When full-grown, the comfrey plant sprouts beautifully colorful bell-shaped flowers, making it a popular ornamental plant found in-home herb gardens worldwide. The comfrey roots are large and tuberous, and the upper stems of the plant feature deep green foliage with leaves that reach sizes of up to eight inches long.
While comfrey can be beautiful to look at, the plant holds far more than what first meets the eye; it is a traditional medicine that people have been using for more than 2,000 years. In this guide, we’ll introduce you to this beneficial plant – from the history of comfrey to its traditional uses to how herbalists and advocates of plant medicine use the herb today.
Indigenous to parts of Asia and Europe, comfrey plants were brought to North America by English settlers and can now be found growing wild and in gardens worldwide. More than 40 species exist, though ‘common comfrey’ is the most regularly occurring and most used in traditional medicine. Other names given to the comfrey plant include knitbone, boneset, black root, and more.
The first evidence of comfrey use dates back to at least 400 BC; experts believe the Greeks and Romans used the comfrey leaves to treat wounds and respiratory ailments. Studies indicate comfrey’s first mention was in an ancient literary work entitled Naturalis Historiœ, or Natural History, published in 77 AD. Written by Roman philosopher Pliny The Elder, the book includes details on utilizing specific parts of the comfrey plant in treating several conditions like bruising and sprains.
Comfrey remained a popular medicinal herb long after the fall of the Roman Empire and has made many appearances in guides, books, and informational packets created by herbalists, physicians, and naturalists. In the Middle Ages, comfrey became a popular choice for the treatment of gout and rheumatism. Lower-class and poor individuals often opted for comfrey as a more affordable alternative to the expensive herbal, skincare remedies prescribed by doctors at the time.
Eventually, comfrey became a somewhat common dinner table staple during the late 17th century. Later, transforming into a crop grown as feed for cattle and as a natural fertilizer used to supplement infertile soil as regenerative farming techniques. In the mid-20th century, scientists began performing more intensive testing on the common comfrey plant. The specialists ultimately discovered the roots and leaves contain unsaturated pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs). Unsaturated PAs may hold toxicity at certain levels and in different variations. While PAs may produce toxicity, the small amounts of PAs present in regular doses of comfrey are typically safe and result in no adverse side effects.
Still, a popular medicinal herb today, individuals use comfrey to treat a wide range of conditions, ultimately reducing the symptoms of certain illnesses and ailments. Comfrey is often recognized as an ideal choice for topical use. Some of the commonly reported effects and benefits of using comfrey include:
A naturally anti-inflammatory thanks to a high concentration of tannins, comfrey’s topical use on sore muscles, achy joints, and swollen ligaments is beneficial. Comfrey can reduce swelling, soothe sharp pains, lighten bruising, and even accelerate the rate at which your body heals from injuries.
Comfrey has demulcent qualities that soothe while healing occurs. It contains allantoin to calm the skin and rosmarinic acid with antioxidant effects that protect tender tissues. Its astringent qualities shrink pores’ appearance and help keep the skin healthy, reducing granulation and scarring. Comfrey is a great natural ingredient to implement into your skincare routine.
The roots and leaves of the comfrey plant have been shown to increase cellular reproduction and boost healing. By using comfrey, you can speed up the rate at which your body recovers from cuts, scrapes, bruises, sprains, etc. – helping to rebuild strength and lead to a faster recovery.
Depending on the need, comfrey can be taken or applied in a variety of ways. Here are just a few of the most common ways to use comfrey for natural healing:
Comfrey possesses restorative properties that can help repair skin and increase recovery overnight. Accordingly, one of the most popular ways of using the herb is in the form of topical balms, creams, or ointments. Typically containing a concentration of around 5-10% pure comfrey, comfrey ointments and creams can be applied topically to sore muscles, over sprains, or on areas of discomfort.
You can easily add comfrey root powder to a wide variety of topical treatments to boost the regenerative properties of the products you already use daily. Add a few spoonfuls of comfrey root powder to your bath for a soothing anti-inflammatory soak. Then, sprinkle some in with your favorite location for hydration and healing, or use it as an exfoliating scrub to gently remove dead skin.
Comfrey leaf is best when ground down and applied directly to a wound. Packed in a bandage and tightly wrapped against the body, the comfrey leaf can help reduce inflammation, improve pain, and jumpstart the healing process.
You can apply comfrey ointments, salves, and leaf compresses topically daily for up to two weeks at a time.
When applied to injuries, comfrey has been shown to promote healing within days.
When used heavily for extended periods on the skin, comfrey may create a buildup of PAs, irritation, or other adverse reactions.
Comfrey has proven to be an herb with a very long history. Its use has been documented throughout history and into the modern age for its ability to aid in healing. Unlike some other ancient remedies that have been lost or shown less effective than modern medication, comfrey is still sought after and clinically shown to be an effective topical treatment.