Use Comfrey with Caution

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Brian Orr

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.

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