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the value of comfrey

 
paul wheaton
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I was at the snohomish permaculture guild potluck last night.  And we did a lap around the room introducing ourselves and mentioning a permaculture project.  One fella mentioned that he had a comfrey problem.  He had a few patches that got way out of hand and he was trying to control it.  It sounded like one of his approaches was to run chickens on it so intensively as to completely eliminate the comfrey. 

Later, when it got to be my turn, I think I was asked to define permaculture in one sentence (a big challenge).  I just said "to embrace comfrey" 

As we have lots of permies that are trying to add comfrey to their guilds, I thought it was kinda funny that a fella would be at a permies gathering trying to get rid of it. 

I never got a chance to talk to him, but I want to express a few thoughts ...

1)  Hey buddy, you should sell mail order comfrey starts to all the permies and farmers that want some.  Say 10 bucks for a gob of ten plants plus, maybe, 6 bucks for s+h. 

2)  Since comfrey is a calcium accumulator, those comfrey rich spots would probably be fantastic for planting some calcium/alakaline loving plants!  Maybe some fruit trees!

3)  If you really want to have less of them ...  I heard that you have somebody else in your community with goats - I'm pretty sure that goat will find the comfrey super yummy ...

4) Chickens do like comfrey and I think they will eventually put quite a dent in your crop.  But!  I really wish folks would let go of the idea of running any animal in a space until all of the green stuff is gone.  That just seems like poor animal care to me.

5)  How did all that comfrey get there?  Tilling?  Maybe this would be a good time to talk about the values of no-till?

Ok - I feel better now.



 
Susan Monroe
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If you have sandy soil, you can kill comfrey by drying it out.  Guess how I know?  I forgot to water mine, and it had been there for a year.  What a dummy!

Comfrey uses: 

Wonderful mulch material
Compost activator and general ingredient
Mineral and micro-nutrient accumulator and fertilizer
deep roots help break up compacted soil
Comfrey tea as a foliar fertilizer
Livestock feed
Slug trap
Water cleanser (when growing in standing water)
Poultices and other medicinal uses
Nutrient trap at the bottom of a slope
Is said to be a grass barrier, but I don't know if that is true in areas with cooler winters, below USDA Zones 9.

Russian Comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) and Bocking #14 are said to be less invasive than Common Comfrey (S. officinale).

WHAT was this guy thinking

Sue
 
paul wheaton
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Sue,

Could you please expand on  "Slug trap", "Water cleanser" and "grass barrier" please?

I have heard of lots of folks making a sort of tea out of it in buckets or barrels and then fertilizing with that.  I once lived with somebody that would have hundreds of gallons of comfrey tea stinking up the place at any given time in the warmer months - just to put on her plants. 


 
Steve Nicolini
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Isn't it edible in small quantities?  I heard it is a significant source of vitamin B12 (for all you veggies). 

In Edible Forest Gardens' plant matrix it lists the width 3'-5', height 3'-5'.  If I have a 14 foot diameter apple tree dripline, how many comfrey plants should I put under the canopy?  How fast will it spread?
 
Susan Monroe
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Comfrey as a slug trap:  Slugs are supposed to like it. I don't know, as four years of free-ranging chickens has left me with a shortage of slugs (such a pity), but here's what I was told:  Before you plant in spring, pick off a bunch of comfrey leaves and put them in the center of your prepared planting area (wilting is good, slugs like them wilted).  Every few days, pick through the leaves and collect all the slugs you can find and drown them in a bucket of soapy water, then add them to your compost pile.  Keep doing this until the leaves are getting into poor condition (discard and replace) or it looks like you're running out of slugs.  Then plant your plot.  You can also put more leaves around your garden area to attract the slugs to them, so they leave your seedlings alone.

Water cleanser:  Comfrey planted in areas where water tends to collect and stagnate is supposed to clean the water of 'stuff'.  I read it a couple of years ago, just skimming, as I'd already killed off my comfrey.  It think it is supposed to absorb manure runoff or toxins --- I got the impression it acted like cattails for that.  Again, I don't have standing water, so no chance to try it.  I would like to know if anyone else tries it, though.

The grass barrier thing is something that I came across recently, and my memory grabbed hold of it because I faintly remember one of Bill Mollison's books saying the same thing (along with lemon grass).  But comfrey dies down in winter here in WA, and the grasses seem to keep growing, so it may work in areas that don't really have a 'dead' season, like parts of Australia and California.

Medicinally:  it has been used in the past as both a poultice and taken internally.  It seems to be a common opinion that it shouldn't be taken internally as a tea or anything, as it is suspected of causing liver damage and possibly cancer.  I don't know the truth of it, but I would tend to err on the side of caution.  Even for animals, it has been said that it shouldn't be given to them in excess, and the leaves should be under four or five inches long.

