Comfrey is a celebrity plant among homesteaders for its healing properties, its composting acceleration, its soil-building abilities, and its use as livestock fodder. We were lucky enough to find two Russian Comfrey (Symphytum.x uplandicum) plants growing next to an old compost heap on our property. We’ve since dug up those plants and transplanted a root segment at the base of each fruit tree in our orchard. This will result in a more resilient orchard, thanks to the multitude of beneficial services comfrey supplies to the soil and any neighboring plants.
As we are discovering the many uses of comfrey, we’re appreciating this plant more and more. While not an exhaustive list, what follows are some of the ways we are using comfrey at our country home.
Comfrey is a potent herb for healing. While it should not be used internally, it can be applied topically to speed the healing of bones, cartilage, and wounds. The healing properties lie in the plants three active ingredients: allantoin (stimulates cell re-growth), rosmarinic acid (anti-inflammatory), and mucilage (soothe inflammation). In fact, comfrey can speed healing so rapidly that it should not be used on open, dirty wounds, as it can trap dirt beneath the new skin.
At our home, we dry comfrey leaves and use them to make a salve that we spread on bruises, scrapes, sprains and strains. Comfrey is also an ingredient we use in the Basic Balm recipe that we found in the Winter 2014 issue of Mother Earth News Wiser Living Series: Guide to Self-reliance and Country Skills.
Comfrey has deep roots that penetrate far into the soil and provide channels for water to percolate, air to circulate, and soil organisms to travel. Because of these roots, comfrey is a dynamic accumulator; its roots mine the soil and pull nutrients up into the plant’s stems and leaves. When the aerial portion of the plant is cut and spread as a mulch, those nutrients are released back into the upper soil layer and are available once again to shallow-rooted vegetation. The three key elements for plant growth (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) are readily available in comfrey. The leaves, especially, are high in nitrogen and the plant’s high potassium content is beneficial to vegetables, berries and fruit trees.
We chop our comfrey with a scythe and spread it on our gardens. In our raised beds we simply lay it on the soil and leave it to break down. In the ground level garden, we spread out the comfrey and drive over it with a lawn tractor to chop it into a finer mulch and speed its decomposition (this is after we’ve harvested our crops from our garden).
If you need to give your compost pile a boost, mix in some comfrey leaves. That high amount of nitrogen breaks down quickly and activates the compost pile so it transforms into ‘black gold’ sooner rather than later. As the comfrey decomposes, its nutrients are released and the compost becomes richer because those valuable nutrients are now bioavailable.
We’ve chopped comfrey and tossed it into our compost pile. To rev-up the decomposition, we turn it over to mix the comfrey with the carbon-rich brown matter in the pile. I know of people who grow comfrey next to their compost heaps for the purpose of periodically cutting the leaves and adding them to the compost.
Attract Beneficial Insects
Each April, perennial comfrey re-emerges above ground and by late May it offers purple, bell-shaped flowers full of pollen and nectar. Pollinating insects are quick to respond. We’ve seen bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds visit the comfrey in our orchard; these are precisely the insects we want, after all, without them, we would not have any fruit, berries, or vegetables to enjoy.
But it’s not just the pollinators that come to the comfrey. Predatory insects also come. The plants’ leafy canopies provide many places for predators to hide or lay their eggs. Spiders, lacewings, and parasitoid wasps associate with comfrey. These predators in turn prey upon the insects that damage our crops and fruit trees. A win-win!
Yet another use of comfrey is livestock fodder. Chickens, pigs, and sheep like their comfrey fresh, whereas cows, pigs, and horses like their comfrey wilted prior to consumption. When we chop our comfrey we also toss some to our chickens. Any comfrey not consumed by them is churned into the leaves, grass clippings, kitchen scraps, and chicken droppings in their run. Later we collect this mix and spread it over our gardens as a fertilizer.
The uses for comfrey go beyond what I’ve shared here. Others are using their comfrey to prevent powdery mildew, to produce a liquid fertilizer, or to prevent weeds.
Don’t use comfrey internally as herbal medicine; the plants contain toxic alkaloids. See here for additional information.
Some people consider comfrey to be invasive since it is difficult to remove. The different varieties of comfrey range in invasiveness, with Common Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) being the most invasive and Russian Comfrey (Symphytum.x uplandicum) being the least. Cutting comfrey and not letting it go to seed does a great deal to stop it from invading.
If you want to remove comfrey, don’t try to dig it out. Any bit of root chopped off by the spade and left buried in the soil will sprout. The best method to naturally remove comfrey (i.e., not the glyphosate quick-fix) is to cut the aerial part of the plant and then smother the roots under a sheet mulch (cardboard or plastic mulch). The roots will not attempt to spread out and grow around the mulch. Be sure to place something heavy on the sheet mulch so the comfrey attempting to grow beneath it cannot lift the mulch and escape its confinement. I have not attempted this removal method, but I understand it can take two or more growing seasons.
Rebecca Harrold homesteads and homeschools on a 23-acre property in rural Ontario, where she is engaged with all types of wiser living skills. She believes that restoring the land to its healthy, sustainable state will increase its resilience, and in turn, the resilience of the people who depend upon it. Connect with Rebecca at Harrold Country Home and on Instagram. Read all of Rebecca’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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