The scientific name for comfrey is Symphytum, and it is of the Boraginaceae family. Typically, when someone speaks of using comfrey for medicinal reasons, they are often referring to Common or True (Symphytum officinale) Comfrey.
Types of Comfrey
There are at least 21 named types of comfrey. Common or true comfrey (Symphytum officinale) has been in the United States since as far back as the 1600s. True Comfrey typically has cream, yellow or purple flowers. Russian comfrey (Symphytum uplandica) is a hybrid that is often used for livestock feeding and often has purple, pink, red or blue flowers. Wild comfrey (Symphytum Hidcote Blue) is invasive and typically has blue flowers. Typically all species can be used interchangeably although livestock tend to prefer Russian comfrey.
Comfrey has been used for medicinal reasons for thousands of years. Historically, comfrey has been referred to as boneset or knitbone because of the curative properties in healing wounds ranging from sprains to broken bones. Comfrey contains allantoin which is known to reduce inflammation and stimulate cell growth. Comfrey has also been used to treat other ailments including bronchitis and ulcers. It contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids, and current research suggests that using it internally may cause liver damage. Because of this, you are strongly urged to use comfrey only externally and never on broken skin or open wounds.
Historically, comfrey was used for medicinal purposes, but in modern times, it is thought by some to be toxic and regulated in several countries. In the 1980s, research was done that showed comfrey contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids which have caused people to become ill when ingesting other plants that contain the substance. Research did not show that any deaths resulted in people or animals from ingesting comfrey. However, the plant was banned in 2002 from being used in supplements in the United States. Studies were done in other countries that showed rats died from eating comfrey; however, there were questions about the amount of comfrey they ingested. While there are a number of people who stand by the results they see from using comfrey medically, the medical profession and the FDA have ruled that it presents a high risk.
Comfrey is very easy to grow and will return year after year as a perennial in most zones (3-9). It prefers full sun and soil with a pH of 6.0 to 7.0 but will grow in almost any condition. To grow comfrey, you will want to begin with roots, crowns or live plants. It will produce a small yield in the first year, with larger crops in each consecutive year. Plants will grow to about two feet tall, and while they do spread, they are not likely to take over your garden. It will take three to four years for a plant to reach full maturity. Comfrey is very resistant to both bugs and illness. In the eight years that I’ve been growing mine, I’ve seen no damage to the plant with very little attention on my part.
When your comfrey plant is between one and two feet tall, you will want to cut the stalks about two inches above the ground. Lay the plants to the side, out of direct sunlight while you gather all of them together. You should be able to pick another batch of comfrey leaves in between two to four weeks depending on your growing season and your weather.
How to Use Comfrey for Arthritis Pain
One of my husband’s and my goals in preparing for the future is to become more dependent on ourselves for what we need. Because of this, we have a number of herbs growing around our property that I use for both culinary and medicinal purposes. One of my projects last summer was to learn how to use comfrey for arthritis pain. Lately, my arthritis in my hand has been bothering me more than normal, and I’d rather not have to use a prescription when I have something natural that may give relief.
One of the easiest ways to use comfrey for arthritis pain is to create a simple comfrey poultice. This poultice can be applied to the sore muscles or joint to help reduce inflammation. Note that comfrey should not be used for more than ten days in a row according to the FDA for safety reasons. To create a poultice, you will need the following materials:
- 6 to 8 large Common Comfrey leaves
- Two tablespoons of very hot water
- A piece of heavy string or twine
- Heavy wooden spoon or pestle
- Small bowl
To create the comfrey poultice:
Mash the comfrey leaves using a heavy wooden spoon or pestle until it has formed a thick paste.
Add the hot water slowly during this process to get the correct consistency.
Do NOT mash the comfrey leaves in a bowl that will be used for food preparation.
Place the mash in a cheesecloth square that has been folded over and tied shut with the heavy string or twine.
Place the poultice against the area that you feel arthritis pain.
After 10 minutes, remove the poultice and wait at least one hour before applying it again.
Do not use for more than ten days in a row and always consult the advice of a doctor if you are pregnant, nursing or have liver problems.
If you would rather not make your own poultice, it is possible to purchase creams and balms containing comfrey that can be used for arthritis relief as well as for sprains and inflammation.