Our Ingredients: Comfrey

In this series, we'll explore the history, common usage, and modern applications of each plant based ingredient in the Cardiff line.

What is comfrey?

Comfrey, or Symphytum Officinale, is a perennial plant that is part of the Boraginaceae family. There are actually 35 species that make up Symphytum / comfrey, though Symphytum officinale is considered “common” or “true” comfrey. 

Native to Europe, comfrey still finds itself growing in parts of Asia and North America. Sometimes considered an introduced species, and other times considered a simple weed, comfrey grows in wet, marsh-like areas including ditches and alongside riverbanks. Tall in stature, the plant can grow up to five feet in height and typically dons thin leaves and dark roots. The flowers of comfrey plants are usually small and bell-shaped, ranging in color from cream to purple, and sometimes striped. 

The different parts of the comfrey plant — roots, leaves, flowers, etc. — contain a variety of different chemical compounds. It’s thanks to these compounds that comfrey is able to provide potential benefits to those that use it. A more recent study on the plant’s pyrrolizidine alkaloids actually reported the opportunity for drug development based on their compounds. 


History

In past practises, comfrey leaves and roots were used in very traditional medicine both internally — teas, tinctures, etc. — and externally, — creams, ointments, etc. In Japan, the plant has been harvested with the intention of treatment use for over 2,000 years. 

Comfrey was usually referred to as “knitbone” in older homeopathic applications and was used for many different reasons. Individuals often completed these practises in an effort to treat various disorders pertaining to body pain and swelling. Comfrey has historically been linked to treating osteoarthritis discomfort, however a clinical studies review completed in 2013 found insufficient significant research on the more homeopathic practise. 


Current use

What’s the herb comfrey used for now? In its modern use, comfrey is still regularly used to remedy joint and muscle pain. Those interested in how to use comfrey and what product is best for them should consider both their potential need, and also what’s on the market. Products featuring the plant can most oftentimes be found at your local health store.

Comfrey can currently be found in a variety of products including: 

  • Muscle / joint salves
  • Creams
  • Body lotions
  • Ointments
  • Topical gels / other solutions 

Comfrey benefits

While many believe more research must be done on comfrey to further understand its healing abilities, some evidence suggests the plant can be used to treat wounds like abrasions. Authors of one comfrey study noted that the topical applications of the plant appear to be entirely safe, but also reported that more research is needed to better understand user’s potential risks or side effects when using comfrey on damaged skin. 

Evidence from the same study indicated comfrey has the potential to help ease osteoarthritis pain and injuries akin to basic sprains. Similarly, the lotion and cream products including comfrey root have also been thought to soothe back pain. The rosmarinic acid in comfrey may be to thank for the anti-inflammatory effects it can bring about, and the same can be said for saponins that possess the plant’s antibacterial and antiedematogenic properties. It’s for this reason some consider comfrey an antiviral alternative of sorts. 

Herbalists typically consider comfrey safe and beneficial when applied to the skin and lesions / bruises / abrasions for short periods of time, but individuals should seek their own doctors' advice before implementing the plant into one’s routine. 

Overall, many modern studies have shown some evidence to support comfrey’s topical use for medicinal purposes — primarily minor joint pains and wounds. But, it’s pertinent that those considering how to use comfrey understand what methods are suggested and which aren’t. 

Topical application is what many modern healers and practitioners feel positively about. Again, herbal-specialized practitioners are very helpful in suggesting the best method for comfrey to bring about potential benefits and healing capabilities.