I don't know how long it will take to grow to maximum, or to spread.  It may depend on your soil and moisture.  I have a few root pieces in pots that I'm hoping I can keep alive long enough to be of benefit to my compost pile. 

Sue
 
Leah Sattler
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wow! sue thanks. I am going to have use comfrey slug traps protect my garden (especially my cabbage) next year! the beer traps were pretty pathetic and a pain to maintain.
 
Steve Nicolini
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How long did it usually take you to gather the slugs and drown them?  Do slugs benefit a farm in any way other than feed for ducks?

Who here has eaten comfrey?
 
Susan Monroe
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Before I got the chickens I just collected them and drowned them.  I still find a few occasionally, but 'The Girls' seem to have reduced their numbers even further.

I've never eaten comfrey.

I've never heard of a benefit to slugs, other than as duck fodder. 

Sue
 
                    
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What I've learned about comfrey is that it's not necessarily invasive, but you'd better be happy where you put it the first time, because it's really hard to get rid of, once it has got going. It's an accumulator, it's got deeep roots, which are brittle and will break off and resprout if you try to move the plant, and/or harvest the roots for medicine.  All it takes is a chunk o' root to propagate it.  I mostly just use it as a mulch plant, whacking it down a few times a year. I think one or two per fruit tree guild is enough, myself. 

 
Brenda Groth
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totally enjoyed this discussion..I have a huge clump of comfrey and have been trying to decide if i dared to divide it..as i was afraid i might kill it, and not wanting to i've just left it be. it is a beautiful plant, mine here in Michigan tends to grow twice a year..it will grow up and flower and then died down and then grow up again and flower again..wierd I know.

I have it on the side of a steep backfill slope along the east side of our house..and I love it..but haven't tried putting more in anywhere..sometimes when i've done that i've lost things that i treasured..so i'm skeptical..but will try to cut out some of it this year and start it in some new areas.

I have heard that if you are trying to divide things that you are afraid you might hurt, to just take a spade and cut out a chunk off of the side of it..those of you who have divided comfrey, do you think that might be a good way to make a division in a very large comfrey?? leaving part of it where it is just to make sure i don't lose it all?
 
Susan Monroe
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Yes, just take your shovel and cut straight down at the edge of the plant, and pry it loose.  Separate the root pieces, or chop into lengths of a few inches each, and stick them in a pot of soil and water them occasionally.

It's really hard to kill comfrey, I hear, no matter how much you want to.  I just got some root pieces planted that a neighbor gave me.  She thinks she's dug out all the roots....   

Sue
 
Brenda Groth
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thanks Susan, as it grows big fast, I'll try to do it early on this spring, when the ground thaws, I want to divide a bunch of my ornamental grasses that get HUGE too, and spring is the only time to do that..they just get too enormous to divide after they start to grow. ..and spring is wet here so things are likely to recover better than any other time of the year..( we got to 46 yesterday..heat wave)
 
Dave Boehnlein
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If you end up with comfrey somewhere you don't want it (e.g. the annual garden) we've actually discovered a method that has been reliable at eliminating it...we build a nice hot compost pile over it. We leave the compost there for 6-9 months and we've found that this effectively smothers the comfrey. Even comfrey's aggressive nature can't push up through a smoking hot compost pile that is 4' tall!

Dave
 
Brenda Groth
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well I'm hoping this is our last snow day..we woke up to snow this morning but the sun is out and the forcast is promising warmer soon..so I'll have to get out there and put a shovel in the comfrey and see what i can get out of it before it all grows up on me.

need to get my brain around what else I need to divide before it grows big..that comfrey gets as big as probably 10' across..so it could use a little pruning..

and where do i put the pieces..oh good grief..i have enough room..

I also should divide my rhubarb plants..now that I think of it..they are a bit overgrown..already put in 23 new asparagus plants..and am thinking..ok..guilds guilds guilds..
 
paul wheaton
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Michael "Skeeter" Pilarski on growing comfrey from seed





 
paul wheaton
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i am a big comfrey fan too
(this being said i cán imagine people wanting to get rid of it in a certain place)

of course because all of the obvious reasons, great accumulator thus mulch, insect atractive, good understory plant, etc.

But dont forget the medicinal use!
the roots and leaves have great medicinal value.
and making a tincture isnt that hard actually, http://forums2.gardenweb.com/forums/load/herbal/msg0620264815868.html

Adding this tincture to something creamy like vaseline makes a cream you can rub on.

comfrey is great for any tissue injury, espacially closed deep tissue injuries. broozes, broken bones, sprained enkles etc. will all benefit. The fresh leaves are supposed to be a good compress for open wounds.

