Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
There are plants that puzzle me when they turn up in the garden, because I don’t know what they are. There are plants that alarm me like the Bindweed that is wriggling its way over the fence. And then there are plants that fill me with delight. When I realised that I had Comfrey in the garden, with its long grey-green leaves and pendulous creamy-purple flowers, I greeted it as a long-lost friend.
Many years ago, I worked in Dundee, in Scotland. My boyfriend was a herbalist, and a keen cyclist. I had never learned to ‘go a bike’, but I was determined to learn. Needless to say I fell off, a lot. Whenever I did, Colin would reach for a strange, brown, mucilaginous ointment that he’d made from what he called Knitbone, and which I later realised was made from Comfrey root.
To me, it seemed like a miraculous balm. Swelling and bruising reduced within hours. I watched as Colin used the ointment when one of the pigs in the city farm that we worked on developed a sore foot. She was walking without limping within a day. I later learned that Comfrey contains a substance called allantoin, which promotes healing in connective tissue.
Comfrey is a favourite with bees. After they have finished at the thistles, the bumblebees make a detour to feed on the Comfrey for their dessert. At the moment, the plant is in prime condition, but in a few weeks’ time it will start to look a little dishevelled, with fallen petals and pollen all over those fine leaves. You can get some cultivated versions of Comfrey, which are a little longer-lived and better behaved, but I rather like these volunteer plants, who arrive in the garden with no warning and flourish in awkward spots where other plants would fail.
For the organic gardener, Comfrey is a wonder plant – it has a deep taproot which ‘mines’ the ground for minerals, particularly nitrogen and potassium, and so it can be used to improve the soil by putting these elements back. You can create a liquid fertilizer by stuffing a dustbin full of Comfrey leaves and leaving it to rot down – it will produce a thick black ‘goo’ which can be diluted one part to twenty with water. However, the evidence on the Internet suggests that this smells like ‘rotting corpses’, so you might want to take this into account if you have a small garden, neighbours in close proximity and a delicate stomach. I would be interested to hear if you have attempted this process, and if so, if you still have any friends.
For those who are faint of heart, Comfrey can also be used as a mulch or a green manure, which seems a little more user-friendly.
However, as I have only one Comfrey plant, I will be gazing at it with unbridled admiration and enjoying the bees that it attracts. By now, it probably has roots about three feet deep and will be difficult to dig out, even if I should have such an uncivilised thought. It reminds me of my younger, more reckless self, who was prepared to jump on a bike even if it meant falling off, and it fills me with a bittersweet nostalgia for those days long gone. Our lives go by so quickly and yet, here it is again, Comfrey in bloom, busy with bees. So much changes and yet so much stays the same.