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Gardening 101: Comfrey

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Gardening 101: Comfrey

January 6, 2023

Comfrey, Symphtum

My first introduction to comfrey was when my husband sprained his ankle and my mother encouraged me to try a poultice that she made from mashed comfrey leaves harvested from my sister’s garden. My husband wasn’t thrilled about the idea, but my enthusiasm won him over (or rather, wore him done.) I applied the comfrey compress and, lo and behold, the swelling subtly subsided. Could this be a miracle plant? I’m sure there are believers.

On the flip side, there are many people who’ve decided to stop growing comfrey but the persistent perennial has other ideas, continuing to return uninvited year after year. So for me, though I appreciate its possibly healing abilities, I’d rather not grow it in my own garden; for now, I’ll just stick to harvesting some leaves when I need them from my sister’s garden.

Please keep reading to learn more about this herbaceous healer.

Above: Comfrey is a great green matter to add to your compost pile. It provides potassium, which aids flowering, and nitrogen, good for growth. Photograph by Jim Powell, from Composting: Are You Obsessed?

One factor I always consider before adding a plant into my garden is whether the plant can perform many tasks. Turns out, comfrey checks the boxes. Not only does it attract pollinators and aid in soil health by providing nutrients and micronutrients, but it has long been used as an herbal remedy for treating wounds, bruises, and sprains due to the fact that it contains a chemical called allantoin that helps cells quickly grow and repair themselves. Comfrey’s other attribute is that it is easy to grow and requires little care.

And then there’s the downside of comfrey: If not watched carefully, this plant can become rambunctious (it is in the borage family, after all.) And, once established, comfrey will keep coming back from missed bits of roots, so you have to be very thorough and meticulous if you want to permanently remove it from your garden.

Hardy to USDA Zones 4-9 and native to Europe and Asia, comfrey has a long history. Used by the Greeks and Romans to heal wounds and broken bones, then introduced to North America in the 1600s for medicinal properties, it is still popular today among herbalists. This healing plant was also once considered to be edible, but recent research suggests it is very unsafe for consumption.

Above: A patch of comfrey (note the large, velvety leaves) growing next to a mulch pile. Photograph by Erin Boyle, from Gone Wild: How to Grow Vegetables in the Middle of Nowhere.

Comfrey is easy to spot in a garden because it grows in clumps and sports large hairy ovate green leaves with nodding bell-shaped purple, white, or pink flowers. If you choose to harvest the leaves, you will see a repeat of blooms. Pro tip: Harvest the leaves and make a comfrey fertilizer tea which you can then use to add nutrients (such as nitrogen and potassium) to the soil and improve growth in other plants. And because the leaves are so large and abundant, you can even chop them up and use the mass as a nutrient-dense mulch on garden beds. Another garden trick is to cut a few leaves and place them at the bottom of your outdoor containers before planting. The leaves will slowly decompose and add nutrients.

S. x uplandicum, also known as Russian comfrey, is vigorous, more bristly, and the most commonly grown one as it doesn’t self-seed.

Cheat Sheet

Comfrey often stars as an important ingredient in natural salves. Justine Kahn grows it for use in her Botnia skincare line. Photograph by Elina Frumerman, from Herbal Garden Visit: At Home with Slow Beauty Expert Justine Kahn, in Sausalito.
Above: Comfrey often stars as an important ingredient in natural salves. Justine Kahn grows it for use in her Botnia skincare line. Photograph by Elina Frumerman, from Herbal Garden Visit: At Home with Slow Beauty Expert Justine Kahn, in Sausalito.
  • The bell-shaped blossoms attract bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and beneficial parasitic wasps.
  • Add this hard-working perennial to a medicinal, pollinator, or cottage garden.
  • Generally disease- and pest-free, besides the occasional snail or slug that might nibble a few holes.
  • Chop the leaves and turn them into a powerhouse fertilizer tea or use them as a mulch.
  • Always wear gloves when pruning or harvesting as the fuzzy hairs can be irritating.
  • Deer leave this prickly plant alone.

Keep It Alive

S. x uplandicum, also known as Russian comfrey, is vigorous, more bristly, and the most commonly grown one as it doesn&#8\2\17;t self-seed. Sow Exotic sells a medium pot of Russian Comfrey for \$\14.95. (S. officinale has more elongated leaves and is used ornamentally and medicinally, and because it spreads by seed can get a bit wily.)
Above: S. x uplandicum, also known as Russian comfrey, is vigorous, more bristly, and the most commonly grown one as it doesn’t self-seed. Sow Exotic sells a medium pot of Russian Comfrey for $14.95. (S. officinale has more elongated leaves and is used ornamentally and medicinally, and because it spreads by seed can get a bit wily.)
  • Plant in full sun to partial shade.
  • Tolerates poor, clay soil; its long tap root can help break up compacted soil.
  • Grows quickly to approximately 3 by 3 feet; keep a watchful eye as this plant can spread easily. Pro tip: Plant in a large container.
  • Water moderately and watch for signs of droopy leaves, which means it’s thirsty. Drip irrigation is best as overhead watering can lead to powdery mildew infecting the leaves.
  • Add the leaves to your compost pile but never any of the roots or you’ll have new comfrey plants growing in your compost pile.
  • Prune back spent flowers once faded to encourage repeat blooming.
  • Easy to propagate by cuttings or root and crown divisions.

For more medicinal plants, see:

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