For The Herb Companion magazine
Copyright© Jim Long, 2006
Comfrey's gotten a bad rap in recent years. My own dermatologist, who's not particularly interested in herbs, cautioned me one day a few months ago that "comfrey shouldn't even be used topically, it's just too dangerous." I think he brought it up because he recalled from years before that I make myself a bit of fresh comfrey salve after my visits to him. I go about once a year to have him freeze any sunspots I've developed over the previous year. My salve is a simple mixture, just t several young, tender comfrey leaves, 1/2 cup aloe vera gel and about 1/4 cup rubbing alcohol, all put into a blender and blended until it's a thick, green goopy salve, which I then cover and refrigerate.
Then, as soon as I return from my trip to the dermatologist's, I put little dollops of the green stuff on each place he's frozen, twice a day, which rapidly promotes healing.
Once, I'd forgotten that I had an appointment with the dermatologist just 4 days before I was to appear on an HGTV program. Only when I was sitting in the doctor's office did I remember the conflict in my schedule. Afraid my face would look like a meteor shower had passed, I began using my comfrey salve that very day. Surprisingly, only 4 days later, there wasn't a mark left for the television show's make up person to hide.
There's evidence that comfrey shouldn't be taken internally, at least not on a repeated basis. And there's also evidence that regular, repeated use on your skin might have deleterious effects on your liver. It is, of course, good to err on the side of caution.
Several summers ago I had a teenage guy who came each week to mow my lawn. His goal was to earn enough money during the summer to buy a car and he was intent on quickly mowing and getting on to his next job.
One morning soon after he had arrived for his weekly mowing, Bobby came over to where I was working in the herb garden. He held up the palm of his hand to me and explained that he'd cut it a few days ago and that pushing on the lawnmower handle with that hand kept reopening the wound.
"Got anything I can put on it?" he said.
I examined his hand and saw it was a clean wound, not infected, just uncomfortable. Of course what he probably wanted was a bandage, but he didn't ask for that and so I decided it was a good opportunity to teach him about comfrey. I walked a few steps and picked a couple of tender comfrey leaves.
"Here," I said to him. "Chew these up a bit and put them on the cut." He stood there, looking puzzled. "Ah, I, er, don't think I want to put that in my mouth," he said. "It's just leaves."
"Bobby, what's under your lower lip right now?" I asked with a knowing grin. "Skoal," he said, looking a bit embarrassed.
I told him to spit it out, that comfrey was a whole lot more useful than the tobacco he so lovingly held in his lips. Reluctantly he spit out the Skoal, wiped his lips and tentatively took the comfrey leaves I held in my hand.
He felt the leaves and noted that they were fuzzy. He was like a child, stalling, avoiding doing what he was instructed. But finally, seeing that I wasn't backing down (and only after I had put a comfrey leaf in my own mouth), he put the leaves into his mouth and worried them around with his tongue, breaking the plant's cell walls, watching me all the while to see if I was at any moment going to tell him it was a joke.
After he had chewed the leaves up a bit and finally saw that I was totally serious, I said, "Now flatten out the leaves with your fingers and apply them like a fat bandage to the palm of your hand that's cut and hold it against the mower handle while you mow. I think you'll find it helps ease the pain."
Bobby did as I suggested and in a couple of hours came back to show me that the wound did, indeed, look a bit better. I picked a few more leaves for him and told him to repeat the process that night after he got home from work, then apply it again the next morning. (I also instructed him to regularly use hydrogen peroxide on the cut to cleanse it).
It was a week later when Bobby came back. No sooner had he unloaded his mower than he came bounding over to me in the garden like a puppy chasing a ball. Holding up both palms he said, grinning from ear to ear, "I bet you can't tell which hand was cut, can you?"
And it was true. There was no indication of any wound, old or new on either hand. The wound was totally healed and gone. The next thing from Bobby was a question that really tickled me. It was even more than I had hoped for. "That worked so well, so what else grows in your garden? " he asked.
And with that, I gave Bobby his first ever tour of an herb garden. He willingly smelled and tasted everything I handed him, asking questions, wondering what this was used for and what that plant was over there that I hadn't gotten to yet. It was obvious that this was the first time a garden, or plants, had caught Bobby's attention and suddenly he couldn't get the information fast enough.
Comfrey may be a plant that deserves caution, but from my point of view, it has a long history of use and I will continue to use it, carefully and sparingly.
Jim Long's gardens and books can be seen at www.Longcreekherbs.com. Readers comments and questions always welcome at Lcherbs@interlinc.net.