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Cornucopia - Symphytum Species

Symphytum Species
Isa Hall

I feel I must put a word in for Comfrey. Though it was originally introduced here as a useful herb, I have in recent years found myself more interested in — or drawn to — the genus for its own sake. I have a small collection of four or five species and/or varieties but have found it difficult to identify them with any degree of certainty.

The original, S. x uplandicum 'Bocking 14', was introduced to our garden by my husband more than 40 years ago for use in making compost; and in the greenhouse where, soaked in a bucket of water until it smells like an old-fashioned farmyard, it makes a splendid tomato feed* - free, as one visitor enthusiastically proclaimed; and because it is an excellent healing herb. It is extraordinary how many people greet this last claim with scepticism that precludes even a trial, though they will instantly credit what you say of some unpronounceable panacea bought over the counter at Boots. I use it for minor cuts and bruises and have found from personal experience that a poultice of pulped leaves will completely cure a nasty sprained ankle in a few hours. It is even alleged that its healing constituent can penetrate the tissues far enough to justify its ancient name of 'knitbone', but of this I cannot claim personal experience.

Unfortunately, as it is deciduous this useful remedy is not available in winter and although the dried leaves can be used to make a tea, I have never tried to make them into a poultice. I just try to avoid sprained ankles in winter, or use a purchased comfrey ointment. 'Bocking 14' is said not to set seed, but I fear that its morals are not as reported, and it seems to have crossed with some other forms. It is not an ill-looking plant — large, vigorous and sturdy, with coarse, very rough leaves and narrow, dangling bell flowers of a pleasant purplish blue growing in the crozier fashion favoured by the Borage family.

Other forms that I have vary in flower colour and slightly in habit: one has white flowers, another yellowish, and a third a brilliant sky blue. This last was brought by the river. It grows on the river bank near the bridge (but I think it may be a garden escape) and is a clump former; but the yellow and white ones have begun to look like seriously enthusiastic 'ground coverers'. There are certainly some spreaders among the comfreys, which can take over if not ruthlessly controlled. We harbour a cream-flowered one, red-stained in the bud, a low-growing, stoloniferous plant and, I think, a native. It too grows on the river bank, from which it tries to enter and colonise the main garden. It may be S. grandiflorum, though its flowers seem no larger than the others. The final variety in my garden, which I have rather regretted buying, is also a coloniser – a little taller than the wild one; I bought it as S. 'Hidcote Blue', but the blue is a wishy-washy affair, mixed with white. It is a splendid river resister, however, and is making a fair job of suppressing the ground elder in its vicinity. I am not sure that it is preferable and it could be almost as difficult to eradicate but this would doubtless be true of any plant capable of beating ground elder at its own game. Most of the others seem able at least to hold their own, though the sky blue is having a little difficulty, being more modest in its aims and therefore more at mercy of any neighbouring thugs. There exists a red comfrey, which I have seen but which I have so far not managed to obtain, largely, I admit, because I have not tried very hard.

As it is so useful as a healer of cuts and bruises, and has a reputation of possibly helping some forms of arthritis (via a tea made from the leaves) as well as sprains, I think every household should have one. If you do decide to keep one, however, don’t plant it near any valued plant of only moderate vigour and ambition. And if you don't want to spoil the impression that all your plants are aristocrats, give it a suitably plebeian, out of the way habitat, where visitors might miss it. If you cut it down two or three times per year before it flowers and put it in your compost the rump will quickly make up the lost ground and your compost should benefit greatly. I understand comfrey is rich in potash.

*PS. My husband’s tomatoes were the best I ever tasted.

(Note that comfrey contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids which are reportedly a health risk if consumed in quantity – so drinking the tea is not advised. – Ed.)

First published in the North East Group Newsletter, February 2008
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 24
© Copyright for this article: Isa Hall

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2009. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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