Comfrey is a perennial herb with beautiful, bell-shaped flowers and large leaves. Learn why this herb is making its way into every permaculture garden and how you can take advantage of it.
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Permaculture practitioners seek out plants that are multifunctional—plants that help the garden by performing many different functions all at once. Multifunctional plants help our gardens to work like mini-ecosystems, saving us time.
The Benefits of Comfrey
- Attracts pollinators with its blue, pink, purple, or white bell-shaped flowers.
- Provides habitat for beneficial insects with its huge leaves, which helps to keep the garden pest-free.
- Fertilizes with nutrient-rich mulch. It is a nutrient accumulator, reaching its roots deep into the ground to mine the subsoil for nutrients (potassium, phosphorus, calcium, and more). The nutrients accumulate in the fast-growing leaves, which can be used as a fertilizing green mulch. Here are 7 ways to fertilize with comfrey.
This herb even has amazing healing properties. Learn how to make your own comfrey salve!
The most important thing to know about growing this herb is that there are two types commonly grown by gardeners:
- True/Common comfrey (Symphytum officinale)
- Russian comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) also called the Bocking 14 cultivar.
Let’s take a minute to talk about the properties and uses for each.
This is the original ancient herb, nicknamed ‘knitbone’, grown for medicinal purposes.
The active substance in this herb, allantoin, is a cell proliferant, and has traditionally been used to heal broken bones, external injuries, and a host of other ailments. I’ve seen a poultice do wonders for bruises and it has helped me heal a scar on my face.
It’s usually recommended for topical use such as in a healing salve. The leaves and roots are both used fresh or dried.
I even noticed that allantoin is an ingredient in Whole Foods brand hand lotions.
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.
Since this variety proliferates wildly from seed, cutting the plant before it flowers will help you keep it in check.
This herb is a prolific grower, so the foliage can usually be cut 4-5 times per year without any harm to the plant.
Buy it as seed, live root, or plant. I like planting true comfrey from seed.
Russian Comfrey (Bocking 14)
This cultivar is a hybrid of true comfrey and prickly comfrey. While true comfrey can spread easily, Russian comfrey has a sterile seed, so it won’t take over the garden.
However, it is a vigorous grower, which allows us to grow it as biomass for mulch. This is what really makes this plant a star in the permaculture garden: its ability to feed the soil with nutrient-rich leaves. Mulching with the leaves transfers those nutrients over to the soil being mulched.
Vegetarian gardeners looking for non-animal fertilizers will find this herb to be a valuable source of nutrients and green manure.
Although Bocking 14 will not proliferate by seed, the plant will continue to grow in width and eventually need to be divided.
Buy this cultivar either as live root or as a plant. Because the seeds are sterile, you can’t grow it from seed. I like to plant Russian comfrey root cuttings.
Would you like to learn more about using permaculture “Super Plants” like comfrey to improve the biodiversity of your garden, reduce maintenance, and increase yield?
You’ll find loads of information just like this in my book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
Mulch with Comfrey
This is an excellent herb to grow for chop-and-drop mulch around perennial edibles.
See how I use it under fruit trees: How to Build a Fruit Tree Guild
The leaves can also be chopped into 3 to 5-inch pieces and used in other parts of the garden that need a fertility boost.
In the picture below, I’m preparing to spread buckets of comfrey mulch around the garden, but since my plants are true, I’ve separated the flowers so as not to spread seeds around the garden.
I have to be diligent about chopping down my plants before the flowers drop their seeds, but otherwise, it’s easy to work with. After five years, I’ve never had more than a couple of volunteer plants develop around the garden.
If you notice the volunteers while young, they’re easy to dig up and transplant, or throw in the compost for a nutrient boost.
Both varieties can be used for medicinal purposes and mulching purposes interchangeably, by the way. It’s just important to remember whether or not you have the sterile seed variety, so you know how to manage the plants in the garden.
Need more ideas for building soil in the permaculture garden?
Click here to get your 19-page Guide to Organic Soil Amendments and discover which amendments are right for your garden.
- Does Comfrey Really Improve Soil?
- 7 Ways to Fertilize the Garden with Comfrey
- The Lazy Gardener’s Way to Make Fertilizer
Will you grow comfrey in your garden? Which type will be appropriate for you?