The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Russian comfrey

Symphytum officinaleThe primary reason for the mixed reports on comfrey's efficacy stems from a confusion of terms.  Even after reading the entire chapter in Hills' Russian Comfrey about comfrey species, I had to do a bit more research to make sure I had the story straight.

There appear to be three comfrey species in cultivation at the moment (as well as several others growing wild.)  The least interesting from a permaculture point of view is Prickly Comfrey (Symphytum asperrimum, aka S. asperum.)  This comfrey is easily identified by its sky blue flowers, and is only useful as an ornamental.

On the other hand, Common Comfrey (sometimes just called Comfrey, Symphytum officinale) is largely cultivated as a healing herb.  The plant usually has winged stems and yellow, cream, white, or dark purple flowers.  Common Comfrey is relatively easy to confuse with the third species of comfrey, but yields much less biomass.
Russian comfrey
Finally, Russian Comfrey is the star of the permaculture show.  To make it nice and simple, Russian Comfrey has been known by the following scientific names: S. peregrinum, S. officinale x asperrimum, S. uplandicum, or S. asperum x officinale.  To cut through the Latin for you, that means that some folks think Russian Comfrey is a hybrid between the first two comfrey species I discussed, while others think it merits species status.

The best Russian Comfreys --- which may not be all of them --- are very palatable to livestock, have magenta flowers (or perhaps blue flowers that fade to pink), and have solid, wingless flower stems.  Russian Comfrey can produce up to 120 tons of plant matter per acre per year, while Common Comfrey clocks in at about a third that.

Although he didn't write about it in his book, Lawrence Hills apparently went on to select a super productive Russian Comfrey now known as "Bocking 14".  Since I'm pretty sure that the comfrey I've been playing with is merely Common Comfrey, I've put "Bocking 14" on my plant wish list.  Anyone out there have a cutting you can spare?

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This post is part of our Comfrey lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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That is great to know. I've been interested in comfrey but I haven't gotten the chance to research it yet. Thanks for sharing this... maybe it'll help me get started experimenting on my own.
Comment by Sara Wed Jun 2 11:15:25 2010
He wrote another book twenty years later that I haven't gotten my hands on yet. I suspect that one is also a must-read before going off on our own tangents. Please let me know what type of experiments you try and how they turn out.
Comment by anna Wed Jun 2 14:24:04 2010
I will happily send you a cutting of my Bocking 14. Any suggestions on how best to make sure it gets to you alive and well from central PA (not too far I think...)?
Comment by Julie Mason Tue Nov 19 07:39:25 2013

Julie --- Thanks so much for the offer! I'm always glad to try another kind of comfrey! Would you like a cutting of our common comfrey (I think is what it is) or Bocking 4 in exchange? (I splurged and bought some of the latter last fall and it's now big enough to be divided.)

I don't think it'll be tough to mail. I'd just wrap the root in a wet newspaper, then in a plastic grocery bag (leaving the leaves unwrapped), and stuff it in a box. Comfrey seems to be hard to kill....

Drop me an email at if you'd like to talk addresses and swaps. :-)

Comment by anna Tue Nov 19 11:46:10 2013

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