Comfrey — how to use medicinally the wise woman way

Learning comfrey how to use

Although today comfrey use is considered controversial, her medicinal usage actually dates back throughout the ages. I’d even wager that your foremothers had comfrey plants outside their doors and knew how to use comfrey.

Yet I gotta say, when I first met her, we were on no uncertain terms: comfrey was not my friend.

It was the dawn of my granola years, in college, and one thing I was determined to have was a garden. I biked down to the community garden and found my personal plot. It was buried in a sea of comfrey.

At the time, I didn't know what comfrey was or how to use her. All I knew was that it wasn't corn, and was not tomatoes. And it was in the way.

But whatever I tried to pull out simply broke off. I finally sat back to wipe the sweat off and looked around. This weed was all over the garden!

small comfrey plantThe garden coordinator laughed and said, "Careful where you toss that stuff. You're looking at a new patch of comfrey wherever it hits the ground."

Like a mythical monster, the smallest bit of comfrey root can sprout a whole new plant. It's the plant that keeps on giving. You can chop comfrey to the ground and it will come back, enough to be harvested three or four times a year.

But excuse me, did I say harvest?

It's true, over the years, she became a beloved herbal ally of mind. Just let me share some of her virtues . . . 

Table of contents

How to identify comfrey

First thing first. As with all wild green and growing things it’s essential to be certain who you’re working with.

Comfrey, Symphytum officinale, is a cultivated herb so look for her in garden beds. Comfrey has large broad leaves deeply textured by veins that grow outward from a central midrib in a pattern resembling alligator’s skin. Her leaves—and stalk—are fuzzy with hairs covering both front and back.

Comfrey blooms in the early summer. The purple bell-like blossoms unfurl in a spiral pattern. (Psst, if you cut those flowering stalks down, they’ll regrow for several more harvests over the growing season!).

comfrey leaves demonstrating the alligator skin design

Comfrey — how to use medicinally

They say if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, and it was in trying to get rid of comfrey that I learned to appreciate it. Comfrey's Latin name is Symphytum officinale, and symphytum actually means to join or unite—in essence, to heal.

The same properties that enable comfrey to regrow a whole new plant from a bit of root can also help the body heal from some of the most devastating injuries. You can use comfrey to treat:

  • Dry skin
  • Chapped lips
  • Cuts
  • Burns
  • Eczema
  • Scars
  • Wrinkles
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Broken bones

Internally, comfrey also supports the respiratory, digestive, and urinary systems. There is some controversy surrounding the internal use of comfrey which I discuss later in this article (or if you’re eager, click here to jump down).

Comfrey use — regenerative properties for external benefits

comfrey's purple flowersComfrey is so effective as a wound-healer that one actually has to be careful using it. If only the tissues close to the surface are in contact with the comfrey, it can actually cause the skin to close over, trapping infection inside.

For deep wounds, a plant such as Plantain (Plantago lanceolata or P. major) would be more appropriate.

Comfrey also has specific uses for women, and many of my women friends swear by it.

During pregnancy, comfrey oil is a favorite for belly massage, promoting elasticity and preventing stretch marks.

Many new moms rely on comfrey salve for diaper rash and for quick relief and speedy healing from sore and cracked nipples (apply after breastfeeding, and wipe the area gently before the next feeding).

And comfrey oil makes an excellent vaginal lubricant, especially helpful in breast-feeding, menopausal and post-menopausal years. Comfrey moisturizes and strengthens the vaginal tissues without any added fragrances or preservatives. (Do bear in mind that oil degrades condoms, so with condoms, only water-based lubricants should be used.)

How to use comfrey to support bone and joint repair

During my college years, a lovely lady living nearby befriended me, and she helped me come to appreciate comfrey. I was especially impressed the time I witnessed Talia, using comfrey to speed up the healing of her broken foot. This is why comfrey is also known as “knitbone herb” because you can use comfrey to help knit your bones back together!

After breaking her foot, Talia was placed in a removable cast and asked to return to the doctor after six weeks to inspect her progress. Having some familiarity with how to use comfrey for regeneration, Talia made an herbal infusion every day for the next two weeks.

She put a cup of dried comfrey leaf in a quart-size canning jar, filled the jar with boiling water, and put a lid on it. After at least 4 hours of steeping, she strained out the plant material and packed it on her foot as a poultice. She drank the liquid over the day, either reheated or at room temperature, sometimes sweetened with honey.

Talia was amazed at how quickly the pain and swelling decreased. In fact, she called in to see the doctor a month early. When the doctor took new x-rays, she was amazed to discover that the bone had fully mended. Her doc said she had never before seen such a quick recovery.

Rather than credit it to comfrey, the doctor insisted that it could only be called a miracle! In my book, it's just another story of the magic of herbal medicine the wise woman way!

The comfrey controversy

In Europe, for generations, comfrey was one of the plants that almost everyone kept right outside their doorstep, and this revered medicine plant followed us to the new world.

