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Comfrey, the Jewel of Permaculture

Any seasoned gardener knows that comfrey is a controversial herbaceous plant. Ok hold up there. Don’t run screaming because it can be invasive and potentially a nightmare to eradicate. More about that later.

Comfrey is a perennial herb, pretty much every permaculture gardener’s friend. Everywhere you go, you read or hear about permaculture and organic gardening folks using it. I typically avoid mainstream anything, and this is a mainstream recommendation in the permaculture world. But the more I discover, the more it doesn’t matter if it’s mainstream or not. It’s simply a great plant.

Here is a great video on the subject.

At our garden club, another community gardener had an abundance of comfrey growing. So Jim (a fellow gardener) and I chopped it all down, with permission. We piled the leaves under every tree, in the community orchard, for mulch. Wow, it smelled great when chopping it too.

Bits of comfrey leaves spread within the tree rings at our community orchard

Controlling the spread of comfrey

Comfrey is invasive if you don’t know what you’re doing. It will pretty much stay put if you don’t allow it to go to seed, but mostly, do not rototill or dig it up. You will be effectively creating a zillion broken off roots, where each one will develop its own plant. You cannot uproot the whole thing.

If you want to get rid of the stuff, you pretty much have to smother it with cardboard and mulch. Or build a hot compost heap on top.

Russian comfrey

Which strain is best for gardening?

There are two main types of comfrey usually used in organic gardening. They are Bocking No. 4 and No. 14, though there are 21 altogether. Each has different characteristics, beneficial in different ways. No. 14, (Stephenson strain, called Russian comfrey), is most often used in compost, for compost tea, and enhancing the soil. No. 4 is principally used for livestock fodder. Here is an excellent article on the two types of comfrey most widely used, Russian Comfrey: Bocking 14.

I gleaned this comment from Permies forum:

  • For a strictly medicinal use, the true comfrey S. officinal seems to be more in favor
  • For fodder, the B-4 seems most popular
  • For compost/tea production, the B-14 seems the most productive

So in the Spring, we’ll be planting some comfrey between the two rows of daffodil (and/or elsewhere nearby) within the tree rings at the orchard. I also plan to have it in our garden plot.

The Fermilab Garden Club orchard – roughly 30 or so trees

Comfrey leaves can be chopped (or mowed) and dropped right in place, several times each season. You can also allow it to grow fully. It will literally flop over onto the ground by itself, not requiring chopping. It breaks down rapidly and regrows.

Benefits of using comfrey

Comfrey is a dynamic accumulator, adding calcium and other minerals to soil. All varieties of flowering comfrey are beneficial insect attractors. The roots, due to their extensive system, aerate the soil and break up hard clay.

Comfrey is resistant to disease and pests. It usually requires no care whatsoever. Comfrey will also stop flowering about the time fruit blooms appear, not competing for beneficial insect pollination.

Comfrey can also out-compete grass and weed growth within the tree ring, or in other areas.

Comfrey tea can be brewed to water plants. You simply chop the leaves, put them in a watering can, bucket or larger container and cover with (preferably non-chlorinated) water. Let it steep for at least 24 hours, up to five days. Strain and spray or water plants with it. It’s a great nutrient boost.

Medicinal Use

The whole plant (true plant mentioned above) can be used medicinally. It’s called “bone knit” because of the rapid healing of bones and tissue from a poultice over injured parts. Many people tell not to ingest comfrey due to liver toxicity, but I would research those claims thoroughly to make your own informed decision (the two links later in this paragraph). This is a great resource to learn more about this aspect, from A Modern Herbal on Comfrey. And here is a more detailed discussion on the safety of comfrey.

When we harvested that large amount of comfrey to mulch the orchard, I was carried away by the fragrance of the leaves. Even the garden variety would likely be a good tea or herb to use.

