Comfrey is a perennial herb with beautiful, bell-shaped flowers and large leaves. Here is why comfrey is making its way into every permaculture garden and how you can take advantage of it.
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Permaculturists seek out plants that are multi-functional–those plants that help the garden by performing many different functions all at once. Multi-functional plants help our gardens to work like mini-ecosystems, saving us time.
The Benefits of Comfrey
- Comfrey attracts pollinators with its blue, pink, purple, or white bell-shaped flowers.
- Comfrey attracts beneficial insects with its gigantic leaves that cover the ground, making good habitat, which helps to keep our garden free of pests.
- Comfrey has amazing healing properties. Make your own comfrey salve!
- Comfrey fertilizes with nutrient-rich mulch. Comfrey is a dynamic nutrient accumulator, which means that its deep roots reach deep into the ground and mine the subsoil for nutrients (potassium, phosphorus, calcium, and more)–which accumulate in the leaves. The fast-growing leaves can be chopped back several times per growing season and used as a fertilizing green mulch. Here are 7 ways to fertilize with comfrey.
If you have wondered how to grow comfrey, the most important thing to know is that there are two types of comfrey that are the easiest to find: True or common comfrey (Symphytum officinale) and Russian comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) also called the Bocking 14 cultivar.
True comfrey is the original ancient medicinal herb that has also been called knitbone. True comfrey is most often used for medicinal purposes.
Comfrey contains allantoin, which is a cell-proliferant, and has traditionally been used to heal broken bones, external injuries, and a host of other ailments. I have seen a comfrey poultice do wonders for broken bones and bruises, and it has helped me to heal a scar on my face.
Because of certain concentrations of chemicals, it is usually recommended for topical use as a healing salve or as a short-term aid for internal healing. Long-term internal use can be harmful. The leaves and roots are both used fresh or dried. Try these sunburn soothing comfrey cubes.
The plant’s most potent concentration of healing properties occur just before flowering, so this is the best time to cut it back for medicinal use.
This works out well, because true comfrey proliferates wildly from seed, so cutting the plant before it flowers and sets seed will help you keep it in check.
Because comfrey is a prolific grower, it can usually be cut 4-5 times per year without any harm to the plant.
Buy true comfrey either as seed, live root, or plant. I like planting true comfrey from seed.
Russian comfrey is a cultivar (a hybrid of true comfrey and prickly comfrey) with a sterile seed, so it won’t take over the garden. However, it is a vigorous grower, and it is used most often as a biomass plant for mulching. This is what really makes comfrey a star in the permaculture garden: its ability to feed the soil with its nutrient-rich leaves. Mulching with comfrey leaves transfers those nutrients over to the soil being mulched. It is a valuable source of nutrients for the vegetarian gardener looking for non-animal fertilizers.
Though Russian comfrey will not proliferate by seed, the plant will continue to grow in width and eventually need to be divided.
Buy Russian comfrey either as live root or as a plant. Because the seeds are sterile, you can’t grow Russian comfrey from seed. I like to plant Russian comfrey root cuttings.
Mulch with Comfrey
One way to use comfrey as mulch is to grow a ring of comfrey plants around fruit trees, and practice the chop-and-drop method. Another way to use comfrey as mulch is to chop the leaves into 3 to 5-inch pieces and use it in other parts of the garden that could use a fertility boost. In the picture below, I am preparing to spread buckets-full of comfrey mulch around the garden, but since my comfrey is true comfrey, I have separated the flowers so as not to spread seeds around the garden.
Both varieties of comfrey can be used for medicinal purposes and mulching purposes interchangeably. It is just important to remember whether or not you have the sterile seed variety, so you know how to manage the plants.
When I bought my comfrey 3 years ago, I thought I was buying the sterile seed variety, but I actually purchased true comfrey. I have to be very diligent about chopping down the plants before the flowers drop their seeds, but otherwise, it is easy to work with. After five years, I have never had more than a handful of volunteer plants develop around the garden.
Will you grow comfrey in your garden? Which type will be appropriate for you?