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Article written by Lorraine Cavanagh and printed in the Mediterranean Gardening and Outdoor Living Magazine.
Be Comfy with Comfrey!
Comfrey is a magical plant! It nurtures plants, animals, insects and humans alike and is remarkably disease-free itself. It makes wonderful compost, fertiliser and mulch. Things don´t get much better than that! Every gardener should have a comfrey patch and especially if you are organic.
Comfrey is one of the best investments for a healthy and productive garden. Most people reach for a quick fix when their plants are ailing but quick-release fertilisers will only promote lots of lush sappy growth - a banquet table to aphids and a breeding ground for fungal disease. Far better to slow feed your plants; maybe they won´t be quite so big and lush
but they will be healthy, strong and softly glowing with health. In fact, we could all do with some of that!
Symphytum officinale, or Comfrey, is a perennial plant with deep roots that go way beyond the reach of most plants so they can find nutrients and minerals in the subsoil that other plants cannot. Its large hairy leaves also contain more proteins than any other plant, 22%. Comfrey leaves are extremely rich in nitrogen and potassium with a reasonable amount of phosphorus too. Found naturally fringing riverbanks and other damp areas, it will also grow on drier ground. The piercing roots, up to 4m long, will survive most conditions.
There are three basic ways to use this super-plant. Try a clump at the side of your compost heap; it will mop up excess nutrients that leak out from the compost and you can then recycle some of the leaves back into the compost. The cut leaves break down very quickly, transferring their nutrients back into the compost heap and encouraging speedy
decomposition. There´s a delicious simplicity in this, no complications, no additions, just Mother Nature doing what she does best – or perhaps it just appeals to my simple mind!
The second method is to spread the leaves as mulch. Like other mulches, it slows down evaporation, keeps soil moist and helps suppress weed growth.
Because the leaves rot down so quickly they give a boost to shallow rooting plants and especially heavy feeders like tomatoes, roses and fruit trees.
Deep rooting comfrey does not threaten shallower rooting fruit trees, for instance, but will provide a very rich potassium feed. As a surprise bonus, the wilting leaves are irresistible to slimy predators so they can be used as bait to keep slugs and snails away from valuable plants like hostas and soft crops such as lettuce.
Thirdly, comfrey leaves also make a liquid fertiliser – comfrey tea. To do this, fill a container with leaves and top it up with water. Stir now and again. After 2 to 3 weeks the green-brown sludge smells vile but that is a sure indication that the proteins are breaking down and the brew is ready for use! Strain it and use the liquid, diluted 1:10 – either foliar spray or water directly into the roots. The left-over slurry at the bottom of the container works wonders on the compost heap. Smelly but powerful stuff!
Most animals love comfrey – chickens, ducks, sheep, cattle and goats will all gorge on it. And bees, that so much need our help at the moment, will nuzzle into the drooping lilac-blue flower-heads.
But comfrey can do far more; it is a traditional medicine for humans too. Its other name is knitbone. Its powerful healing properties help the body to repair damaged tissue and bones by stimulating cell division, effectively repairing quicker, and reducing inflammation. There has been some controversy over comfrey because it does contain poisonous substances (as do many plant-based medicines) that can be toxic to the liver when ingested. Thus, in many countries, it has been banned for oral use but it is still recommended for external (short-term) use as a poultice or ointment for wounds, broken bones, muscle strains and fractures. As with all medicines, continued or long-term usage is not advisable.
So, after hearing of all these benefits, I´m sure you´re wanting to get planting. Plan carefully - it is important to select a suitable site. Comfrey is an exceedingly tough perennial plant. It has very deep penetrating roots – though not wide-spreading - and a new plant can sprout from a tiny section of root so, if you ever want to get rid of it (though I can´t think why) then you could have a tough time. In a wetter climate than ours, it can become very prolific – some might even say weed-like – but our drier conditions act as a perfect control. Likewise, as it is usually sold in the sterile form, it
cannot spread unless you sever the roots. So don´t cultivate around your comfrey patch and it will stay contained. Belonging to the same family as borage, the hairy leaves are irritant to some, so always wear gloves when handling. Plant in partial shade and give an occasional deep watering during hot weather. Leave it to establish during its first year. In the second year, harvesting starts when the plant is 0.50m high or starting to develop flowers. Simply cut down the stems to 10cm above ground level. Give the plant a good soaking and it will soon regenerate. Thereafter you should get
four harvests per year, amounting to some 2kg of leaves per plant. That´s a lot of leaves! If you want to increase your comfrey crop, lift and divide the original plant or make root cuttings.
I believe we are the only Garden Centre in Iberia stocking comfrey plants. We have small plug plants, ideal for posting.