Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Garbling the comfrey roots & a couple of nifty examples of the Doctrine of Signatures

There's a lot to squeeze into this post!

Early spring and late fall are the times we go after root medicine. Right about now, still early spring where I live, while the leaves of herbaceous perennial plants like dandelion and comfrey are still small their roots are still fat and full of stored goodness.

This is one of my many comfrey plants:

This is what happens when you drop ONE comfrey leaf on your lawn.

That one is quite large for this time of year, so it's not the best candidate for digging (although I would do so if I was desperate). Lush leaf growth means the energy is moving rapidly upward; the roots will be somewhat depleted of their stored energy but wow, aren't those leaves lovely? They're also tasty, and although yes, I am aware of the FDA's recommendation not to take comfrey internally, I'm also aware of its use as a traditional spring food. I err on the side of caution, somewhat, and we don't go hog-wild. But one or two of these when they're small added to a stew or soup? Deeelish. And loaded with minerals. And low in the potentially dangerous to the liver whatchamacallits. I also have a fondness for the infusion (long steeped tea) of the dried leaves in winter time. I don't recommend that you eat comfrey leaves or drink the infusion to get generous amounts of those minerals that are so important for bone strengthening, or that beautiful mucilage that is so kind to the internal organs, that's totally your call (do your research!) Here's something by the venerable David Hoffmann for you to ponder.

Now let's take a look at these purty leaves .. and take a side trip into the Doctrine of Signatures while we're at it ..

What is the Doctrine of Signatures you may ask? It's a system by which we see the potential medicinal use of a plant reflected in its physical characteristics. For example, eyebright flowers look very much like blood shot eyes and as it turns out, they're wonderful medicine for - you guessed it - blood shot eyes, whether from allergies, conjunctivitis or some kind of irritant, eyebright will clear them. Plants with yellow flowers (the colour of jaundice) are often good medicine for the liver or gall bladder. Not all of them, mind you, but you get my drift ..

Now comfrey, from time immemorial, has been considered good medicine for the lungs. It was used for TB, it was used as an expectorant, it was used for pneumonia. And if we look at the leaf structure of comfrey and an example of lung tissue, we do see a certain similarity:

click to embiggen

That's kind of cool. I have no hands on experience in using comfrey for treating lung issues, so we'll leave it at that for now. I just thought you might like to see this.

Something I do have a fair amount of experience with is using comfrey for treating sprains or broken bones. One of comfrey's knick-names is "knit-bone", after all. Happily, I have too many examples of its worth to list them all here, but I can tell you it was just the ticket to help a farmer friend who had a nudge from an overly friendly bull. That left him with bruised and cracked ribs - we used compresses of the leaves, along with burdock, that time, and his doctor was mightily impressed with the speedy and thorough healing (so was he, from then on he called me a witch!). When I bashed up a toe quite spectacularly this winter, I smeared comfrey root tincture on the toe and dressed it with tincture soaked strips of cloth. I could walk on it by the next day, and had it healed up in two weeks, far better than the usual 6 weeks one expects from a toe incident.

Currently someone very dear to me is recovering from emergency surgery that was required to put his smashed knee cap back together after a bike accident. Now that the sutures are out and we know all danger of infection is over, it's time for comfrey. It will help the incisions to heal cleanly, without scars that might 'pull' uncomfortably, and it will help the bone knit, too. He's using comfrey root tincture, externally, and he'll need more than the little bottle I was able to send, so while I made him some more I thought it as good an occasion as any to walk ya'll through how to make this marvellously useful ally.

As it turned out, this particular garbling session was chock-full of teachable moments. I hardly know where to begin ..

I dug a couple of small plants - well, small on the surface. With only a couple of leaves showing, I still got some nice thick juicy roots. I decided to dry some sliced root first. These are used for first aid - if you have a strained or sprained anything, you boil a few slices of root then soak cloths in the liquid. These are then laid on the injury - hot or cold, as preferred, or alternating hot and cold fomentations - which is fantastic for keeping swelling from getting out of hand. I've seen badly twisted ankles perfectly healed the next day with that method. The fresh leaves can be used as well, but I like to have dried root on hand in case of accidents in the winter.

If I'm going to dry roots, I do NOT wash them. Wet roots will rot. Instead, I let them sit out for an hour or so for the soil to dry, then I brush them off. Here's my root harvest from that day:

That's a standard size basin. Note the black outer skin on the roots.

Below is a snapped open root. By the way, if larger pieces of root don't 'snap' when fresh, but are a little bendy, they're not at their best. This is also why digging comfrey is a tricky business, they tend to snap off underground. Actually, they always snap off underground, which is why it is nigh on impossible to get rid of. Not that you'd want to. But if you plant it, make sure to do so where you want it to stay, okay?

Typical beautiful white interior. 

