Does anyone have an Anishinaabemowin word for comfrey? Another escapee from settler cultivation around here, comfrey is an historically renown and presently controversial edible and medicinal plant.
Around Haliburton, we have both common comfrey and the blue flowered wild sort (now andersonglossum boreale). The proper one of the title name has creamy yellow flowers. The pictured purple flowered I see more often and grow myself is var patens. When comfrey is not in bloom the leaves are a very close match to foxglove/digitalis, so take care to learn the difference!
Edible Uses of Common Comfrey
Not that long ago and still for some, comfrey’s a favored edible. The early spring leaves can be cooked like spinach, that fuzzy hair disappearing with cooking. If cooking older leaves, several changes of water are used. Dried leaves are used for tea as well, the older leaves being strongest. The young shoots are also edible. And mixing the dried roots with the same from chicory and dandelion makes a comfrey coffee.
However, there’s new information to consider. The plant contains “pyrroliziidine alkaloids” and these are known to cause liver disease and cancer if large amounts are taken internally for a prolonged period of time. Coltsfoot is another local plant to Haliburton that has PAs. This has raised an alarm about comfrey being both eaten and taken internally for medicinal purposes (and even for external uses, debating whether or not it’s absorbed through the skin)! Russian comfrey, which contains the most of these alkaloids, is banned in Canada.
Peanut butter has a carcinogen called estragole, as one example of our common foods that could be cast in a similar light. I have peanut butter every week. But this new information has been enough to get comfrey excluded from newer foraging books.
Whether you ultimately decide it amounts to poison or not, avoid ingestion during pregnancy and don’t use comfrey products (unless the pyrroliziidine alkaloids have been removed) on chaffed nipples if breast feeding.
Leaves almost 35% protein.
Medicinal Uses of Common Comfrey
Common Comfrey is primarily said to support these body systems:
Medicinal tags include Anti-inflammatory, Astringent, Emollient, and Vulnerary. See Medicinal tag key for more information.
Common usage includes external use of the leaves and/or roots for reducing swelling and for the healing of skin wounds, bruises, damaged tendons and ligaments. The Latin confervere means to knit or join together. Green Pharmacy mentions carpal tunnel syndrome and hemorrhoids too.
The main component in comfrey for this healing action is allantoin. The roots in the spring or fall have the highest allantoin levels. Let them dry partially, scrape them and split them down the middle to slowly finish drying. Grind and store and be sure to not contaminant the powder. You can find allantoin alone it in powder form (usually it’s available on Etsy or Amazon). Allantoin is in many commercial skin creams. You can use it in baths, compresses, liniments, ointments, plasters, etc.. It is one of the best agents for scar healing and for tissue growth. But be careful with deep wounds as it can lead to tissue healing over before it has healed deeper, causing an abscess.
Fresh root decoctions used to be taken for internal wounds like ulcers, even for digestive and respiratory complaints due mainly to demulcent properties. But again, it is not used so much for this now. Oral comfrey products have been banned in many places.
I hear there are “PA-free” comfrey products on the market – if you can recommend any please do so in comments!
Alternative Uses of Bruisewort
Comfrey has been used to tan leather and there’s also a way to extract a sort of glue from it.
It helps builds soil, which is one reason I have it around my compost bins. I add the leaves. But be careful – you can add too much!
It’s super easy to divide and transplant comfrey and some bumble bees love it! But it’s not as nutritious to our local native bees as their native plant allies. And if you are planting it anyway for medicine or the like, be aware it can take over. I’ve heard mixed reviews. Some people have had a problem with it being invasive. It should be manageable if you chop it up for food, medicine or composting before it goes to seed.
PAs are toxic and carcinogenic if taken internally over an extended period. The least recommendation is that pregnant women, children and those with any liver problems completely avoid consumption of comfrey.
And the Usual Cautions:
1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation.
2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk.
3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored. Herbalists do not have an official certification yet, but that may be in the works.
4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.
5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.
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REFERENCESThe Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook: A Home Manual