection is addressed first. Allantoin is able to diffuse through the skin and tissues, hence its traditional use as an external application for the treatment of bone fractures. Comfrey is an excellent remedy in the treatment of chronic and varicose ulcers, and it has been used with some success in the treatment of psoriasis (allantoin promotes keratin dispersal).

Allantoin is also effective when taken internally as it absorbed directly from the gut, so is of use in gastrointestinal disorders including diarrhoea and dysentery. In addition, Comfrey is rich in demulcent mucilage which augments allantoin’s powerful healing action in gastric and duodenal ulcers, hiatus hernia and ulcerative colitis. The aqueous extract of the plant increases the release of prostaglandins of the F series from the stomach wall, pointing to a direct action in protecting the gastric mucosa from damage. An Italian study has demonstrated significant anti-inflammatory activity and Comfrey’s astringency, due to its tannin content, will help arrest bleeding wherever it occurs. The mucilage also ensures Symphytum's usefulness as a bulk laxative and as a soothing remedy for the lower gut, and this may in turn operate by reflex to account for its usefulness in excessive menstrual bleeding, haematuria, and urinary spasm.

Comfrey has been used with success in cases of asthma, bronchitis and irritable cough, where it soothes and reduces irritation. It also has a reputed anti-cancer action and has long been employed domestically in lung troubles and also for quinsy and whooping-cough and flu. The root is more effectual than the leaves and is the part usually used in cases of coughs. It is highly esteemed for all pulmonary complaints, consumption and bleeding of the lungs.

Comfrey leaves are of much value as an external remedy, both in the form of fomentations, for sprains, arthritis, swellings and bruises, and as a poultice, to severe cuts, to promote suppuration of boils and abscesses, and gangrenous and ill-conditioned ulcers . The whole plant, beaten to a cataplasm and applied hot as a poultice, has always been deemed excellent for soothing pain in any tender, inflamed or suppurating part. It was formerly applied to raw, indolent ulcers as a glutinous astringent. It is useful in any kind of inflammatory swelling.

The following is from the ‘Chemist and Druggist’ of August 13, 1921: 'Allantoin is a fresh instance of the good judgment of our rustics, especially of old times, with regard to the virtues of plants. The great Comfrey or consound, though it was official with us down to the middle of the eighteenth century, never had a very prominent place in professional practice; but our herbalists were loud in its praise and the country culler of simples held it almost infallible as a remedy for both external and internal wounds bruises, and ulcers, for phlegm, for spitting of blood, ruptures, haemorrhoids, etc.

Culpepper says: 'The great Comfrey ("great" to distinguish it from the "Middle Comfrey" - another name for the Bugle) restrains spitting of blood. The root boiled in water or wine and the decoction drank, heals inward hurts, bruises, wounds and ulcers of the lungs, and causes the phlegm that oppresses him to be casily spit forth.... A syrup made there of is very effectual in inward hurts, and the distilled water for the same purpose also, and for outward wounds or sores in the fleshy or sinewy parts of the body, and to abate the fits of agues and to allay the sharpness of humours. A decoction of the leaves is good for those purposes, but not so effectual as the roots. The roots being outwardly applied cure fresh wounds or cuts immediately, being bruised and laid thereto; and is specially good for ruptures and broken bones”

Contraindications: Avoid use on dirty wounds, because rapid healing can trap dirt or pus.Root use is discouraged due to the high levels of liver-toxic (or cancer-causing) alkaloids. Leaf tea (at least some types), although less carcinogenic than beer, has been banned in Canada. There is also a danger that the leaves of Comfrey may be confused with the first-year rosettes of Foxglove (Digitalis), with fatal results. Consult an expert on identification first. Its use is restricted in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Germany. Do not use for longer than 3 months at a time as it may cause liver damage. Comfrey should not be given to small children, infants, or pregnant women.

Additional Comments: In the past, comfrey baths were popular before marriage to repair the hymen and thus 'restore virginity'. Gerard wrote in 1597 that Comfrey should be "...given to drinke against the paine of the backe, gotten by violent motion as wrestling or overmuch use of women". A plant high in protein (up to 35%), comfrey is used as an animal feed and organic manure as well as a medicine. The fresh leaves and shoots may be cooked as a vegetable or eaten raw in a salad and used to flavour cakes and other food. One of the minerals which has been extracted from comfrey is cobalt, which it uses to produce possibly the only plant source of vitamin B12, making it a valuable dietary supplement. For the gardener, Comfrey makes an excellent green compost.

In some parts of Ireland Comfrey is eaten as a cure for defective circulation and poverty of blood, being regarded as a perfectly safe and harmless remedy. The rootstock can be added to bath water for a more youthful skin. Comfrey roots, together with Chichory and Dandelion roots, are used to make a well-known vegetation 'Coffee,' that tastes practically the same as ordinary coffee.

A strong decoction has been used on the Continent for tanning leather, and in Angora a form of glue is made from the common Comfrey which is used for spinning the famous fleeces of that country. The book Old Ways Discovered states, “The mucilaginous root is employed by colormakers; it is also employed to correct the brittleness of flax and the roughness of wool in spinning.”

 

 

Last Updated on Sunday, 05 June 2011 12:28  

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