Comfrey is a medicinal herb whose reputation is to promote healing. Modern chemists have found that it possesses Allantoin which promotes the growth of new cells, validating Comfrey’s historical use on burns and wounds. It was known as “Knit Bone” or “Boneset” by our ancestors. When boiled, Comfrey can produce a sticky white paste that hardens as it cools; so it was placed as a primitive cast upon broken bones in times past. In this year’s Summer of Survival Webinar (2014), Herbalist David Christopher included Comfrey among the five herbs he picked for his Emergency Herbal Medicine presentation.
I first encountered Comfrey in our backyard where my mother cultivated it while I was growing up. From the time my father was diagnosed with Emphysema, she sought whatever knowledge she could of vitamins, minerals, and herbs in order to supplement his doctor’s regimen, and improve his quality of life. The ancient Greek physician Dioscorides prescribed comfrey tea for respiratory problems, though modern studies cannot confirm this claim.
Living then in Southern California where the climate is mild, Comfrey’s 3 to 4 foot stalks and large dark green leaves spread over time to several groupings back along our fence. It’s hanging purple bell-shaped flowers attracted bees to our modest vegetable garden in the summertime.
When we daughters were ill, mother would pull out her juicer for us as well, throwing fresh Comfrey leaves in with the spinach, carrots, apple, garlic, and other nutritious herbs she might have at hand.
I should mention that one should be cautious about ingesting Comfrey internally; one should not partake of it daily nor in excessive amounts. In one experiment, mice fed only Comfrey for two years developed cancer. Individuals who ingested Comfrey daily caused damage to their livers.* My mother and I agreed with many herbalists, however, who countered that partaking of Comfrey only occasionally caused no harm. Each should use his or her good judgment and common sense in the matter. If you have a concern, one can focus on using Comfrey externally.
My Sister’s Lungs
What really converted me to a True Believer was when my sister started having trouble breathing.
Towards the end of a hot and humid July in 1992, my sister April had a lingering cold and cough that led to a shortness of breath and severe lack of energy. She went to a doctor who believed her diaphragm had been inflamed from the coughing. He prescribed a medication which seemed to help, but it also gave her headaches, diarrhea, and dizziness as well.
By this time, April would have to rest after just sitting up in bed, before even trying to stand. She didn’t have the energy to dress herself, but had to rest in bed or in a chair.
In mid-September, she went for a second opinion, and this doctor gave her a number of tests. The test for TB was negative, her blood was normal, her heart was good, but was being affected by a reduction of oxygen. He gave her a different pill to open her bronchial tubes and sent her to a Lung Specialist.
In Mid-October, the Specialist took more tests and X-Rays. He thought it might be Pulmonary Fibrosis, but he wasn’t sure. He showed her X-Rays to other doctors in consultation. Some agreed with the diagnosis, others said definitely not. The Specialist did not give her any medication, being uncertain of the cause. He sent her home “to see if she got worse”, and if so, then they would… take more tests.
“So much for the expertise of the medical field,” April commented. At that point she called our mother to ask what she might know of in vitamins and herbs that might help her.
My mother went over to see her and was frightened by how bad she already was. Her lips were blue and her skin a purplish hue. She could not cross the room without stopping to rest along the way. April’s husband was planning to go deer hunting that week, so April came back with mother to stay.
Her “treatment” consisted of a green veggie juice diet and large Comfrey poultices applied to her chest and to her back twice a day. In addition, we applied a family home remedy mother called “Old Man Salve”. I was still living at home then, and assisted mother in my sister’s care. She also scheduled weekly appointments with a Chiropractor who gave Shiatzu message therapy. Within four or five days, April could get up, dress, and make breakfast. Her skin and mental attitude were both looking brighter. Her breathing was still shallow, but for the first time, she felt she was getting better.
She continued Comfrey poultices once a day for many months after she went home. In November, she had an appointment with the Lung Specialist and he took another X-Ray. He could see her lungs were improving, though he still could not say what caused the problem. Improvement was slow, but continual, with only a couple small relapses, when she would double up again on the Comfrey poultices. By the following June, April was able to travel to New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah without any difficulty breathing or any lack of energy, even in the higher altitudes. It was in Utah she discovered she was pregnant, a benchmark to her that her illness was over. She has not had any more symptoms of shortness of breath since that year. While April combined various remedies, with an increase of nutrition, to get well, the Comfrey poultices were uniquely targeting the problem with her pulmonary system.
The Cat’s Meow
I have been fortunate not to have any serious illnesses or injuries, but will occasionally apply a Comfrey poultice on a cut or minor injury on myself, as well as on my cats. One must always clean a wound thoroughly first, before applying Comfrey. Some years ago, I had a calico that got a cut or scratch on her upper lip. She kept licking it obsessively and her rough tongue was keeping the sore raw. I took her to the Vet and he gave her anti-biotics and steroids, and told me to try to keep her from licking the wound. A cat can literally lick away the flesh!
The wound was taking a long time to heal. Though it would scab over, my cat’s rough tongue would take it back to square one. Then it occurred to me to start her on Comfrey.
I used very simple poultices. I would boil about a cup of water, tear up a fresh Comfrey leaf and let it steep, as though making tea. As soon as it had cooled enough to the touch, about 10 minutes, I would dip a folded paper towel into the liquid, as well as place a piece of the Comfrey leaf across the towel. For a poultice, you can use a clean piece of cotton or muslin cloth, or gauze, or a wash cloth. Since this poultice had to be small, a paper towel would do in this case. I tried to apply the poultice while Isis, my cat, was at rest, holding it against the sore on her mouth for as long as she would let me. As the poultice cooled, I re-wet the towel, three or four times. I applied the poultice a couple times a day for several days, and the wound scabbed over and healed up with a minimal scar.
