Comfrey Uses

The Heritage Herb Garden at the Ozark Folk Center graces the park with visual colors and textures, sweet and pungent aromas; and helps us to interpret the history of the human use of plants.

Comfrey is a leafy, herbaceous perennial with a long history of medicinal use. Its Latin name, Symphytum officinale, from the Greek word, symphis, means growing together of bones; phytom is the Latin word for plant; and officinale means that the plant has uses in medicine or herbalism.

Comfrey has helped me heal broken bones, sprains and toothache. (The bones were ribs and a toe that could not be put in a splint.) I used a poultice of steamed, fresh leaves on each occasion. A layer of thin cloth was applied to the skin, before the poultice was applied, to prevent irriation from the fine hairs on the leaves. A small ball of the steamed leaves, placed in the mouth against the infected tooth gave temporary pain relief.

The chemical constituents of comfrey are at once useful and a cause for caution. The compounds thought to help heal tissue and relieve pain include allantoin, mucilage and rosmarinic acid. The allantoin stimulates tissue regeneration; mucilage is soothing and rosmarinic acid is anti-inflammatory. Studies on rats and a multitude of human success stories confirm that comfrey is good for speeding the healing of bruises, sprains, strains and broken bones. It is commonly used to treat osteoarthritis and lower back pain.

The comfrey commonly grown in gardens and that sometimes escapes into the wild is Symphytum officinale. The leaves of this plant do produce pryrrolizidine alkaloids as a defense against leaf-eating insects. Pyrrolizidine alkaloids are toxic to the liver and sometimes, the lungs and can cause cancer. Having this information, I choose not to drink the tea, eat the greens or take comfrey tincture internally.

One more caution, there is a report of a woman who died of cardiac glycocide poisoning after mistakingly drinking a cup of foxglove, Digitalis spp. She thought she was drinking comfrey. The leaves of these two plants are quite simular, especially in the early spring.

I will discuss growing comfrey and preparing remedies from the leaves and roots in future Yarb Tales. If I don't see you in the future—I'll see you in the pasture.