By: Gabe Garms
When we moved to the new Raven's Roots campus in November of 2015, I brought one particular plant along with me in large quantities, and it was comfrey. As a permaculturist, I strive for diversity in my gardens and out of the hundred or so species that we are currently growing, comfrey is far and away the most useful plant of them all.
Cultivated comfrey (Symphytum uplandicum) is a perennial plant in the Borage family, and the variety typically grown in gardens. It can propagate itself through it's roots (which spread by clumping) and also by seed. The uplandicum species also has a variety that doesn't spread by seed, called Russian comfrey. We have both growing at our farm and each produces beautiful pink and purple flowers all throughout the spring, summer and fall.
Since comfrey isn't easily attained at a common nursery, we are left to get them from friends, specialty nurseries and in the wild. Because of this, I believe that it's important to note that you should be certain that you are actually getting comfrey, and not one of it's native lookalikes (Including one which is highly toxic). Here in the Pacific Northwest, burdock, dock, foxglove and mullein seem to be it's closest lookalikes.
The toxic lookalike is foxglove and it can make you incredibly sick and can even kill you. So it's important to distinguish the plants from one another before we use them in any way. While all are easily distinguished from one another while in flower, the early stage growth is when it gets tough. Below are pictures of the leaves of comfrey, burdock, mullein, dock and foxglove and how each one differs from comfrey.
So what is it about comfrey that makes it such an amazing plant?
- Accumulator of nutrients - In permaculture it's referred to as a dynamic accumulator, and out of all of the dynamic accumulators that grow in North America, it's considered to be the best. As rainfall leaches down through our soils, it takes nutrients with it. But before they run off into the water table and vanish for good, they are often stored in the subsoil (typically the banking soil horizon) where the shallow rooted crops cannot access them. Dynamic accumulators are often biennial and perennial plants, which live long enough to penetrate their roots deep within the soil to access the leached away nutrients. Then when the plant's vegetative growth dies back in the fall, the biology in the soil converts them into plant soluble nutrients which all of our plants (including our shallow rooted annuals) can now access. Comfrey accumulates multiple nutrients in much higher quantities than all of the other dynamic accumulators.
- Breaks up soil - Comfrey's thick roots break through compacted soil. It's important to allow plants to perform this function rather than pulling out a spade or shovel and tilling the ground ourselves. When we till, we commit a biological genocide with bacteria, fungi, protozoa and micro-arthropods being the victims. Even a slight disturbance in the soil can rip an appendage of a small mite and I have pictures at 400 times magnification to prove this. I will write another separate blog post on the importance of not tilling shortly.
- Edible - Before I get into the ingestion of comfrey, it's important to understand that there is some controversy out there on this subject. Although I personally have had it regularly in my diet now for years, I would be remiss if I didn't encourage you to do your own research. The controversy lies with the plant containing a pyrrolizidine alkaloid that leads to liver toxicity when consumed. Problem with this is that comfrey has been consumed by humans for centuries before it was considered unfit some time in the late 70s/early 80s. There also isn't one single human case of toxicity that has been reported. Funny right? If you want to delve deeper into this issue, Susun Weed wrote a great article that you can read here.
As far as nutrition is concerned, it's incredibly high in protein. It's 7 times the protein of soy and produces 20 times the yield. Any vegetarians or vegans reading this? It's also incredibly high in vitamins A, C, E and B12 as well as calcium, phosphorus and iron. I typically steam it or eat it in my nightly stir fry. I also drink it as a tea/infusion - see Medicinal section below. Just to be safe, the larger leaves contain the least amount of alkaloids and can be used as a precautionary measure.
- Medicinal - Due to it's ability to quickly heal anything broken, torn or cut on the body, comfrey is often referred to as 'Knitbone". While comfrey can easily heal open wounds, it can also seal in infections so using it topically for a cut should be done with caution. I always take it on my backpacking trips with me as a salve to prevent blisters from forming on my feet. As soon as I feel the burning sensation of a new blister forming, I apply the salve and the blister never even gets to forming. I also drink it as an infusion once or twice per week to encourage skin and upper respiratory health. Overall, you should know that it's a cell proliferant (meaning it promotes cell growth) and it's list of medicinal uses could go on for pages.
- Mulch plant - It's significantly more efficient to cover your soil with organic matter than to leave it bare. One of the principles of permaculture gardening is keeping a mulch layer on top of your soil, mimicking how soil is built in nature (which is NEVER bare). When you leave your soil bare, water is easily evaporated, weeds aren't suppressed, nutrients get quickly leached away, erosion takes place faster, your plants succumb to extreme cold/heat easier, and the good insects and arachnids which eat all of our garden pests (so we don't have to use pesticides) won't have any habitat to live in. Once your plants get big enough, they should always be mulched.
The leaves of comfrey can get enormous and can easily be chopped and dropped around either itself or other plants growing nearby, covering a lot of bare soil. The best part about it is that comfrey can be chopped and dropped numerous times throughout the growing season and provide lots of mulch.
- Promotes healthy teeth - Swirling an infusion (tea of the fresh or dried leaves steeped for a few hours or overnight) can strengthen weak teeth. I have an old roommate who couldn't afford a dentist when he had a cavity, so he put chewed up comfrey leaves on the tooth for a few days. The pain went away and he didn't have any further problems after that.
- Livestock forage - It has a long history of livestock forage and I personally feed it to my chickens and rabbits. Neither really eat it fresh due to the stiff hairs on the leaves, so I typically let it dry a little before feeding them so the hairs can wither. We run our chickens and rabbits in tractor systems all around our land and we actually plant the comfrey in the pastures where they run so they can eat it at will. Here is a great blog post about comfrey and rabbits.
- Bee forage - Bees absolutely love comfrey and it can produce quite a lot of flowers very quickly. If you don't give your bees enough food in your own garden, they can travel up to 20 miles to find food and chances are they will feed somewhere where chemicals or GMO crops have been used. So if you're going to have bees, you need a significant amount of forage for them on your own property. Comfrey will provide the bees with plenty of forage.
- Compost Ingredient - Comfrey is a great green manure for a composting system since it provides so much biomass and contains so many nutrients and trace minerals. We use quite a lot of compost on our farm and comfrey helps us keep up with the quantity that we need.
- Will withstand climate changes to come - In a previous blog I wrote on how possible droughts and temperature fluctuations may (You can read it here) make it difficult for shallow rooted crops to survive. Comfrey however, can access not only nutrients from deep in the soil, but water as well. That, along with it's ability to take abuse (I've accidentally poured boiling water on it and it came back in a couple weeks), make It a great all around crop that can feed both wildlife and ourselves in whatever climate changes are in store for us next.
All in all, comfrey is an amazing plant that has so many uses and is incredibly easy to care for. If you're in NW Washington, we have some comfrey for you if you want to come pick it up. You won't regret it.