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Comfrey as a traditional (ancestral) medicinal plant  RSS feed

 
John Thames
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Location: Montana
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High Arthur, welcome to permies!

A lot of people in permies community hold comfrey to very high standards. Was comfrey used in much the same way by native peoples? Or how might they have used it differently? And what are your thoughts on the "negative" view some people have of it due to its pyrrolizidine alkaloids? Thanks for your thoughts on this mystical plant!
 
Jerry Sledge
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I've made comfrey salve with mine but, would like several more uses besides compost. I have also heard about he alkaloids in it.

Jerry
 
Xisca Nicolas
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interesting I also do keep it for garden use for this reason, and would use it as medicinal more than as food!

I also heard about differences according to plant lines, may be some are saffer?
How to know?
 
Jenna Sanders
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I'm interested in this as well, Comfrey has been used traditionally as an external and internal medicine...but now there are warnings against using it internally, or is that just in very large doses?
 
R Scott
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Jenna Sanders wrote:I'm interested in this as well, Comfrey has been used traditionally as an external and internal medicine...but now there are warnings against using it internally, or is that just in very large doses?


You can make your own conclusions, but under the same criteria aspirin would fail FDA approval...
 
Lindy Barnes
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I am very interested in Comfrey and would like to use it internally as well as externally. What are your thoughts on how best to use it internally?
 
Shane McKee
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Location: Northern Ireland
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Doctor here; I'm unconvinced by internal benefits; my grandfather (dairy farmer) swore by it for poultices, but I haven't tried that myself. The big benefit I'm looking for is in my soil, so I have some experiments running (very uncontrolled at present) to see what happens, and if the pilot is OK, I'll be planting out some properly characterised test plots next year. I have very acidic tight clay soil with very low calcium, so I'm interested to see how it does before smothering the place in lime... However getting back to the alkaloid issue - if you were taking lots of it, yes, it would probably make you a bit unwell. A little now and then is probably harmless (and possibly effectless too), and it may depend on variety. I can't see it having any major medical benefits, but if anyone's up to trying a randomised controlled trial, that would be great! I've heard the standard seeding UK stuff is pretty benign, but the Bocking-14 and Russian types may be a bit heavier on the alkaloids - unconfirmed though. Fascinating plant!
 
armida sawan
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I've heard of the benefits of comfrey on the compost pile. I'd love to read about ancestral people's experiences with it.
 
Arthur Haines
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Dear John, this is an excerpt from Ancestral Plants volume 2 (in prep.). I think it will make clear where I stand on this beautiful and valuable plant:

"This plant [Symphytum officinale--common comfrey] contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids (Pas), which in some species are known to be hepatotoxic and carcinogenic. As a result, many officials present dire warnings about the use of this plant, despite a long folk tradition of safe use. In some countries, they have gone to such lengths as to remove all products containing this plant from store shelves (even those produced for solely external use, where the absorption of PAs is very minimal). People who read these warnings should consider the following facts. (1) Not all PAs have similar toxicity (i.e., there are many kinds), and those contained in some plants, such as species of Senecio (ragwort) and Crotalaria (rattlebox) are far more toxic (it is these species that have caused toxic events in humans). (2) Sensitivity to PAs differs by organism. Some of the study organisms appear very sensitive (e.g., rats), whereas other animals can consume large quantities of PA containing plants without adverse effects (e.g., pigs). Assuming that PAs from long-used plants have similar toxicity to humans as to some of the most sensitive animals may not be logical. (3) Species of Symphytum vary in toxicity. Symphytum officinale is being described here and is the plant naturalized to North America. A Russian nothospecies (Symphytum ×uplandicum) is known to contain PAs that are more toxic to humans, and based on this, “experts” recommend avoiding all species of Symphytum for medicine. (4) Tests are often conducted using PAs that have been isolated in the lab. This is highly unrealistic as the effects of PAs within the plant are still unknown. It is highly probable, given the long use of Symphytum officinale, that this species may contain protective phtyochemicals/nutrients that limit potential harm from this plant. When you consider that there was almost 80,000 toxic exposures to ibuprofen in 2007 (of which over 10,000 required treatment in hosipitals), it really calls into question why some drugs are considered safe and some herbs are not (i.e., all medicine requires a risk to benefit comparison)."

