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Types of comfrey

Comfrey flowersIn English, the word comfrey is used for all Symphytums.  The same term has been in use since at least the 1st Century A.D.  Pliny, a Roman, called it conferva.  This later became cumfria, then (Old French) confrie, and finally the English spelling of today. 

Symphytum officinale or Common Comfrey with white or cream to yellowish flowers also has a red to purple flowered variety S.officinale var. patens.  Other species of Symphytum cover the full range of colours from white through to yellow and blue through to purple.

The Common Comfrey was introduced to North America as early as the 17th Century, Josselyn (1672) calling it comferieSymphytum is derived from Dioscorides, who was contemporary with Pliny, his Greek word for it being variously reported as Syumphuo, Sumphutum, Sumphuton, and no doubt other similar words.  He recognised and used more than one species.  This is not surprising, about 40 have been identified (native to most of Europe and Western Asia) with 18 in Turkey alone, so presumably nearby countries have at least several of these.

Goats grazing hayfieldOf most interest to those people wishing to use comfrey for plant and livestock feeding are hybrids of the species Symphytum x uplandicum, known as Russian Comfrey, a cross between S.officinale and another SymphytumS. x uplandicum is a naturally occurring hybrid, the original being found in Uppland, Sweden, and not Russia.  Later discovered hybrids were from Russia.  These hybrids rarely set seed, but will provide the pollen to cross with S.officinale and give yet another variation. 

Borage, Borago officinalis, can also provide pollen to produce a hybrid.  Both Borage and Comfrey are, of course, in the family Boraginaceae.  When an unsorted mixture of varieties of S. x uplandicum was sent to North America in the 1950s there was a Cold War between the USA and Russia, so it was given the name Quaker Comfrey.

Lawrence HillsThe most common cultivar in use amongst livestock people is S. x uplandicum 'Bocking 14' but some, such as myself, use 'Bocking 4'.  Together with all the other Bocking cultivars, at least 21, these were first identified by Lawrence Hills from amongst a large assortment of collections from various people and places.  He called each collection a strain or mixture after the people or places where they originated.  He did not breed or develop the cultivars as is often reported; they already existed.  In this context, please note that a lot of current internet sites replicate other sites in their supposed information.  Lawrence Hills warned against such repetitiveness long before the Internet was invented.

All comfreys only actively grow in summer in temperate climates, dying down in the autumn.  S.officinale sets seed that germinates very easily.  So do some of the other Symphytums.  Stick to the Russian hybrids if you want to control the size of your plot.

Some herbalists believe that S.officinale is the preferred, or even only, species for
safe medicinal use.  Officinale means "of the (herbalist's) shop."  Gerard in his Herball gives an unusual use for the root juice in ale; it is "given to drinke against the paine in the back gotten by wrestling, or overuse of women."

Alan McDonald has been experimenting with comfrey on farms around the world for 15 years.  His new book, How Not to Make Millions --- But Still Enjoy a Rich Rural Life is available for 99 cents on Smashwords, and you can also read about his adventures for free on his blog.  Stay tuned to this blog for more of his comfrey experiments tomorrow.



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