Comfrey plant - a great healer of wounds | Comfrey plant,
COMFREY Symphytum officinale
A great healer of wounds, ulcers, and a knitter of flesh, sinew, and bone.
The Comfrey plant has an ancient and colourful history.
Its recorded history begins in Europe, in the known world of that time, where Dioscorides, an ancient Greek botanic physician, documented the use of comfrey in treating the armies of Alexander the Great.
Comfrey has been known to herbalists for over 2,000 years.
Its complete Latin name is Symphytum Officinale; the term “officinale” referring to the Latin “officina”, which was the monastery storeroom for botanical drugs – the equivalent of our modern day pharmacy.
During the Middle Ages in Europe, herbal medicine was the accepted medical treatment, and was the only known way to treat illness, injury and disease.
Catholic monks became the primary physicians, or healers, of their day.
What these dedicated fathers could not gather through wild crafting, they grew in their monastery gardens.
Comfrey was one of the herbs they cultivated. It was used for various injuries and bronchial disorders.
Many materia medica (accounts of medicinal substances) of the day mention the specific uses of Comfrey.
The wild comfrey of that earlier era was pricklier than the comfrey we know of today.
It was replaced by Russian comfrey introduced to England as a garden ornamental by Joseph Busch, a head gardener at the palace of Catherine the Great at St. Petersburg, Russia, between 1790 and 1801. As late as 1952 the ‘Royal Horticultural Dictionary of Gardening’ recommended comfrey as a fine plant for the wild garden, meaning a garden for bees, birds and butterflies, rather than for man.
From the ornamental stage, comfrey graduated to a more useful function, that of animal fodder.
This came about through the efforts of an Englishman, James Grant. He artificially increased the yield by constant cuttings and root stimulation by water.
His yields were very large and by the mid 1800’s, comfrey production in England, Scotland, and Ireland was reported to be as much as 31 tons to the acre.
One of the medicinal properties of the comfrey plant is that it is mucilaginous, especially the root, meaning that it secretes a mucilage which can be sticky.
After reading an article on comfrey in the Royal Agricultural Society’s Journal of 1871 Henry Doubleday, the inventor of postage stamp glue, had run out of Arabic gum for his formula.
He learned that comfrey possessed this mucilaginous property, and he believed that he could extract this substance to use as glue.
When he sent to St. Petersburg for some comfrey plants, the gardener sent him seedlings that had grown between the rows of the established perennials instead of larger, more established plants.
These seedlings were the result of cross pollination of two pure strains: comfrey from the Caucasus, and the native European comfrey.
It is not known if Mr. Doubleday was able to extract his glue-like substance from these comfrey plants, but it is known that he fed the comfrey to his livestock.
It was a very hardy and prolific strain, yielding from 100 to 120 tons per acre; much more than the former yield of 31 tons per acre from the plants in the British Isles.
Because of the high yield and the nutritional profile, Mr. Doubleday grew comfrey to fulfil his dream of feeding the hungry of the world.
In the new world, comfrey was amongst those medicinal plants the early settlers relied upon to treat their many and varied illnesses.
Although the Colonials had brought some of their most familiar herbs from their native Europe, they were pleased to learn that comfrey (and other herbs) grew locally.
Some of the earliest recorded uses of comfrey in America come from the writings of a nineteenth century botanic physician by the name of Samuel Thomson.
He tells a personal story of his foot injury from a piece of farm machinery.
Using the traditional healing methods of the time produced no relief, and it soon became apparent that the foot would have to be amputated.
The nine-year old Samuel asked his father to get some comfrey that was known to be growing in the area.
Comfrey poultices were subsequently placed on the foot, and complete healing followed.
The Industrial Revolution in America brought many changes to herbalism.
Living conditions in cities changed so that the former plagues were brought under control.
The working classes had more money, and were enticed by ‘glamorously packaged and enticingly advertised new patent medicines.’
Many of the herbal medicines formerly held in high regard, such as comfrey, began to be abandoned, being considered as ‘obsolete among physicians’.
However, in 1896 Dr. Charles MacAllister M.D. noticed an article written by a Professor William Thompson about comfrey, in an issue of the British Surgical Journal, ‘Lancet’. Professor Thompson was President of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.
This article recorded the case of a man with a malignant tumour on his face.
After surgery had failed, the patient had been sent home to die.
Three months later the patient returned to Dr. Thompson’s office completely cured. Upon questioning, the patient told the doctor that he had been applying comfrey poultices to the affected area.