I hope that helps. I have no hesitation using this plant externally. Internally, I would certainly use it during times of need (but limit the duration of use, so I was not consuming this plant for more than a few weeks).
 
Conrad Farmer
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Location: Western Upper Peninsula MI
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Hi, Arthur and welcome to Permies.

Thank you for posting the paragraph from your upcoming second volume.

My question is sourcing seed for common comfrey. I have wild comfrey (and that is not the same thing as I understand) around, but haven't as yet discovered any 'common', if I am actually identifying correctly.



 
Arthur Haines
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Dear Conrad,

Here are some tips for recognizing Symphytum officinale. First, the species that are found in the northeastern part of North America:

1a. Leaves decurrent as wings on the stem and branches; mericarps smooth; filaments nearly
as wide as the anthers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . S. officinale
1b. Leaves not decurrent; mericarps tuberculate-roughened; filaments narrower than the anthers
2a. Root thick, but neither tuberous nor constricted at intervals; corolla pink turning blue;
stem usually branched, pubescent, in part, with stout, basally flattened hairs . . . . . S. asperum
2b. Root tuberous, enlarged and constricted at intervals; corolla pale yellow; stem usually
simple, pubescent with subterete hairs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . S. tuberosum

The hybrid is discussed here:

Symphytum ×uplandicum Nyman is a very rare comfrey hybrid in New England
known from CT, VT. It resembles S. asperum in that the leaves are not decurrent on the
stem (or infrequently shortly decurrent for a distance of less than 10 mm). However,
the hybrid differs in that it has a corolla 13–16 mm long, purple or pink flower buds,
a calyx 5–7 mm long, and short, broad papillae on the margins of the fornices (vs.
corolla 9–14 mm long, red flower buds, calyx 3–5 mm long, and long, narrow papillae
on the margins of the fornices). From S. officinale it can additionally be distinguished
by ascending corolla lobes and dull brown schizocarps (vs. recurved corolla lobes and
lustrous black schizocarps).

This information is all extracted from "Flora Novae Angliae" (Haines 2011). If you have any questions about terms or identification, please let me know.
 
Topher Belknap
Posts: 205
Location: Midcoast Maine (zone 5b)
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Shane McKee wrote:Doctor here; ... I can't see it having any major medical benefits,


I'm curious, how do doctors look at a plant and tell whether it will have any major medical benefits? Is the state of medical knowledge really at the level that a chemical analysis of a plant is sufficient to determine whether there is anything useful, medicinally, in it? Does this include ailments for which there are no current cures?

Thank You Kindly,
Topher
 
Topher Belknap
Posts: 205
Location: Midcoast Maine (zone 5b)
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Arthur Haines wrote:
Here are some tips for recognizing Symphytum officinale.

1a. Leaves decurrent as wings on the stem and branches; mericarps smooth; filaments nearly
as wide as the anthers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . S. officinale
1b. Leaves not decurrent; mericarps tuberculate-roughened; filaments narrower than the anthers
2a. Root thick, but neither tuberous nor constricted at intervals; corolla pink turning blue;
stem usually branched, pubescent, in part, with stout, basally flattened hairs . . . . . S. asperum
2b. Root tuberous, enlarged and constricted at intervals; corolla pale yellow; stem usually
simple, pubescent with subterete hairs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . S. tuberosum

If you have any questions about terms or identification, please let me know.


My question is what did all those words in the first answer mean? Sorry for being so ignorant, is there somewhere on the web I can get an education on the nomenclature used to identify plants. By the time these descriptions are precise enough to be useful, they are filled with special purpose words that make them incomprehensible to the layman.

Thank You Kindly,
Topher
 
Arthur Haines
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Dear Topher,

I'm sorry the key isn't useful to you. If the identification key was written completely with lay terms, it also may not be useful to you (in certain cases) because of the ambiguity of the words (i.e., words that are used in everyday language have imprecise meanings for botany). This is one of the reasons that foragers need to plant taxonomy expertise (at least to a basic level) if they are to accurately convey what a plant looks like. These words are all easily looked up on the web where you can find definitions. In fact, if you visit https://gobotany.newenglandwild.org/glossary/a/, there is an illustrated glossary of botanical terms that you might find very helpful. It is slow learning at first, but what you learn about one group of plants is useful for other groups. Best wishes.
 
