Symphytum officinale in the family boraginaceae with its tall clumps of large green hairy leaves and clusters of tubular flowers appears all over the Triangle Community Garden and allotments in May and June. Upright and growing to around 1.5 metres the flowers vary in colour from pale pink and white through to blues and lilac, a handsome plant particularly attractive under trees and on banks, when allowed to spread in drifts it is a spectacular sight. Easy to propagate from root cutting, division or seed, it is also almost entirely pest and disease free.
Comfrey has many common names hinting at traditional uses in herbal medicine including; back wort, bone set, bruise wort, gum plant and knit back. The roots contain allantoin which boosts the growth of new skin cells and rosmarinic acid which it is said can relieve pain and inflammation. Used externally only in moisturisers and ointments, it should never be taken orally.
As a pollinator Comfrey provides both nectar and pollen particularly for bumble bees. Those with short tongues are unable to access the nectar but bite a small hole at the base of the flower and rob the nectar within. Invaluable as a pollinator Comfrey is nothing short of miraculous when it comes to uses in the garden as dried or liquid fertiliser, mulch, compost activator or for lining trenches before planting potatoes and beans. In permaculture it is known as a ‘dynamic accumulator’ because the deep roots are able to draw up nutrients from the subsoil, these nutrients are then stored in the leaves which can be used to feed other plants. Although the liquid fertiliser is very, very smelly it is highly effective on vegetables and pot plants and it is absolutely FREE and as the leaves are richer in nitrogen and potash than farmyard manure it is super charged as well.
Published in 1976, ‘Comfrey: Past, Present and Future’ by Lawrence Hills (sometimes referred to as the founder of the British organic gardening movement) sounds like a book a Comfrey geek might enjoy, I have a copy ordered!
Thanks to Gill Martin for this fascinating Garden Club blog and to Steve Granger for the photos.