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WILDLIFE OF NORTHERN ENGLAND

Get to know Comfrey.

Walking around the countryside of northern England one can not go far without coming across the comfrey plant. This plant joins the floral exhibition provided by mother nature to enhance a diversity of habitat and to ensure the cycle of plants and animals continues as it has done since time immemorial.

As a young boy  my grandfather could not walk past this plant without exalting its virtues to me. How times have changed!. Back then the importance of the plant as an herbal ally and even more so in the more archaic past. Its medicinal virtues and other beneficial uses will be detailed later in the text.

In common with many other species of wild flora the comfrey as acquired many country titles which include knitbone { this is still the plants alternative common name} , bone set, bruise herb and knitback. It is erect,clump forming,rough and hairy all over. It is a plant of riverside banks, ditches,shady and damp places.

Below-- The foliage of comfrey make this an impressive plant.

Basic biology of comfrey

This handsome plant is a member of the borage  group of plants belonging to the family Boraginaceae. We recognize this plant by its large foliage each up to 25-30cms long {up to one foot}.They are ovate to lanceolate in shape and covered with rough hairs. The latter feature is a good diagnostic aid to distinguish it from the superficially similar looking foliage of the poisonous foxglove which lack these rough hairs..

These rough hairs have been known to cause itching to occur when coming into contact with sensitive skin. Another diagnostic feature is the way the leaves narrow at the base and run down the stem beyond where the leaf and stem meet until they meet the next leaf. The leaves diminish in size as they appear higher up the stem. The leafy stem is hollow and the leaves covered in rough hairs. It is much branched near the summit. 

Below some members of the borage family. Courtesy of wiki-commons.

The branches are terminated by one sided clusters of flowers which tend to appear pendulous. These flowers are usually grouped in pairs. Before they open they are termed as being scorpoid {rolled up like a scorpions tail} this is also a feature of a smaller member of the family the forget-me-not. When open the flowers are bell shaped of a purplish colour but a yellow and cream coloured variety is not uncommon. they are in  bloom from May and persist for the greater part of the summer when they are much visited by bees and other insects. All these diagnostic features are above the ground yet it is the root of this plant has played an important part of our medicinal heritage. The root is a branched rootstock, with fibrous roots. They are spindle shaped, about 20-30cm long, dark coloured on the outside but white and fleshy within. 

 

The flowers of Comfrey

photograph by Dal

Medicinal virtues of Comfrey.

The active ingredients of the comfrey include allantoin,tannins, mucilage,calcium,potassium and phosphorus.

In days gone by the comfrey was used to treat many afflictions including diarrhoea, dysentery, lung disorders, internal bleeding and eczema. However, its main contribution was in aiding the knitting together of broken bones hence many of its country titles including knitbone and boneset. The roots were dug up, cleaned and mashed to a pulp, which was then plastered around the affected limb. This pulp set hard just like the modern day plaster used for the same purpose. this use of the root is well documented and known to most people interested in herbs. 

It is a less known fact that the foliage was once used in the same way. They were blanched in hot water before several layers of the leaves were applied to the affected limb. These were applied as hot as possible. The layers were then covered by a bandage. When the leaves dried out , they too, hardened to help the healing process. the presence of allantoin is a chemical  that lessens swellings and inflammations around wounds of this nature.

When I worked in the dispensary of a well known manufacturer of herbal products I often made an ointment from an extract of the comfrey that was applied with good affect to varicose veins. It is also an ingredient of ointments and creams applied to bruises and eczema.  It is still employed in homeopathy for fractures, bruises, painful joints and circulatory problems.

Comfrey has also employed for culinary purposes when young leaves were cooked as a vegetable, which is spinach like to taste. However, modern day use it is not recommended by herbalists for internal use for it is thought to have some carcinogenic effect.  Any one inclined to use comfrey for medicinal preparations should click on the link WILD HERB ADVISE, {top right hand side of the page}.

Comfrey in the garden

Comfrey make impressive displays in the garden. However, they can become invasive. Even digging them out can be a long term venture, for the least fragment of root will procure new life. The leaves of comfrey are well utilized if placed on the compost heap, for they make nutritious addition to the resulting compost.

I find it  amazing that a plant that was so important to people in the past, in common with many others}has now all but been forgotten as regards its medicinal virtues. 

Below the stamens of the flower showing after the petals have dropped.

photograph by Dal

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