Me, I have back issues, i put my back out every now and then (sometimes doing heavy work in the garden, but sometimes just picking up a flyer from the table makes it shoot up my back)
normally this leaves me with at least a week flat on the bed, since i got this comfreycream from a herborist it passes so much faster, and im up in a few days.

The cream she made was a combination of comfrey and arnica by the way.

Also i have eaten the leaves, fresh in the salad, which i didnt like, and fried (covered with erhmmm, whats the english name: a not so liquid mix of flour and water or milk, also used to bake pancakes) which i did like.

edit: i checked it out, a cream is not made with a tincture but with maceraat, disolved in oil that is. im sure it says how to on the same gardenwebforums...
 
Jordan Lowery
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i love comfrey
 
                    
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How small can the roots of Bocking 14 be? A county extension agent said I could come by sometime and have some, but I'm not sure just how many he will allow me to take.

I'm going to be planting gobs of comfrey this year, especially in one area of our property that we can't invest much into since the state is allowed to tear it up whenever they want (storm drainage). I figure we can turn that area into a living mulch / nectary guild.

So, I've been looking online and only found one website that has a decent price on roots... Where do you all source yours from if you do not have a neighbor that wants to divide?
 
Paula Edwards
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Maybe if you let your chicken free range in the comfrey patch, you create a problem, because they scratch divide the roots and each root division will grow.
I have planted ten fruit trees half a year ago and planted 100 root cuttings around them. And I threw some calendula seeds in as well.
It gets a bit out of control at the moment, and I'm cutting it severely back, I use the leaves as mulch. Some as fodder too.
I hope to get another flush of leaves in autumn (it's summer now).
There are two kinds of comfrey, the official one and the Russian. The first is used medicinally the latter for mulch etc.

The bucket for the liquid manure needs a lid.
If you want to have it neat and nice, put the bucket (something like 50 ltr or more) on a stand (In Australia we have these great milk boxes). Mount into the bucket with the lid (!) a cheap outdoor tap and put a strainer or similar over the inlet. No messing around.
 
solomon martin
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I love comfrey too.  I've never had a problem with it invading my veggies, but it has always been a happy companion at the periphery of my garden.  It has a lot of uses mentioned above, and it is a valuable and medicinal plant.  I heard a story once from an old timer who had cured rattle snake bite with a comfrey poultice.  Paul, I think you were right on to "embrace the comfrey",... its a nice plant.
 
                    
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Steve Nicolini wrote:
Isn't it edible in small quantities?  I heard it is a significant source of vitamin B12 (for all you veggies). 


I have been unable to find any research that documents that comfrey (or any other terrestrial plant) is a significant source of vitamin B12. More likely, one or a few studies found trace amounts on the roots due to bacterial growth. Fermented foods (including Kimchi and other pickles, fermented soy like tempeh) and seaweed seem to be better options for vegans, and cheese and eggs for other types of vegetarians.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20607069

Comfrey is a source of pyrrolizidine alkaloids which can cause liver damage. Small amounts of comfrey may not always be a problem (amounts in the plant vary, and some people may be more tolerant) but vegetarians eating comfrey to get B12 could lead to problems.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21170807

The topical use of comfrey (compresses, salves, etc) is generally not considered a problem as the offending chemicals are not absorbed by the skin, and it does help speed the healing of certain wounds.
 
                                    
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actually vegans need to take vitamin b-12 pills or eat lots of fortified foods.  the b-12 in spirulina & seaweed is a b-12 analogue that maybe inhibit the absorption of regular b-12.  there isn't much b-12 of any kind to speak of in tempeh.
 
                    
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Horizon Herbs offers Bocking 14 roots for a good price. They have a few different quantities, but here is a link for 20 live roots (could probably be divided even further, knowing comfrey's ambitious nature):
http://www.horizonherbs.com/product.asp?specific=1606

-Troy
http://pittsburghpermaculture.org
 
Brenda Groth
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here we are about a year later and I still didn't divide that comfrey plant, however I did chop and drop it a few times last year for mulch so I made some progress on it.

I hope to get some divisions done this spring and that is on my list of things to do..I would love to grow it around some of my fruit trees..however am thinking of trying it in the pond as was mentioned above to help purify water..i have a boggy area of the pond that it might work in..we'll see about that.
 
                    
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I agree with your bottom line, Christhamrin : If I were a vegetarian, I would be taking a supplement with B12.

But Tempeh produced with a mixed culture containing Klebsiella and Citrobacter bacteria can contain significant amounts of B-12. Tempeh produced in the US using pressure-cooked beans and pure cultures of only Rhizopus fungus may be entirely lacking in B12. The traditional Indonesian methods for making Tempeh do benefit the people there who eat little or no meat - those methods rely on a system of microbial ecology that is superior to what is typically practiced here.