I always want to have Comfrey in my garden. The Comfrey plant is almost indestructible, so you must decide carefully where you plant it. After moving to New England, I spied the familiar leaves in the garden of my husband’s friend, and asked if I could take some to plant in our backyard. He replied positively and added, “I’ve been trying to get rid of the stuff for years! I dig it up and it grows back.” He was the first to inform me that Comfrey can send down a 30 foot taproot! Its deep root system makes it drought resistant, plus brings nutrients from far below up to the surface. You can take a cutting of a few inches from a root, and a new plant will grow from it. I was not aware of this fact as I transplanted the roots and leaves our friend gave to us. I was quite disappointed as I watched the stalk and leaves wither and die within a few days of the transplant. Before I had a chance to go back and make another try, brand new stalks and leaves emerged from the now established roots!
Comfrey is easy to care for as the taproot seeks out nutrients deep in the soil; nevertheless, I still feed it with manure and compost during the growing season and in the Fall. I have seen it grow both in sunny Southern California and in the partial shade of my New England yard.
Leaves are best cut before the flowers come on. I usually wear gardening gloves to harvest because Comfrey leaves and stems have fine white hairs that can sometimes irritate the skin. I have only used the leaves myself, but there are high concentrations of Allantoin in the roots, as well. I dry a supply of leaves for over the winter. Their long, thick stems make it easy to hang them up the old fashioned way on a line in the basement…near our de-humidifier. Not totally old-fashion, I suppose. Once the leaves are crackly-dry, I cut them up and store them in a clean glass bottle until they are needed.
I do believe in the healing power of Comfrey and in a Heavenly Father who cares about and guides us. I am grateful for this opportunity to share these experiences that we may have more knowledge of options for helping us to get well and care for our families, and also our animals.
*My source for historical background and information outside of my personal knowledge is The Healing Herbs by Michael Castleman, Rodale Press PN, 1991, p. 133-137
Note: This article was an entry in our August – September 2014 writing contest. Click here to find out about our current writing contest.
Great article! On his podcast, Jack Spirko pointed out that the mouse study was done by feeding the mice huge amounts of the herb, something that might be the equivalent of a bushel of comfrey a day to a human. So it’s highly unlikely even a daily cup of tea or comfrey in capsules would cause any problems. The plant is also a favorite among permaculturalists for its excellent nutrient accumulation property.
This article does need a photo to make it Pinnable. Got to spread the word!
Yes, I too thought the mice study was quite unrealistic.
I have sent my photos, and am hoping they got them OK and can post them with the article.
Thanks so much for the comment!
I think this article is great and gets my vote.
Twelve years ago, my son-in-law was bitten with a brown recluse spider on his left ring finger. The doctor drew a circle around the outer parts and told him if it went to the line, he would lose his finger and most likely the little finger, also. He asked me to help on day five. It took two weeks of changing the dressing, but he didn’t lose any of his fingers.
That episode was the first of three bites. A few weeks later he was bitten on the shin and six months later on his knee. Each reaction was worst than the previous one. The ulcer on the knee went all the way to the patella and covered an area over ten inches in diameter. It was so bad his boss insisted he see a doctor. Doctor’s conclusion was to let it run it’s course and do skin graphs to cover the area. He may lose the use of his knee. The worse the doctor had ever heard of was a person that lost his leg when it became gangrenous.
My daughter brought him to me. He was running a fever, his leg smelled rotten, and he was scared. Between my daughter and me (she was eight months pregnant) we changed the dressing every three hours around the clock. I only had a quart of comfrey root. After that was gone, we got another pound of root.
End of story: He was able to be with my daughter two weeks later when she gave birth to a daughter and he returned to work 43 days after the bite. The scar on his knee is a bit over an inch with only a small indentation. He has full use of his finger, leg, and knee and he found a new job that didn’t have brown recluses everywhere.
That is awesome. A great testament to the power and effectiveness of Comfrey! One thing I might add in cases like this, if time is of the essence, and if it is available add poulticed and preferably fresh Lily-of-the-Valley leaves. My experience with these leaves is that they act incredibly fast with Brown Recluse bites. While I’m not sure if there is any scientific proof via clinical studies, my observations over many years is that Lily=of-the-Valley leaves are very fast acting in such cases and I can only assume there must be some agent within them that act alexpharmic/antidotally against Brown Recluse venom. Anyway, in these cases, Lily-of-the-Valley combined with Comfrey is a literal life savor and an unbelievably Capital remedy.
I am a Master Herbalist and I love your article. Five STARS. Secondly, the scare regarding the Pyrrolizidine Alkaloids in comfrey which harm the liver are actually less carcinogenic to the liver than many compounds found in an average beer. The FDA knows this, but continues to demonize the herb’s internal uses simply because they know it is one of those herbs that really get the job done and works. If people wish to use comfrey internally but have a fear of the liver toxic alkaloids (and they are only so, IF used over long periods and in large amounts); they can always add Milk Thistle Seeds and/or Astragalus root in equal amounts. These two herbs shield the liver and act to protect that organ. Also, regarding lung disease, it should be noted that while Pyrrolizidine alkaloids can in large concentrations harm the liver, there are unrelated studies out there, though few in number that suggest these alkaloids can be restorative to lung tissue. All in all, a fantastic article my friend.