Zach Muller
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Shane McKee wrote:Doctor here; I'm unconvinced by internal benefits; my grandfather (dairy farmer) swore by it for poultices, but I haven't tried that myself.


Hey Shane are you the kind of doctor who uses herbs in their practice?


Shane McKee wrote:
However getting back to the alkaloid issue - if you were taking lots of it, yes, it would probably make you a bit unwell. A little now and then is probably harmless (and possibly effectless too), and it may depend on variety. I can't see it having any major medical benefits, but if anyone's up to trying a randomised controlled trial, that would be great! I've heard the standard seeding UK stuff is pretty benign, but the Bocking-14 and Russian types may be a bit heavier on the alkaloids - unconfirmed though. Fascinating plant!


In this link here there are some citations to case reports, animal trials, etc that may or may not be useful. I think they demonstrate that there is a lack of clarity and lack of knowledge surrounding this plants internal use and its effects both positive and negative.
That could be said for many of the herbs and plants used in folk medicine traditions as well.

When pondering the lack of clinical trials and controlled studies I cant help but think why would scientists be funded for this research? The FDA has already black listed its use, and the pharmaceutical industry has already developed many products they would rather sell you.

 
Katrina Jones
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Location: Boise, ID
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Hi Arthur! Thank you for the detailed information regarding Common Comfrey. I have found other information from an excellent website that summarizes the issue this way...Comfrey Rule: fresh leaves externally, boiled root decoction internally. The following link leads to the entire article.

http://www.doctoryourself.com/comfrey_herb.html
 
Conrad Farmer
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Arthur,

Thanks for the great identification description! Very helpful.

Any suggestions on seed?

 
Zach Muller
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Katrina, thanks for the link, very informative!

Conrad, I am sure there are many sources around, but I can personally vouch for the seeds offered here at Horizon Herbs. Very high germination rate, now I have all the comfrey I will ever need.
 
Jerry Sledge
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It seems my comfrey can not be spread by seeds, but only by root cuttings. Haven't seen any sprouting up by last years seeds.
 
Shane McKee
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Hi folks, To clarify, no, I'm not a "herbalist" doctor - I'm a geneticist, so I haven't prescribed anything in years! I'm a fully paid-up "normal" allopathic chap, but I do recognise (as I think we all do) that plants contain many pharmacologically active compounds, and we can use these to our benefit. However it's really complicated, and not everything that seems like a great idea ultimately turns out to be a great idea - heck - that's the soundtrack to medicine through the ages right there . But to get back on the permaculture track, one of *the* most fascinating things about the human organism (that's us) is that over the millions of years, evolution has honed us to be pretty stable. Our internal homeostasis is really VERY good at keeping us healthy, and in general all we need to stay on the right track is a few gentle nudges on a day to day basis, and only major interventions when we're actually sick. We don't actually *need* much in the way of medicine.

Yes, Big Pharma (Ben Goldacre is VERY good on this) is a baddie, but guess what - they are the guys who make the herbal supplements too! What I *would* say is that if you grow or source your own comfrey (or whatever else), and use it responsibly and with full awareness of its effects, it is going to be a heck of a lot better for you than some processed supplement from a "health food" shop. The same applies to our general diet.

In the UK at the moment there is a real medical backlash against "overmedicalisation" of what are essentially normal states. Many doctors are alarmed at the massive increase in statin usage (without, apparently, people being given good advice - familiar to permies! - on how to eat a better diet, get outside more for some exercise, and avoid sugar/sweet things), and want to REDUCE the power of Big Pharma over our lives. We *don't* get kickback from these companies (in general - at least I don't), and I'll be perfectly honest that nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see my medical career wither and die because my patients all got better. After all, there will *always* be permaculture, and Paul's empire looks like a far better horse to back for the long term. I have kids; I want them to inherit a better, healthier world, whatever line of business they end up in.

