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What you need to know about comfrey

by Timber Press on August 23, 2017

in Natural History

Bristly hairs on comfrey leaves can cause skin irritations, so wear gloves while harvesting. A comfrey soak, compress, or wash can be beneficial in wound healing, or in the event of a break or soft tissue damage.

As a reputable tissue- and wound-healer, comfrey is an important plant for the apothecary and first aid kit. Learn more about identifying and using the powerful properties of comfrey from Lisa M. Rose, author of Midwest Medicinal Plants: Identify, Harvest, and Use 109 Wild Herbs for Health and Wellness.

Symphytum officinale
boneset, knitbone
Parts Used: flowers, leaves, stalks

How to Identify
Comfrey is a rapidly growing perennial that thrives in well-drained and nutrient-rich soil. First leaves emerge in early spring, and the plant sends up a stalk of 2–3 feet in midspring. Leaves are ovate, simple, and covered in hairs; they can be up to 10 inches long, growing alternately along the hairy stem. Comfrey flowers in late spring with racemes of symmetrical and tubular blooms that range in color from white to purple.

Comfrey is one of the primary herbs for tissue healing in the repair of a wound, soft tissue damage, or bone break.

Cautions, Concerns, and Considerations
There is a great deal of discussion in the herbal community regarding the safety of comfrey, based on the presence of alkaloids which research has found to cause liver damage when consumed in high concentrations. It is always prudent, if in doubt, to choose to work with another herb.

Another concern is the issue of overhealing tissues or wounds with superficial use of comfrey. Th is has been substantiated, and comfrey is known to cause significant problems if it is used in large quantities, resulting in a wound that will not heal fully or that seals in infection.

Comfrey can also encourage production of scar tissue, which can inhibit circulation and healthy movements in the long term. When using comfrey, closely monitor the healing process, and if there are signs of overhealing or infection, discontinue its use immediately.

Where, When, and How to Wildcraft
Comfrey is often grown in herbalists’ gardens, but the plant also grows wild in open fields and around old homesteads. Wildcraft fresh leaves in early spring before the plant goes to flower, or harvest the entire stalk, including flowers and leaves, in mid- to late spring. Hang bundles of plants to dry and store the herbs for later use. When harvesting, wear gloves, because the bristly hairs on the leaves can irritate your skin.

Medicinal Uses
Comfrey is one of the primary herbs used for healing wounded tissues or broken bones. It is particularly helpful as a wound begins to heal. The timing in which this herb is used and the dosage are very important: using it too soon and too much could result in the wound or break healing too rapidly, causing superficial healing and raising the risk for infection, specifically with a puncture wound or abrasion.

Comfrey can also be taken internally as a tea as part of a wound-healing protocol, in combination with other nourishing herbs such as horsetail, nettle, oatstraw, and red clover.

A comfrey soak, compress, or wash can help heal wounds, breaks, or soft tissue damage (such as sprains or torn ligaments or tendons). Comfrey infused in castor oil works wonderfully as massage oil. It’s also an excellent ingredient in a basic gardener’s skin-healing salve, along with chickweed, goldenrod, plantain, St. John’s wort, and yarrow.

Future Harvests
Comfrey grows with wild abandon and will take over large portions of garden or wild space. Harvesting it will help control its growth. It is easily transplanted by root cuttings to grow in containers.

Herbal Preparations
Comfrey tea: Drink 1/4 cup as needed, or use externally as a compress, wash, or soak.
Comfrey-infused oil: 1 part fresh leaves (chopped) to 2 parts oil or 1 part dry leaves (chopped) to 4 parts oil. Use for massage.

Botanicals for Chapped Cheeks
Many products line the pharmacy shelves, claiming to heal dry skin and protect it from chafing and chapping. Conventional products often contain synthetic chemicals derived from petroleum, and although they may act like sealants on the epidermis, or outer portion of the skin, they do little to heal the dermis, the layer below the epidermis that contains blood vessels, lymph vessels, hair follicles, and sweat glands.

Create a batch of chapped-cheek balm in your kitchen using just three ingredients: beeswax, herbs, and olive oil. Beeswax helps solidify the balm and works as a protective layer on the skin without leaving a greasy feeling. Apply the balm before heading outside to protect your skin from harsh elements. If your skin feels sensitive in the shower, apply the balm before you rinse off. This will protect your skin from overdrying, and the hot water will help the botanicals soak deep into the dermis for healing.

It is easy to make your own healing salve using wild plants such as calendula, chickweed, comfrey, and plantain. These deep tissue–healers can repair cracks and splits in the skin.

Lisa M. Rose is an herbalist and forager with a background in anthropology and a professional focus on community health. Her interest in ethnobotany and herbal medicine has taken her to study plants, people, health, and their connection to place internationally. 

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