A few years ago I heard a little about some great qualities of the comfrey plant and added three plants to my small permaculture homestead and have never regretted it. It is now the most abundant, useful, and most loved plant on my property.
- Comfrey is a perennial herb often used as fertilizer and herbal remedies.
- Comfrey is most often found in three varieties; common, bocking 4, and bocking 14.
- Comfrey has many uses beyond what it’s most commonly known for.
- It is advised by the United States Food and Drug Administration to never use comfrey internally and even has warnings against prolonged external use due to possible health dangers.
What Is Comfrey?
Comfrey is a perennial herb most commonly known for its qualities as a fertilizer and as herbal medicine. Comfrey is known as a dynamic accumulator because of its long taproot and ability to pull nutrients from deep in the soil up into its leaves. The leaves are then either added to compost or put directly around plants in order to break down and add organic material and nutrients to the top layers of the soil that plants can take up.
Different Varieties Of Comfrey
It is a perennial native to Europe. This variety is about 3 feet tall including the flower stalk. It has been used medicinally for thousands of years by many different cultures. Common comfrey can be somewhat invasive by spreading viable seeds. The roots are not as invasive as other varieties. True Comfrey seeds however germinate quickly, especially on wet soil and the plant can become quite invasive.
A natural cross between common comfrey and rough comfrey. It grows to about 4 feet tall including the flower stalk. Russian comfrey has purple, white, magenta-pink, red, or blue (that fade to pink) flowers. The seeds are not viable which makes the Russian varieties a much better plant option for homestead and permaculture applications. It has to be reproduced by root and crown cuttings and can produce 100-120 tons per acre of biomass per year. This is 3 times the amount that Common Comfrey produces. There are 21 cultivars of Russian Comfrey but #4 and #14 are the most common.
Russian Comfrey Bocking 4
More commonly used as fodder for feeding livestock. The roots of Bocking 4 go down 8-10 feet which makes it slightly more drought-resistant and the leaves are slightly wider than bocking 14.
Russian Comfrey Bocking 14
This cultivar is more commonly used as a fertilizer because of its more narrow leaves which break down slightly faster, although both 4 and 14 are very similar and can be used as both fodder and fertilizer. The roots of 14 go down 6-8 feet which is a little less drought-resistant than Bocking 4. Bocking #14 Comfrey is more rust-resistant than #4. Rust is a fungal disease though disease, in general, is very rare in all comfrey.
This variety has an NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium) ratio of 1.8 / 0.5 /5.3 and dried comfrey leaves contain 26% protein. Also, Comfrey is the only plant known to harvest vitamin B-12 from the soil.
10 Ways To Use Comfrey On The Homestead
1. Chop and Drop
One of the easiest and most common ways to use comfrey as a fertilizer is through the method known as “chop and drop”. This is done exactly as it says, you chop the plant and drop and spread it around other plants in your garden. The benefit from this is that it makes the nutrients that the long taproot has drawn up from deep in the soil and stored in the plant, available for other plants as it breaks down on the soil.
What makes comfrey an especially great plant for this is how fast it grows back. Within a few weeks after chopping it down you will generally have a large vibrant and healthy plant available for more use.
2. Compost Tea
Another option for using comfrey as a fertilizer is by creating a liquid fertilizer from it by soaking the leaves. Just take a 5-gallon bucket and put in a wad of leaves then fill the bucket with water (preferably rainwater) for 4 to 5 weeks. It will break down into a rather stinky concoction but will be packed with nutrients for use in your garden.
3. Companion Planting
Comfrey can make a great companion plant when used properly. What I mean by that is that you should only plant it beside things that you will never have to dig up as you will risk chopping the roots of the comfrey plant and causing it to spread. My favorite way to use it as a companion plant is around trees and near garden beds where it can be available for chop and drop.
4. Compost Activator
Comfrey is a great organic material to add to a compost heap because of how quickly it breaks down. The rapid decomposing of comfrey helps to activate the compost pile while also releasing an abundance of nutrients into the pile. All of this activity brought about by comfrey creates a very rich compost for garden application. You do need to be careful not to add too much comfrey to the compost pile however when you have thick layers of comfrey leaves matted together and breaking down I have noticed it breaks down into a black sludgy materiel that can throw the balance of the compost pile off, which can create an unpleasant odor.
5. Living Mulch
When using comfrey planted around trees it becomes a fantastic living mulch. So good in fact that I have started putting it around most of my trees. The broad leaves create a thick shade around the base of the tree helping to cool the roots and retain moisture in the summertime and will pile up when they die back in the winter and create a thick blanket of insulation in the winter. The added bonus is the breakdown of the dying leaves around the tree and providing a constant source of nutrients.
Bees absolutely love the flowers of the comfrey plant. When I’m walking around my garden I see bees everywhere going from flower to flower on the comfrey plants. Since they are one of the first plants to flower and one of the last to die back in the fall, they provide an early and long-lasting food source for the beneficial pollinators in the garden.
7. Weed Barrier
This was an experimental project of mine where I planted comfrey along the border of a mulch trail in my yard to see if it would prevent grass from overtaking the trail. My thought was that the thick root mass of comfrey would create a barrier that wouldn’t allow the roots of the grass to spread through and it would also shade it out from above with its broad leaves. The experiment was a success! no grass crept into the trail from the side with comfrey alongside it, confirming its beneficial uses as a weed barrier.
8. Fresh Livestock Feed
Although I have read conflicting advice on giving livestock too much fresh green comfrey, I have been using it for years without any issue. My rabbits and quail get comfrey leaves daily through the summer months as a source of fiber and nutrients, especially protein, and they really seem to like it. You will want to do your own research when deciding to feed your livestock an abundance of fresh comfrey depending on what you are raising and using it for. As with most anything, I suppose you could give them too much comfrey but I believe your animals should a diversified diet for optimal health.
9. Dried Livestock Feed
You can dry comfrey and store it for winter feed use although it really shrinks down in size as it dries. I have tried this and for me, it didn’t seem to be worth the trouble but with the proper setup and system, it could be beneficial and cost-saving while providing a healthy feed for your livestock. When I researched the yield of dry comfrey you can get from an acre of land it seems to be a viable source as yields are more than an acre of clover but less than alfalfa (source: https://hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/afcm/comfrey.html)
10. Herbal Medicine
Let’s just begin with this.
Warning: Don’t use comfrey on deep wounds as it can heal the skin too quickly aiding in possible infection. Internal use Warning: In 2001, the United States Food and Drug Administration issued a ban on comfrey products marketed for internal use and a warning label for those intended for external use. In addition to restrictions on oral use, some experts recommend applying comfrey extracts no longer than 10 days in a row, and no more than 4–6 weeks a year.
That being said, comfrey has been used for centuries as a healing herb. Research has indicated that the Greeks and the Romans both used comfrey for medical uses such as stopping heavy bleeding, treating bronchial issues, and healing wounds and even broken bones. Poultices were made for external wounds and tea was consumed for internal ailments.
I didn’t include this in the 10 uses but I wanted to mention it as a bonus use. Selling comfrey root cutting, crowns and products can be a viable source of additional income for your permaculture homestead. Because comfrey is so easily propagated and as a perennial, it comes back every year, there is always a new and bigger crop to sell from.
There you have it, a list of reasons to include comfrey on your permaculture homestead or farm. If you grow comfrey and make the most use of it, I’m sure you will come to the same conclusion I have and that is that comfrey is a fantastic and even necessary plant to have on your property.
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