What is Comfrey?
Comfrey, a member of the genus Symphytum, is a perennial flowering evergreen shrub native to Europe, North America and Asia. Symphytum species belong to the family Borraginaceae which consist of forget-me-nots and other wildflowers. Comfrey flowers are bell-shaped and flourish in a variety of colors including white, blue, pink and purple. Their leaves are long, broad and often described as “hairy”; while roots are thick and dark in appearance.
Symphytum officinale, or common comfrey, has been traditionally cultivated for use as a herbal remedy. However, currently, other varietals are commonly grown such as Symphytym x uplandicum – Russian comfrey, and Symphytum asperum – rough comfrey. Due to high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in comfrey leaves, varietals of this plant can be used as fertilizer and to initiate the composting process. Some varietals, especially Russian comfrey, are used as feed for livestock. Russian comfrey can also be referred to as Quaker comfrey or by the name of a popular cultivar of this variety, Bocking 14.
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Comfrey Uses & Benefits
Recorded use of comfrey as a therapeutic dates back to at least as early as the Middle Ages. Some reports claim its use began in ancient Greece and Rome. Historically, comfrey has been used to treat a number of ailments including joint inflammation, bruises, wounds, gastritis, ulcers and cough. Nicholas Culpeper, a well-known 17th century botanist and physician, describes comfrey in his 1656 book, The English Physician, as …”very effectual for all those inward griefs and hurts, and the distilled water for the same purpose also, and for outward wounds and sores in the fleshy or sinewy part of the body whatsoever, as also to take away the fits of agues, and to allay the sharpness of humours.”
Traditionally, the leaves (Symphyti folium) and the roots (Symphyti radix) of the plant were prepared as teas, gargles, powders, salves, oils, ointments or poultices. However, in 2001, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) in the United States, banned the sale of oral preparations of comfrey due to toxicity concerns. Additionally, Germany, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom have also banned oral delivery methods for comfrey. Topical treatments are still available for purchase, but applications on broken or large areas of skin should be avoided as toxic components can be absorbed through the skin.
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The benefits of topical treatment include pain relief for sprains, fractures and arthritis as well as expedited healing of bruises and skin cell growth. Allantoin and rosmarinic acid are purported to be the major compounds responsible for comfrey’s anti-inflammatory properties, wound healing and beneficial dermatological effects; while pyrrolizidine alkaloids are reported to be the main contributors to toxicity. Higher levels of these alkaloids are found in new leaves and in the roots and can cause liver damage when sufficient levels build up in the body. Therefore, when using topical treatments, it is important to follow all dosing instructions and not exceed recommended use. When looking for creams, ointments or oils, there are a number of licensed medicinal products available with reduced pyrrolizidine alkaloids. This is achieved through purification. Straight plant extracts will likely still contain a significant amount of alkaloids. Therefore, topical treatments are not recommend for use in children and those with impaired liver function.
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Cynoglossum virginianum, known colloquially as wild comfrey, giant forget-me-not or blue houndstongue, is another member of the Borraginaceae family and is native to North America. Wild comfrey has reported uses in Native American medicine. However, like common comfrey, wild comfrey contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids which cause toxicity in the liver and can cause skin irritation. Although wild comfrey has previously been suggested to be a substitute for common comfrey, there are no recent clinical trials supporting any therapeutic benefits.
How to Grow Comfrey?
Comfrey is a relatively hardy plant that can be harvested up to five times a year. Plants are often started from root or crown cuttings, instead of seeds, as this method produces more robust plants in a faster period of time. Additionally, mature plants can be divided, and this is particularly important for species such as Russian comfrey, which will continue to increase in size if left unhindered. Plants prefer a wet, temperate to sub-tropical environment and can tolerate partial shade. Because of their rapid leaf growth, the plants have a high nitrogen demand, and fertilization may be necessary. Leaf growth can be enhanced by not allowing the plants to flower. Plants should be grown two to three feet apart and can reach a height of 2 to 6 feet depending on variety. Plants should be harvested from late spring to early summer by cutting the leaves using shears or a sickle. It is best to wear gloves while harvesting, as the hairy leaves may cause skin irritation. Leaves will regrow fairly rapidly. Harvested leaves can be used fresh or be dried and stored.
Comfrey Poultice, a Topical Treatment
One form of topical application of comfrey is the poultice method. This type of application is best for swelling or sore joints. To make a poultice, leaves should be boiled to break down the plant fiber to a soft and flexible mash. Excess liquid should be removed and the plant fiber should be wrapped in a fresh cloth and applied to the affected area. A towel may be used to maintain the heat which will also enhance the effect of the poultice.
The Bottom Line of Comfrey Use
Comfrey has been used as a herbal remedy for hundreds and possibly thousands of years. Recent clinical studies have validated the traditionally-described therapeutic properties of comfrey (pain relief, inflammation reduction, wound healing etc.) However, a molecular mechanism of action for its effects remains unknown. Moreover, recent analysis has also confirmed the presence of toxins in plant extracts. Based on this information, comfrey should only be used topically for limited amounts of time. Purified plant extracts can reduce toxic exposure, but it is important to follow all dosing guidelines. If you choose to grow your own comfrey, topical treatments with limited risk of absorption, such as poultices, are recommended. However; it is perfectly fine to buy comfrey from a reputable website like amazon.