Saturday, 12 May 2007

Comfrey: A Short History

Comfrey, Symphytum officinale, was a common plant of ditches and other damp places in England. It also existed in Europe. It found a role in folk medicine very early and was reputed as the medieval herbalist's favourite bone-setter. The plant is a bushy, hairy perennial growing up to three feet high (900 mm) with wide, deep green, spear-shaped leaves. It has thick mucilaginous roots which in times gone by were dug in Spring, grated up and mixed with water to form a kind of plaster, which was applied to broken bones and fractures, much as a plaster is today. It set well, but a lot of its worth was due to the presence of allantoin, which aided the healing process. The whole plant has been used as a wonder herb from drawing splinters to healing ruptures.
In addition to the medical uses, Comfrey has always found popularity as a fodder crop for all kinds of grazing animals. A nurseryman, near Lewisham, England, was the first to discover the agricultural possibilities of Comfrey. James Grant, in 1810, claimed yields of from forty to sixty tonnes an acre from five to six cuts per year. Constant cutting was the key to such enormous yields. The variety most grown for agricultural use at that time was Symphytum asperum or Prickly Comfrey, with prickly leaves and vivid blue flowers. This was one of the symphytums raised by another London nurseryman, Conrad Loddige, from plants sent from St. Petersberg, Russia, by a Joseph Busch, who was the previous owner of Loddige's nursery and who then, in 1790, was head gardener at the Palace of St. Petersberg, from where he sent the plants.
The plant used by herbalists remained the English native Symphytum officinale. This had cream, white or yellow flowers and a variety "phylum officinale var. patens had purple flowers. Today in England and Europe, there are many Comfrey hybrids resulting from chance crosses between Symphytum officinale and Symphytum asperum.
The 1870's to early 1900's saw Comfrey peak as an agricultural crop in England. The press was full of discussion on yields and varieties and numerous monographs were produced. The agricultural journals of the time were filled with discussion on the uses of Comfrey, its propagation, yields, etc. Due to the enormous interest, Comfrey was analysed for the first time by a Dr. Auguste Voelcker, consulting agricultural chemist to the Royal Agricultural Society of England. His conclusions were that "Comfrey has the same feeding value as green mustard, turnip tops or Italian ryegrass grown on irrigated land." This kind of report only added to the existing boom in the plant.
Medicinal uses of Comfrey
The root and leaves, generally collected from wild plants, have been used medicinally for centuries. The main constituent of the root is mucilage, of which it has even more than marshmallow. It can also contain up to nearly ten percent allantoin, a useful amount of calcium and vitamin Bl2 Comfrey is mainly used as a demulcent, astringent and expectorant. As the plant abounds in mucilage, it is frequently given for intestinal disorders. It forms a gentle remedy in cases of diarrhoea and dysentery. Its use has been extended to lung troubles as well as whooping cough. Pulmonary troubles were often cured with Comfrey, as was internal haemorrhage. Generally for the above conditions, a decoction of the roots is used.
The leaves are of much value as an external remedy for sprains, swellings, bruises and for the manufacture of poultices for inflammatory swellings. Comfrey ointment is excellent for wounds, inflammations and especially external ulcers.
The action of Comfrey in aiding the knitting of bones which have been fractured or broken has been variously ascribed. An important reason is that by reducing inflammation in the immediate neighbourhood of the fracture it allows union to take place more quickly.
Today, these effects are attributed to the allantoin contained in Comfrey. Allantoin has a powerful action in strengthening epithelial formations, and is a valuable remedy, not only in external ulceration, but also in ulceration of the stomach and duodenum. Many preparations for chronic wounds, bums, ulcers, etc., use allantoin extracted from the Comfrey root, although, like many a green medicine, allantoin is now manufactured artificially.


Anonymous said...

Comfrey is the second most important plant after perennial nettlesin any productive garden system.
Comfrey is the compost plant.
As a perennial it offers an ideal subsitute for animal manures in the compost heap.
comfrey is very rich in nitrogen-holding protein, which greatly assists the breaking down of otherkinds of vegetation in the compost. Contains more potash than manure & is rich source of vegetable protein & vit B12. Comfrey's root system penetrates to great depth, obtaining potash & other elements which are out of reach to other crops. Being leafy it breaks down quickly realeasing nutrients for other plants to use.
After 2years establishment it can be cut every 4 weeks during the growing season.each plant will produce up to 5 Kg of leaves & stalks each month.Production will last around 12 years.
All gardeners should have a large patch to harvest as an important ingredient in both compost & liquid teas.the time has come to think more about what can come from within a system rather than continually importing ingredients into your garden. If you don't have any plants already then contact me & you can pick up some as now is the ideal time to plant. The cost is a simple donation to the 'nirvana fund for Biodiversity. cheers Deb

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