"Natural Healing with Herbs for a Healthier You"

Comfrey has a very ancient and colorful history.  Dr. Christopher believed that it was one of the patriarchal herbs, possibly found in the Garden of Eden.  Its recorded history begins in Europe, in the known world of that time, where Dioscorides, an ancient Greek botanic physician, documents the use of comfrey in treating the armies of Alexander the Great.  This famous Greek physician references the wild comfrey, Symphytum, which has been known to herbalists for over 2,000 years.  “Symphytum” comes from the Greek word “syumphuo”, meaning “to make grow together.”  Its complete Latin name is Symphytum Officinale, the term “officinale” referring to the Latin “officina”, which was the monastery storeroom for botanical drugs, or in other words, the equivalent of our modern day pharmacy.

During the Middle Ages in Europe, herbal medicine was the accepted medical treatment.  Indeed, it was perhaps the only known way to treat illness, injury and disease.  Catholic monks became the primary physicians, or healers, of their day.  What these dedicated fathers could not gather through wildcrafting, they grew in their monastery gardens.  Comfrey was one of those herbs they cultivated.  It was used for various injuries and bronchial disorders, which will be discussed in a later chapter.  Many materia medica (accounts of medicinal substances) of the day mention the specific uses of comfrey.

A revolutionary healer, whom we call Paracelsus (although his real name was Philippus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim) lived from 1493 to 1541.  He became a great advocate of herbal medicines, and indeed, held comfrey in high regard, as evidenced by this comment in his writings, “To what purpose do you superadde vinegar to the root of Comfrey, or bole, or suchlike balefull additaments, while God hath compos’d this simple sufficient to cure the fracture of the bones?”

The wild comfrey of that earlier era of which we spoke, a native of Europe, was a very prickly ancestor to the cultivated variety we see now under cultivation.  Today’s cultivated variety is still prickly, but apparently not as much as it was formerly.  This less prickly variety is known as Russian comfrey and was first used in ornamental gardens.  Joseph Busch introduced it into England between 1790 and 1801.  While Joseph Busch was head gardener at the palace of Catherine the Great at St. Petersburg, Russia, he became acquainted with comfrey.  He was so impressed that he sent several plants to his native land of England.  These plants became cultivated as ornamentals.  As late as 1952 the “Royal Horticultural Dictionary of Gardening” recommended comfrey as a fine plant for the wild garden, meaning a garden for bees, birds and butterflies, rather than man.

From the ornamental stage, comfrey graduated to a more useful function, that of animal fodder.  This came about through the efforts of an Englishman, James Grant.  He artificially increased the yield by constant cuttings and root stimulation by water.  His yields were very large and by the mid 1800’s, comfrey production in England, Scotland, and Ireland was reported to be as much as 31 tons to the acre.

One of the medicinal properties of the comfrey plant that will be discussed in a later chapter is that it is mucilaginous, meaning that it secretes a mucilage which can be sticky.  In the mid-1800’s, A Quaker, Henry Doubleday, the inventor of postage stamp glue, had run out of gum arabic for his formula.  The “Royal Agricultural Society’s Journal” of 1871 ran an article on comfrey, which Mr. Doubleday read.  He learned that it possessed this mucilaginous property, and he believed that he could extract this substance to use as glue.  When he sent to gardener at St. Petersburg for some comfrey plants, the gardener sent him seedlings that had grown between the rows of the established perennials instead of larger, more established plants.  These seedlings were the result of cross-pollination of two pure strains:  comfrey from the Caucasus, and the native European comfrey.  It is not known if Mr. Doubleday was able to extract his glue-like substance from these comfrey plants, but it is known that he fed the comfrey to his livestock.  It was a very hardy and prolific strain, yielding from 100 to 120 tons per acre; much more than the former yield of 31 pounds per acre with the plants in the British Isles.  Because of the high yield and the nutritional profile of comfrey, Mr. Doubleday grew comfrey to fulfill his dream to feed a hungry world.

In the New World, comfrey was among those medicinal plants the early settlers relied upon to treat their many and varied illnesses.  Although the Colonials had brought some of their most familiar herbs from their native Europe, they were pleased to learn that comfrey (and other herbs) grew locally.

Some of the earliest recorded uses of comfrey in America come from the writings of a nineteenth century botanic physician by the name of Samuel Thomson.  He tells a personal story of his foot injury from a piece of farm machinery.  Using the traditional healing methods of the time produced no relief, and it soon became apparent that the foot would have to be amputated.  The nine-year old Samuel asked his father to get some comfrey that was known to be growing in the area.  Comfrey poultices were subsequently placed on the foot, and complete healing followed.  However, even after this miraculous event, comfrey was not a part of Thompson’s patented system of medicine.

The Industrial Revolution in America brought many changes to herbalism.  Living conditions in cities changed so that the former plagues were brought under control.  The working classes had more money, and were enticed by “glamorously packaged and enticingly advertised new patent medicines.”  Many of the herbal medicines formerly held in high regard, such as comfrey, began to be abandoned, being considered as “obsolete among physicians.”

However, in 1896, Dr. Charles MacAllister, M.D. noticed an article written by a Professor William Thompson about comfrey in an issue of the British Surgical Journal, “Lancet”.  Professor Thompson was President of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.  This article recorded the case of a man with a malignant tumor on his face.  After surgery had failed, the patient had been sent home to die.  Three months later the patient returned to Dr. Thompson’s office, completely cured.  Upon questioning, the patient told the doctor that he had been applying comfrey poultices to the affected area.  Dr. Thompson stated in his article that although he knew nothing about the uses of comfrey, he did not believe that it would remove a sarcomatous tumor.

Since Dr. MacAllister was interested in irregular cell growth, he became excited by Dr. Thompson’s account.  He began to consult old materia medica for references on the reported uses of comfrey.  He found many references before the mid-nineteenth century, but also found that its use as a healing agent was discontinued after that time.

Prior to the nineteenth century, the Turks and Saracens used comfrey to heal wounds received in battle.  In fact, many of the ancient records Dr. MacAllister investigated mentioned comfrey as “a great healer of wounds, ulcers, and a knitter of flesh, sinew, and bone.”  Comfrey held a place of high esteem in the herbal practices of the local people.  Dr. MacAllister wanted to find out what it was about comfrey that gave it such a good reputation, so he sent plants to the head of the Organic Chemistry Department at Liverpool University.  The chemical analysis of comfrey disclosed a white, crystalline substance called allantoin, which will be discussed in the chapter entitled, “Chemical Constituent of Comfrey.”  Suffice it to say that this substance seems to play a role in metabolism of growth and development.

Dr. MacAllister began experimenting with solution of allantoin on his patient’s wounds.  He discovered remarkable improvements, and even rapid healing of old wounds.  He continued to experiment with comfrey, and the results of his experiments were published in the “British Medical Journal” (January 6 and September 21, 1912.)

Comfrey history continues to be written to the present day.  Many practicing herbalists of our day are still using and praising this extraordinary plant.  One of those herbalists was Dr. Christopher, who recorded many examples of its use in his herbal practice in the latter part of the last century.  Many of his case studies are documented in his book “School of Natural Healing”, and also in “The School of Natural Healing 100 Herb Syllabus.”  And, of course, those of us who obtain knowledge of herbs through The School of Natural Healing learn about comfrey.  As we become practicing herbalists, the history of comfrey lives on through our success stories.
by Janet Ollman
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