In the past five or six years, gardening has become one of my most treasured hobbies, an escape from the stressful hustle-and-bustle of city living. Not only does my backyard victory patch imbue me with a sense of wonder and calm, it also provides sustenance for my family and encourages more sustainable living in our household.
It also offers a profoundly deep spiritual bond with nature—with just a little bit of water and seeds, life begins. With a little bit more nourishment and care, that seed grows into a plant that not only survives but thrives despite long droughts, nasty pests, and deadly diseases. Each weed pulled, flower smelled, and tomato harvested gets me closer to the deepest part of myself. Using gardening as a healing, secular spiritual practice may be the way to bring you home—to yourself.
Now that fall is here, my thoughts turn to my garden and I start to panic. How can I keep that healing connection going under two feet of snow and in zero-degree weather? I looked to the plants themselves to help me answer that question.
Benefits of Comfrey
One of my garden’s most resilient and beneficial perennial plants is comfrey. Long dismissed as an invasive weed, gardeners are giving it a second look because of its powerful fertilizing and healing capabilities. According to clinical herbalist Kathleen Wildwood, who founded the Verona, Wisc.-based Wildwood Institute, comfrey leaves, and especially the roots, contain a hefty amount of allantoin, a phytochemical, or plant chemical, that speeds up cell repair.
“Comfrey is so good at repairing bones that it is known as ‘knitbone,’ so the bone needs to be set correctly before you start using it,” she says. “Comfrey also has uses for the respiratory system, and can treat, for example, bronchitis and sore throats; colitis, stomach inflammation, and ulcers; and interstitial cystitis and overactive bladder.”
It spreads vigorously and can grow almost anywhere—prolifically, so I keep it controlled in a pot. Gardeners primarily grow the container friendly cultivar Russian Bocking 14, which can be identified by its purple flowers. Often, it is used as a green mulch to feed other plants; I plan to till the leaves and flowers into the soil to enrich it for next year’s crop. I also intend to use comfrey to help me extend my garden’s vitality well into the winter by drying the herb and then using it make a salve for cuts and scrapes, as well as for long infusions to drink throughout the season.
Comfrey can be applied externally as a salve, ointment, compress—or even just its leaves—to treat, for example, joint inflammatory disorders, wounds, bone fractures, and gout, according to Wildwood.
“An infused oil or ointment made of comfrey leaves or root speeds healing of wounds so effectively that one caution is that you cannot use it on a deep cut, because it will heal the top over so quickly that you can end up with an infection underneath,” she says. “But if it is not a deep wound, it will heal wounds and strengthen skin. You can even just rehydrate a large leaf with hot water, wrap it around a twisted ankle, then cover with plastic wrap or a towel.”
Wildwoods cautions that before you make any kind of infusion, however, you should be sure you’re using the correct species of comfrey, Symphytum uplandica x. She says the best way to identify safe comfrey is by the color of the flowers. “The one with the purple or blue flowers is safe internally or externally because they have been bred to eliminate toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids,” Wildwood explains, which can damage the liver.
Internally, Wildwood says comfrey can be ingested as an herbal tea or infusion to treat, for example, gastric ulcers, rheumatic pain, arthritis, bronchitis, and colitis, and it’s her favorite way to use the dried leaves.
“Clients who have torn muscles, popped tendons, twisted ankles or who have fragile skin are all helped by using comfrey leaf long infusion internally for several months, allowing those body parts to be less fragile, more-stretchy, and resilient,” she says. “For this reason, it is also helpful for women older than 40 who want to become pregnant. In addition, the amino acids in comfrey are useful for brain development in a fetus.”
Are you ready to make your own ointment and long infusions? Check out the following recipes.
Recipe: How to Make a Long Herbal Oil Infusion
- Fill a one-pint jar with a tight-fitting lid about halfway to two-thirds full with dried comfrey leaves. Cover leaves with preferred carrier oil (such as olive, avocado, coconut, or grapeseed).
- To make a long oil infusion, leave for six weeks and shake the jar a couple of times a day. After six weeks, strain the oil through cheesecloth.
- Add a 1/2 teaspoon of vitamin E to help preserve the oil. You can also add a few drops of essential oils like rosemary, lavender, or chamomile to make your oil even more beneficial.
Recipe: How to Make an Herbal Salve
- Melt 1/3 cup beeswax pastilles in a double-boiler.
- Add about 1 1/2 cups of infused comfrey oil to the melted beeswax.
- Pour into jar or metal tins and cool.
Recipe: How to Make a Long Herbal Infusion
- Take one ounce of chosen dried herb, such as comfrey.
- Place in a canning jar. Use a one-quart jar for leaves (such as comfrey), or hardy flowers (such as red clover), one-pint jar for roots, barks, or berries (such as burdock root or rose hips).
- Cover completely with boiling water, stir with chopstick or knife and add more water until full.
- Place lid on and let sit four-to-eight hours for leaves or hardy flowers, eight hours for roots. Many people make their infusions in the evening and then strain them in the morning.
- When done brewing, strain and refrigerate. Infusion will keep for 48 hours in the refrigerator. (After that, the proteins start to break down and the brew will taste off.)
- Infusions may be reheated (preferably do not boil, but it is still OK to drink if it does), iced, sweetened, milk added, etc. Some do well with salt or tamari, such as nettle.
Recipe courtesy Kathleen Raven Wildwood, © 2015.