Comfrey is a common wild flower in watery places in Britain and has been cultivated since 400 BC. It was used by the Greeks and Romans to heal wounds and staunch heavy bleeding; it was also used to treat bronchial problems. English immigrants took comfrey with them to America. It is native to Europe and temperate parts of Asia. The word comfrey comes from the Latin con firma meaning with firmness, a reference to the belief that it helped knit broken bones. Symphytum comes from the Greek, meaning to unite.
   Historically it was used as a treatment for gastrointestinal illnesses, but modern research has shown that comfrey so beloved of herbalists is potentially fatal. Despite its being used for centuries to heal sprains and reduce swelling, applied as a poultice, it is now viewed as being unsafe to use. It was banned in oral products in July 2001 by the United States Food and Drug Administration (USDFA) and Britain, Australia, Canada and Germany have also banned oral products containing comfrey.
    Ointments made with it are applied to heal bruises, pulled muscles, ligaments, fractures, sprains, and osteoarthritis. The roots and leaves contain allantoin, a substance which helps new cells grow and they also contain other substances which reduce inflammation and keep skin healthy. It has rosemarinic acid and tannins, along with allantoins and these regenerate skin tissue.
   Comfrey contains pyrrolizidine, alkaloids that are highly toxic to the liver and can be fatal, hence the ban on oral products. Pyrrolizidine alkaloids can be absorbed through the skin and harmful amounts can build up in the body. Don’t apply comfrey or any product containing it on broken skin! New leaves have more pyrrolizidine alkaloids in them than older ones, so if you gather leaves to make a poultice, pick the older ones.
   Never use comfrey ointments or creams on children and the elderly and women who are pregnant should also avoid this herb. If you use a cream containing comfrey only apply it for 10 days at a time. You should only use it for a total of 4-6 weeks in a year.
   It’s interesting that in the 1920s comfrey was grown in Britain for animal fodder, but no animals really liked it, which should tell us something. It’s related to the Forget-Me-Not and borage and is a pretty ornamental garden plant which gives a dense cover and grows quickly. It is now grown by some gardeners for its compost value.
    In less sophisticated times, chicory, comfrey and dandelion roots were sometimes used ground as a coffee substitute, and in some countries including parts of Britain the roots were boiled and used as a vegetable, and the leaves, after blanching were eaten as salad greens.
   In times gone by, comfrey was used to treat dysentery and diarrhoea in the Asian subcontinent and British herbalists recommended a tisane made by boiling ½ -1 ounce of the crushed root in 2 pints of milk or water, to be taken in wineglass full doses. The roots were used in this way to treat coughs, pulmonary complaints, and for internal haemorrhages. A tisane was made with 1 ounce of leaves to a pint of boiling water then left to steep for 10 minutes before straining and drinking.
   The whole plant can be picked and pulverized, then boiled in a little water and well wrapped up in cloth to be used as a poultice to reduce swellings, especially on the joints. Culpeper wrote, “The root boiled in water or wine and the decoction drank, heals inward hurts… ulcers of the lungs and causes phlegm that oppresses him to be easily spit out…”
   It’s a shame it is now considered a potential carcinogen.

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