Comfrey’s gotten a bad rap in recent years. Even my dermatologist, who’s not particularly interested in herbs, cautioned recently 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 off any sunspots I’ve developed. My salve is a simple mixture: 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.
When I return from my trip to the dermatologist, I put little dollops of the green stuff on each place he’s frozen, twice a day, which rapidly promotes healing.
There’s evidence that comfrey shouldn’t be taken internally, at least not on a sustained basis. And there’s also evidence that regular, repeated topical use might negatively affect your liver. It is, of course, good to err on the side of caution. But comfrey is an impressive healer that I feel safe using and recommending for occasional use.
Several summers ago, I hired a teenage guy to mow my lawn weekly. 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 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 asked. Remembering my military training as a medic, I examined his hand and saw it was a clean wound — not infected, just uncomfortable. Of course, what Bobby probably meant was a bandage, but he didn’t ask for that and I decided it was a good opportunity to teach him about comfrey. I picked a couple of tender comfrey leaves.
“Here,” I said. “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.”
I pointed out that the smokeless tobacco he had tucked in his lip was also “just leaves,” and finally (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, which breaks down the 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 up the leaves a bit and he 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 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 and feel 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 suggested that he clean the cut with hydrogen peroxide.)
The next week, when Bobby came back, he came bounding over to me in the garden like a puppy. Holding up both palms he said, grinning from ear to ear, “I bet you can’t tell which hand was cut, can you?”
It was true. There was no indication of any wound, old or new, on either hand. The wound was totally healed and gone. Bobby’s next question really tickled me.
“That worked so well! 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 are always welcome at Lcherbs@interlinc.net.