Can't agree that seaweed is only an source of anti-B12. Studies have shown these contains five types of cobalamin and that these are true B12s, and seaweed is effective in reducing the symptoms of B12 deficiency in lab animals. There might be an excess of iodine if people try to use ocean vegetables to get their B12, but it does contain that essential vitamin.  Spirulina is an algae (freshwater) that contains pseudo-B12 and it cannot be considered a dietary source of usable cobalamin.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12656203
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11430774
 
Brian Bales
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Comfrey is such a valuable crop for permaculturists. So many good reasons to have it! And yet its so hard to come by true comfrey. Prices seem to average around $2.00 for 5 seeds. I see a real untapped market opportunity here
 
maikeru sumi-e
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Troy wrote:
Horizon Herbs offers Bocking 14 roots for a good price. They have a few different quantities, but here is a link for 20 live roots (could probably be divided even further, knowing comfrey's ambitious nature):
http://www.horizonherbs.com/product.asp?specific=1606

-Troy
http://pittsburghpermaculture.org


I'm gonna order me some comfrey. Thank you!
 
                                    
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i ordered comfrey from horizon last year. i forgot about it and it had half rotted by the time i planted it.  and it got huge anyway!
 
                                    
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as for the b12 talk i'll leave it for a b-12 thread since i am way more into COMFREY.
 
                                      
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which (it should be warned for) shouldnot be eaten too much
like said, it can damage the liver

but now and then adding it to the salad or eating it fried with some dough is allright.
jummie

 
                                      
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I planted dwarf comfrey in an early permaculture experiment.  The dwarf stays under 18" and sends runners everywhere.  It was beautiful and lush, needing no care, bothered by no insect, but one plant did spread in 24 months to cover the 200 sf garden and another 200 sf of lawn.  I would the runners up in great fistfulls, very satisfying to toss those heaps in the compost bin.  I was the queen of comfrey.  But, yeah, I can see being frustrated by that behavior in a deliberate polyculture design.

I'll be planting Bocking 14 in the food forest I'm designing now. 
 
                    
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Horizon is the only place I've seen having any roots for sale. Does anyone know of any other sources?

If I order, I'll have to do an experiment on just how small you can cut bocking 14 before it won't grow.
 
                                            
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I've grown the self-sowing variety of comfrey and cannot recommend it as it spreads voraciously. Unless you are looking for wall-to-wall comfrey instead of a garden I'd recommend the non-seeding Russian variety. I killed seedlings for months before I was able to remove it entirely and I saved NO seeds. No offense to Skeeter, but I think his recommendation is dangerous especially to beginning gardeners. You could have an entire neighborhood severely pissed off at you for introducing this cultivar and huge amounts of unnecessary work keeping it under control. Good luck if the birds start spreading it. I sure wouldn't want to live nearby with a neighbor making even more work for me and the rest of the settlement. Opportunistic plants should not be planted casually. 
 
                                            
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Just so y'all know, I LOVE comfrey (I've been working with it for 36 years) but cannot recommend the self-sowing kind. It's just asking for trouble.
 
Jordan Lowery
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this goes to the original post paul made, that guy should get into the comfrey root business. all my comfrey root sells FAST. people who know what it does want LOTS of it.
 
                    
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I need at least 20 plants to start with.

We have a massive area to turn into a permanent green manure / nectary field.
 
Jack Shawburn
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The value of Comfrey...
think ... Biomass, Manure, Mulch !

..ahh the sweet smell of comfrey tea in the morning...!
 
duane hennon
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i got some roots from Horizon 2 years ago. divided some of the root pieces up. small pieces do turn into plants, although small plants the first year.
i noticed the deer came in this past fall and munched it to the ground
 
Kate Fortesque-McPeake
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Comfrey is also good shelter over the winter months for spiders.  I was told that well over 200 spiders, on average, shelter under each square meter of withered comfrey leaves.  So I never tidy up my plants in the fall.  I leave that until late spring, when I see the new shoots coming up.  Spiders are always welcome in the garden.

Will be attempting to remove a Bocking variety this year from what has become a part of the annual garden.  My plan is to take numerous root pieces and put them at the north end of the garden to see if they will work as a grass barrier.  I would be surprised if they don't.  Although the comfrey dies back late each fall, by that time the grass isn't growing either.  And in my experience no plant grows under the dense shade of an established comfrey plant. 

As for the remaining portion of the original plant, I plan to cut it several times this year.  I normally make an early cutting to give fertility to the seed potatoes when I plant them.  I'll make at least four cuttings down to the ground this year, and let the chickens have at some of the re-growth as well.  I'm guessing it's easier to simply gradually starve the roots of energy rather than trying to remove them.  I expect it to be a pitched battle, and I don't necessarily expect to win the war this year.  Will keep the hot compost pile strategy in mind if it rages into next year.
 
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