But back to the point - if comfrey has positive health benefits, we *should* research it, and you don't need vast sums to run well controlled well designed trials, and there are plenty of medics and scientists who are willing to help put together the evidence (pro and con) and get the message out there.

I was at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge last month - it's one of the top genome sequencing places in the world; set in idyllic grounds in the Cambridgeshire countryside. And guess what? They grow TONS of comfrey. I was chatting with some of the gardeners - they love it. The layout is all very "standard", not that "permaculture" at the moment, but they're heading in the right direction.

(View of Hinxton Manor House, behind a clump of lovely comfrey)
 
mary yett
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I am a veterinarian and have used comfrey both externally for poultices and internally for bone fractures for short periods (up to a month) in my dog and cat patients for decades, with very good results. One nice thing for giving it internally is that it tastes good, so just mixing it into the pet's food is all it takes to get it in - not so with some herbs that are effective but bitter.

It is good for soft tissue wounds and bruising as a poultice. One old name for it is "knit bone" and it actually does stimulate the body to grow new cells to replace damaged tissue. It works the same way internally and helps bone fractures heal faster.

One caution for using it in wounds and broken bones, etc is that any infection present deeper than in the superficial skin layer must be brought under control before using comfrey or it can be used immediately after an injury before infection has a chance to start.

The reason for this is that comfrey stimulates new cells ( granulation tissue) to form to fill in the skin part of the wound and this can happen so fast that pus and infection can get trapped underneath and fester instead of drain out if one is not careful.

I personally use some herbs in my vet practice but I also use big pharma drugs such as standard oral antibiotics. There are lot of antibicrobial herbs than can be produced on the farm and used at home instead -a complicated topic for another discussion.

If a farm dog got into a fight, for example (assuming surgical repair is not needed), treating right away by shaving as much hair from around the wounds, cleaning them well w/ warm soapy water, rinsing, flushing deeply with peroxide (it stings - your dog might not tolerate this) or black walnut hull tincture (contains iodine, also stings) and then applying a poultice of crushed fresh comfrey, yarrow and plantain leaves and wrapping with strips of cloth to keep it on, and change it twice a day - just might do the trick. If pus or a fever develops - a trip to the vet for antibiotics might be a good idea.

Comfrey is a wonderful plant with dozens of uses - I love it just for its beauty as well.

Mary Yett, DVM
 
Tina Paxton
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Zach Muller wrote:
In this link here there are some citations to case reports, animal trials, etc that may or may not be useful. I think they demonstrate that there is a lack of clarity and lack of knowledge surrounding this plants internal use and its effects both positive and negative.
That could be said for many of the herbs and plants used in folk medicine traditions as well.

When pondering the lack of clinical trials and controlled studies I cant help but think why would scientists be funded for this research? The FDA has already black listed its use, and the pharmaceutical industry has already developed many products they would rather sell you.



Actually, there is a good bit of high quality studies on medicinal herbs -- do a Cochrane (cochrane.org) search. The German Commission EE is an excellent evidence-based source for information. American Botanical Society is also quite good....as is Natural Standards.

One does not need to check one's brain at the door of herbal medicine practice.
 
Zach Muller
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Tina Paxton wrote:

Actually, there is a good bit of high quality studies on medicinal herbs -- do a Cochrane (cochrane.org) search. The German Commission EE is an excellent evidence-based source for information. American Botanical Society is also quite good....as is Natural Standards.

One does not need to check one's brain at the door of herbal medicine practice.


Thanks Tina, for the suggestions on where to find studies. I was not speaking of herbs in general, but specifically comfrey, and more specifically internal use. I searched the cochrane database and came up with one study of topical use and could not find any for internal use.
I will have to tackle those other sources if I get time, but if you have found references to fact based studies or trials on internal use of comfrey please post links to them!

Mary Yett, thank you for posting your first hand experience with both internal and external use. Its great that you use both herbs and more modern medicine, best of both worlds!

Shane Mcgee, thank you for your educated input. Thats a good point that it doesnt take a lot of money to do a clinical trial of comfrey, I guess I should have been more clear and stated that I do not know if any research is being done, but based on peoples differing opinions it seems that if research is out there the general public is not as aware of it as they could be.
 
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