Symphytum officinale is a herbaceous perennial native to Europe and Asia and naturalised in North America. This species is the original plant as referred to in the ancient literature about medicinal herbs. It looks extremely similar to Russian Comfrey but the leaves are slightly more elongated and pointed at the tips, and the flowers open a little earlier than Russian Comfrey, and are a deeper maroon pink – very attractive.
The therapeutic properties of comfrey are based on its antiinflammatory and analgesic effects. The roots and leaves have been used medicinally for centuries, either internally, or externally as a poultice. Comfrey is particularly known for its healing properties for skin complaints such as eczema and for cuts, bruises and sprains. It is a common component of healing creams. It is also well known for the treatment of painful muscles, joint complaints and osteoarthritis. It was once known as ‘knitbone’ for its role in healing broken bones, indeed the genus name comes from the Greek words symphyo meaning to grow together and phyton for plant as the plant was believed to help heal wounds.
Comfrey contains mixed phytochemicals in varying amounts, including allantoin, mucilage, saponins, tannins, pyrrolizidine alkaloids, and inulin. Pyrrolizidine alkaloids are responsible for comfrey’s hepatotoxicity, however the pyrrolizidine alkaloids echimidine and symlandine are not found in S. officinale (and indeed may be used as indicators of possible adulteration with other Symphytum species such as Russian comfrey S. × uplandicum in medicinal products). Nowadays, only pyrrolizidine-depleted or pyrrolizidine-free extracts are used in proprietary medicinal products. For more information see Comfrey – A Clinical Overview by Christiane Staiger.
The young leaves of comfrey were said to be edible for humans – used raw or cooked. They are slightly hairy so need to be chopped up finely. Older leaves can be dried and used as tea, roots can be cut up and added to soups or roasted (and added to roasted dandelion and/or chicory roots if desired) and used as a coffee substitute. Recent scientific research however has shown comfrey appeared to cause liver damage and cancerous tumors in rats. In light of this, the regular consumption of comfrey is not advisable.
True Comfrey can also be used in the garden like Russian Comfrey. It has a great balance of the major plant nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, but is known in particular for its accumulation of potassium. It also contains silica, magnesium, calcium and iron. These nutrients will be naturally cycled through the soil as it dies down each winter but a well watered and fertilised patch can be harvested 3-5 times a season. The leaves can be used to make a liquid fertiliser, added to the compost heap or wilted and used to line potato trenches. Comfrey can also be grown around fruit trees as a ground cover and slashed several times a season to mulch the tree. The flowers are excellent bee attractors. Note – this is a true wild form of comfrey which is NOT sterile and MAY spread by seed. Russian Comfrey on the other hand is a naturally occuring hybrid which is sterile and does not spread by seed – we also sell this variety, along with dwarf evergreen comfrey which does not spread by seed. However with all types of comfrey make sure you plant it where you want it – it’s impossible to remove the deep chunky taproot!
The fresh leaves make great chook fodder, are relished by geese (for relished read destroyed – and I mean totally!), and have been used as stock fodder for many years, but are preferably fed wilted.
Plant in full sun or part shade. Height to 75cm when in flower.
9cm pot. Certified organic plant.
Photos: Kahikatea Farm