More of a domesticated plant than a weed, comfrey has long been an essential part of the traditional herbal medicine chest to treat a wide array of ailments. That's how it earned the second part of its name, officinale.

Until recently, comfrey was an official medicine, one of a handful of the most respected medicine plants that merited "officinale" in their Latin names. Those fond of manicured lawns might recognize another member of the royal dispensary, dandelion (Taraxicum officinale).

Today, most doctors don't just discount comfrey, they warn against using it. Comfrey has been declared unsafe by the FDA for internal use. If comfrey has been used for centuries, why is it now considered toxic and too dangerous to be used medicinally?

The FDA's declaration was based on a study in which the pyrrolizidine alkaloids were extracted from the roots of comfrey and injected in large doses into rats. Researchers found that this caused pre-cancerous liver changes in the rats, which became translated as "comfrey causes cancer."

Now, injecting oneself with a drug made in a lab from comfrey roots is very different than drinking a cup of tea. Many herbalists have called this study into question. As herbalists Mary L. Wulff-Tilford and Gregory L. Tilford state, "In thousands of years of use by millions of people, only two reports of hepatotoxicity (liver cell toxicity) have been documented in humans." And in both these cases, poor nutrition, pre-existing illness, and the use of liver-toxic drugs were contributing factors.

Nevertheless, this article focuses primarily on using comfrey externally. Of course, the safety issues only apply to taking comfrey internally; for many ailments comfrey can be used externally instead. In addition, the leaves, which have much lower concentrations of these alkaloids, can be used instead of the roots.

Making comfrey salve and oil

comfrey salve being poured into small jarsMy favorite comfrey use externally is for moisturizing and healing the skin. The primo preparation method for this is comfrey salve—or the comfrey oil from which the comfrey salve is made.

Comfrey salve is made by melting beeswax into comfrey oil for a firmer consistency. In general, salves keep longer than oils and are easier (less messy) to keep close at hand in your satchel or backpack.

Comfrey oil and salve are used for people with dry skin, chapped lips, eczema, cuts, scrapes, and burns (in the later stages, after the initial hot sensation has subsided). I love to use comfrey salve each time after I bathe—as a moisturizer, it nourishes the skin and prevents wrinkles.

I got a call a few weeks ago from an elderly woman who was suffering so badly from eczema that the skin on her hands was cracking open. She had used a variety of creams and lotions that doctors had prescribed over the years, all to no avail. After using comfrey salve for just two days, the pain was gone and the skin had actually closed over her knuckles.

Comfrey oil the wise woman way — 6 steps

    1. Harvest the comfrey leaves in the afternoon, after the sun has dried off the morning dew. Wet plant materials will make moldy oils, so it is best to wait at least 36 hours after the last rain before harvesting.
    2. Wilt. In a warm, dry, well-ventilated place (such as an attic, an oven with a pilot light, or even your car!), wilt the whole fresh leaves for 12 hours or until the edges are crispy.
    3. Stuff your jar completely full of the whole wilted leaves, leaving a little headroom. Add olive oil until the jar is full to the brim.
    4. Seal and label. Tightly seal the jar. Label it with the plant name and date harvested. Put it in a dish on the counter (herbal oils always leak).
    5. Tend it a few times a week by poking the plant material down to release air bubbles and topping it off so the level of the oil is above the level of the leaves.
    6. Strain. After six weeks, strain out the plant material, and your infused oil is ready to use!

You may want to grab a free copy of my Wise Woman Medicine Making Chart (pdf) a concise reference of herbal medicine making how's and why's to hang on your fridge.

Wrap up on comfrey use as a medicinal herb

Over the years, as I came to appreciate comfrey's many virtues, I asked her to be my friend after all. Now comfrey is one of my favorite herbal allies that I keep in the kitchen garden close at hand.

Corinna with a rainbow umbrella excited for you download this free guideComfrey doesn't ask for much special attention—this prolific plant will grow almost anywhere, but it is happiest in rich, moist soil in full sun to partial shade. And it will behave itself if left alone—as long as the roots are left undisturbed, comfrey will stay in its place.

Use comfrey to treat dry skin, eczema, shallow cuts or abrasions, and burns. Following the instructions given above, make your own comfrey salve and keep it handy for whenever your skin needs a little help with regeneration.

If you're like me—I daresay, a rather wild woman who loves the green and growing things, you'll love getting to know how to use comfrey in your medicine chest.

Enjoy your time out with the plants! And just remember, wild plants make wild women!

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Corinna Woodseasoned teacher and mentor along the Wise Woman path–from herbs to self love

I've been teaching earth-based, woman-centered holistic healing for 30 years. Today, I offer tools to ground you in your own innate wisdom, discernment, and self-understanding. 

I invite you to explore my blog articles, free resources, and online courses—made just for wonderful women like you.
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