What you can't see in this shot is the sort of slimey-ness of that root interior. It's slimy in a good way .. now we're getting into the things I wish someone had told me about comfrey before I first garbled it. That slippery stuff is the allantoin and it's one of comfrey's magic ingredients. It's in all the best skin care products, used for everything from scar healing to radiation burn therapy. And once it's exposed to air it goes from slimey to very, very sticky. So when you slice comfrey, be ready. Your fingers, your cutting board, anything you touch will end up like this knife:


Between the slipperiness as you're slicing, and the stickiness as it dries, be careful! Of course the good news is if your knife slips and you cut yourself, you have the remedy at hand. But wash the wound well first please. Comfrey seals wounds so well and so quickly that it can sometimes seal bacteria inside, leading to trouble. So for surface wounds, clean wounds, and burns without secondary infection, it is the best. For a deep wound? Go find some plantain. If it's bleeding profusely, go find some yarrow.

(Actually, speaking of teachable moments, we have one right here. If you go back to the pic of me holding the root, enlarge it, you will see that I have a slice mark on my thumb. That happened days ago while making supper and it was nasty. It bled a LOT. I soaked through two bandaids before I finally clued in and bandaged it with yarrow. That stopped the bleeding but that slit has been a pain in the butt ever since. With my hands in and out of dishwater, or digging in the dirt, it kept getting re-opened. Never to the point of bleeding again, just ow ow ow. Because it was deep, and so hard to keep clean, I didn't use comfrey until I was sure it was well sealed. Now I'm using it in the hopes of avoiding a scar, and it's finally doing better. Sheesh.)
Comfrey root

Where were we? Ah yes, here comes another Doctrine of Signatures moment. We're making this tincture for bone healing, yes? Well check this out. While initially the root is white on the inside, as it oozes, it shows the inner cell structure. And lo, it sure does resemble a cross section of bone:

You know, there's something to this Doctrine of Signatures. It's not the be-all and end-all but it's something to keep in mind about how God, or nature, (take yer pick) ever so cleverly finds multiple uses for the same structures. It's fashionable, in some circles, to dismiss this, but when our ancestors were making medicine they found it invaluable. It, or something similar (no pun intended) is in use in all cultures, all over the world. Coincidence?

Now you may have heard that comfrey is great for the garden, and it's true. Wherever comfrey grows it loosens and enriches the soil. When I go for comfrey roots that's something I notice every time, the soil is easy to work, so I can reach my hand down in there with barely any digging necessary.

Earthworms love comfrey too, and if you fertilize your soil with comfrey you'll have lots of them. That's something I was planning to tell you anyway, and then while I was slicing the roots, this happened:

Only one worm was slightly harmed in the making of this production. YES I felt like a heel. Yes, it was returned to the garden immediately.


But I learned something, indeed I did. This section was right at the top of the root, where root meets leaves. Not only was this worm here but a colony of babies as well. Now I know where earthworms have their nurseries, and so do you.

For the drying, I used the bigger roots, and sliced crosswise, without washing them first.

For the tincture, I gave the roots a bit of a soak, just a few minutes to loosen more dirt. Then I wiped them dry with a tea towel. Another good thing to know about working with herbs - keep your old tea towels, they're ideal for this kind of job.

A typical moment in a wild crafter's kitchen. Well, this wild crafter's kitchen anyway. I'm not sure if you can see this, but even the kettle is a bit muddy - because one must have tea, yes? And yes, that is a very large bottle of vodka. 

I sliced the larger roots lengthwise, then chopped them quite small (or as small as my sticky knives would allow) cutting away any questionable bits and watching carefully for baby worms. In the past, I would have told you to leave out the tiny roots and root hairs on the larger pieces. But that was before I read that plants have (something like) brains in their root structures. I think I want that in there, don't you? Just in case? Here's a snippet of Stephen Harrod Buhner on that fascinating subject if you're interested.

Comfrey brains?!

Then in it went into two jars, vodka poured over and lids put on. Really a very simple process, just sticky. The whole thing took me far less time than it's taking to write this post.

Here's the tincture after 24 hours, already showing that characteristic red as the good stuff is released into the vodka.

Sorry it's out of focus.

And here is a drop of a previous batch, showing the deep reddish brown, surprisingly thick slippery liquid it becomes.

Awww, it turned into a heart shape!

Now in case you don't yet have comfrey fatigue, here is a video for those interested. The first third is Rosemary Gladstar with her take on using comfrey internally and her experiences in using it after a quite terrible accident. Good stuff, comfrey.


  1. Wow! So very interesting what with all the incredibly interesting links you sent me to whilst reading your splendid take on comfrey! I love it and am sooooo excited to have my very first two baby plants! Thanks, C, enjoyed it!

    1. That's great Linda, I'm happy to hear it. I'll try to do a step by step about drying the leaves for you when the weather is right.

  2. Great post, thanks!

    And I like the hint to the root brains. Stephen Harrod Buhner references Baluška's research but Baluška also references another man who had the idea as first: Charles Darwin.
    Look it up. Darwin was not only into origin of species stuff, but observed plants too, in his last works. He even said something like: plants are animals upside down, with their heads in the soil.

    1. Yes, there is a lot that Darwin said that we don't hear about in the mainstream (as well as a lot we're led to believe he said, but didn't). I read that book of Buhner's last winter and then reread most of it again almost immediately, it's fascinating.

      Is comfrey considered food in your neck of the woods, Gemma?

  3. In my neck of the woods comfrey's name expresses its ability to heal bones :-)
    Yes it is also eaten (leaves). Occasionaly, in tiny amounts, ...why not?
    Many people are afraid even of the tiny amount, as your post suggests.