Dr. Thompson stated in his article that although he knew nothing about the uses of comfrey, he did not believe that it would remove a tumour.
Since Dr. MacAllister was interested in irregular cell growth, he became excited by Dr. Thompson’s account.
He began to consult old ‘materia medica’ for references on the reported uses of comfrey.
He found many references before the mid-nineteenth century, but also found that its use as a healing agent was discontinued after that time.
Prior to the nineteenth century, the Turks and Saracens used Comfrey to heal wounds received in battle.
In fact, many of the ancient records Dr. MacAllister investigated mentioned comfrey as ‘a great healer of wounds, ulcers, and a knitter of flesh, sinew, and bone’.
Comfrey held a place of high esteem in the herbal practices of the local people.
Dr. MacAllister wanted to find out what it was about comfrey that gave it such a good reputation, so he sent plants to the head of the Organic Chemistry Department at Liverpool University.
The chemical analysis of comfrey disclosed a white, crystalline substance called allantoin, which appears to play a role in the metabolism of growth and development.
Dr. MacAllister began experimenting with a solution of allantoin on his patient’s wounds.
He discovered remarkable improvements, and even rapid healing of old wounds.
He continued to experiment with comfrey, and the results of his experiments were published in the “British Medical Journal” (January 6 and September 21, 1912.)
HEALING USES FOR COMFREY
Comfrey’s alternative name of ‘knitbone’ gives some clue as to the major use of the herb.
It contains allantoin, which encourages cell division to occur more rapidly thus promoting healing.
Comfrey root has a stimulant effect on fibroblasts- fibrous tissue, condroblasts- connective tissue and osteoblasts bone tissue, activity.
1 cup oil (any oil), 1 cup chopped comfrey leaves or ½ cup fresh root chopped.
Place all ingredients in a saucepan and simmer on low heat for 30 minutes. Remove all plant material and add ¼ cup chopped or grated beeswax and the oil of one vitamin E capsule. While still warm pour into container and cool.
FRESH COMFREY POULTICE
Finely chop or crush comfrey leaves and place over affected area.
Wrap with a bandage and leave overnight; moisten the area to stimulate medicinal properties.
Placing a hot water bottle over affected area will also stimulate repair especially where swelling or pain are concerned.
However for scalds, a cool ice pack would be of more help.
Avoid using comfrey over broken skin. Modern research cautions taking comfrey internally.
Combine equal parts of honey (organic cold pressed manuka honey is best) and olive oil in a blender.
Add in washed and chopped comfrey leaves until mixtures thickens, then add ¼ cup of melted beeswax to harden and preserve, along with a few drops of your favourite essential oil.
While still warm pour into sterilised jars. Tiny lip balm pots are perfect to carry around with you.
To cure corns, place a large comfrey leaf crushed into a ball over the corn, hold it in place with a band-aid and cover the foot with a sock. Do this just before bed and by the morning the corn should be gone.
A portion of comfrey leaf held in place with a band-aid is also said to cure warts when applied each night for two weeks.
Comfrey has traditionally been used as a tea to ease and heal stomach ulcers and to soothe coughs.
However, recent research has shown that it can cause liver damage and that it prevents iron absorption.
It is therefore not recommended to take comfrey internally unless prescribed by a suitably qualified health care professional, and then only for very short periods of time.
OTHER USES FOR COMFREY PLANT
An infusion of comfrey and witch hazel can help to smooth wrinkles.
Blend equal parts of freshly washed witch hazel leaves and comfrey leaves.
Place in a jug and pour over boiling water to cover and infuse for 30 minutes.
Remove plant material and reserve the liquid. Blend 2 parts liquid to 1 part aqueous cream, until a thick, creamy consistency is achieved. Place in a sterilised pump bottle and apply daily to wrinkles.
The next three herbs I wish to cover are well known to us all.
We consume them, in most cases, daily but we know little of the health benefits they give or the medicinal uses we can apply to them.
They have been staples in our diet for thousands of years.
I guess you could call them super fuel; they have also been prominent in our medical history.
They are our unsung heroes – the royalty of our food allies.
- 1 cup oil (any oil), 1 cup chopped comfrey leaves or ½ cup fresh root chopped.
- Place all ingredients in a saucepan and simmer on low heat for 30 minutes. Remove all plant material and add ¼ cup chopped or grated beeswax and the oil of one vitamin E capsule. While still warm pour into container and cool.