Russian_comfrey

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12 comments

  1. I have heard a lot about this plant, but never had anyone take the time to research it and share-thank you:-)
    Is that Fermilab Orchard connected to Fermilab? My son just started his graduate studies in physics up at Northern Illinois this fall, and I know that name from NIU physics-lol-an Illinois thing…beautiful orchard:-)
    p.s. it really is a pretty plant:-)

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    • The Fermilab orchard is part of the Fermilab Garden Club (you must be a member of the club). Yes, it’s on Fermilab’s 6800 acres of land. My husband is a physicist, he works there, so we are members of the club. We have 2 garden plots (1600 square feet) and because of my research and way I’m gardening, some of the folks at the orchard asked me to begin researching how to better care for the orchard. I’m writing several supporting articles before I come out with my big orcharding article. It’s a HUGE amount of effort and research. To be entrusted with this, after never having grown fruit trees, and by many professionally educated people, is a tad overwhelming. But I do love researching all this because gardening has kind of taken over my interests.

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      • oh gosh no we are not members, we are south of you + we have never been up to Fermilab.My son graduated in May with a physics degree and decided to go on to graduate school. He got a TA from NIU for physics, so I just know of the name. Also Argonne is one NIU works with too.Now I understand why you have traveled a lot. Oh, I have no doubt you will do a wonderful job. Your blog and all your posts are very educational + well done! You can tell how hard you work with all the detail you put into your posts. I look forward to hearing all about your 1600 feet of research next spring/summer + fall!

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    • lol I didn’t mean you must be a member, I meant a person must be a member of the garden club to access the gardens hehe Not just anyone can go get food there or garden there in other words. Yes, My husband is the reason I’ve lived in 2 other countries (3 including the US). We’ll only be gardening at the lab property for 2 more years. Don’t yet know where we’ll be moving after that. It’s nice to be able to experiment to my heart’s content. I mean, I could do that anywhere, but we rent a house so can’t grow a garden here. When we found out we could get plots for $15/year, we jumped at the chance. Now we have 2.

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  2. Oh, I have one more question. It seems Borage(Borago officinalis) and Comfrey(Borago officinalis) are from the same family- Boraginaceae but different genus. I have used Borage for years (celery like flavor), and it is part of my companion planting. I use it everywhere for pollinators, and it keeps tomato hornworm from our garden.

    They both seem to have medicinal properties, too, and you have to be careful how much you ingest. Just wondering with your research what do they feel is beneficial from one over the other? I love my Borage, and have heard of this plant (Comfrey)often,but since I read your article I was curious about using it in my potager, but are they similar? I did notice Comfrey has a deep taproot(from your video) for drawing up nutrients from the soil, and I have noticed my reseeding Borage does not have such a deep tap root.

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    • Good questions! I have not begun research on borage, but know it’s an excellent companion plant and used in permaculture. Now I have incentive to research that too. In fact,I had planned to put it in my garden as well, and possibly the orchard. One more article in the pike. haha

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  3. I am starting to feel really at home. I chickened out as an undergrad physics major after 3.5 years. I have come very close to going to massage school, taking up energy work, etc… Thanks to the Fermilab people, I will benefit from your orchard research. Cool. We don’t have any trees in yet, but I am halfway through Michael’s book… We decided to try the symphytum officinale rather than the hybrid Russian after reading about it here http://www.nantahala-farm.com/comfrey-root-s.shtml.

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    • My husband is a theoretical physicist, which is why we’re at Fermilab. And of course, that’s how we got such a great garden plot. I used to be a technical writer (computer hardware & software) and also managed my parent’s medical transcription business. Then I dropped all the high tech stuff and went the other direction to massage therapy. I just couldn’t work for others like that anymore, Massage therapy makes me feel like my work makes a difference to people.

      Thanks for the link about the comfrey varieties, I myself got the same one as you for our own garden. I think the amount of biomass is what one is after, and it produces less, whereas the Russian produces more. Either one would probably be great, but for the size of our orchard, more is probably better. Russian comfrey has the greatest amounts of protein and allantoin, more biomass and the seeds are not viable, so it spreads only by the roots. It stays put unless it gets dug up or rototilled. So for large gardening or farming needs, or orchards, Russian variety is probably best. The symphytum officinale will drop seed, so it may spread in two different ways. I guess I’ll find out!

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