Thursday, May 26, 2016

Plant Allies (or How I Came to Know Comfrey)

When I first began 'formally' studying herbs about 15 years ago, I was tasked with choosing a plant that was near my home, close enough to see daily, to ally with. My favorite definition of ally is, "to combine or unite a resource or commodity with (another) for mutual benefit" (thanks Google). I was to sit with this plant, to breath its air, talk to it, study with it, and otherwise make it an integral part of my everyday life for my entire course of study.

At the time, I hadn't really considered that this sort of thing was actually possible, even though I had felt it for most of my life. I can remember leaving high school on late spring afternoons and nodding or speaking to the dandelions which had returned to the grounds outside the building. Further back ... playing in the soft sand driveway of my grandparent's home and smiling or laughing at (with) the 4 o'clocks blooming nearby in the shade at the end of a long summer day. They meant something to me. More than a pretty face to admire, more than a delicious fragrance to enjoy passing by. More than witnesses. They were living, breathing players in the script of my life.

Later on, plants would take a backseat to adulthood, deadlines, and financial burdens. They became simple eye candy, romantic gifts, or tools for improving curb appeal. Weeds were annoying, invasive things that destroyed lawns and free time.

And so it is for most folks that the magic of childhood inevitably is crushed under the weight of burdened adult lives. Myths, folklore, legends and strange tales drift out of memory while we struggle to enjoy the fruits of our labor and along the way, the laughter of the 4 o'clocks is lost. But not forever. Not for me.

We had just moved across the road to a small house on a beautiful, wooded piece of family farm land when I accepted the plant ally challenge and it so happened that there was a large, interesting, but unidentified plant directly beside our new front porch steps. A weed, I presumed, prickly and thick, but it spoke to me. I pulled up the grass around it so it could stretch out. My mother in law informed me the plant was 'Comfrey' (Russian Comfrey, or Symphytum x uplandicum, I later discovered, which does not re-seed but will spread quite prolifically when and where the roots are disturbed), and she had quite a nice patch of it in her yard, as well.

Pull up a bit of Comfrey by the root, toss it on the ground, and voilĂ ! You have almost certainly started yourself a brand new patch.

Every day from then on in the comings and goings of my new life, Comfrey would change me in ways I never dreamed possible.

My plant ally challenge became a cool drink of water in the heat of my studies. Anatomy and physiology, phytochemistry, medical terminology, online lectures and essays, etc., etc., all interesting and exciting to me but I longed for breaks to sit and relax with my patient new green friend out by the front steps. And not only did I sit with her ... I talked to her, about everything. Yes, you read that right. I admit at first it was a bit odd, even for me, but I was persistent and it quickly became comfortable, and something I looked forward to. I learned some very important lessons during those visits. Lessons that came during the perfect time, about patience, and the peace found in stillness and quiet introspection, followed by a deeper understanding and appreciation of "Other" ... or all that which is not me. That it's okay to not be in control of or micromanage every aspect of my personal world. I learned about the value of ALL LIFE, and the joy of living what I came to refer to as 'Macro', or outside and above myself and my small, ordinary life. To this day, when I find myself mired in the pits of everyday drama, the thought comes unbidden to me ... "Macro". Rise above. SEE.

I took photos and drew pictures and read everything I could get my hands on about Comfrey. History, cultivation, botany, medicinal uses, folklore, you name it. I learned how to harvest and dry Comfrey and made medicine with her aerial parts. Medicine that is invaluable to me now and always will be, and it began with one forgotten plant waiting patiently by my front door. You don't need to study hundreds or even dozens of plants to be an herbalist. Pick a plant that means something or is interesting to you - it doesn't matter how or why - and study everything you can find about it. It will prepare you for an exciting, magical, lifelong journey in herbalism. Yes, I really mean it.

The bulk of my Comfrey medicine begins with infused oil: I use two different methods for infusing Comfrey in cold pressed extra virgin olive oil, which I prefer for its impressive resistance to rancidity and because it naturally contains vitamins, essential fatty-acids, and antioxidants. First is the easy peasy folk method: Pack a glass jar (I make it by the quart) with the freshly dried leaves, stalks, and flowers, cover with oil, gently press out air bubbles with a butter knife or spoon, cap, let sit for about six weeks in a sunny window, and give it a poke or stir every once in a while. Strain through cheesecloth when it's ready, bottle it up, and don't forget to label/date it. That's it. The second method involves heating the oil and plant material in a double boiler over very low heat for about 48 hours, turning the heat off at night and allowing it to cool in the pot. Strain, bottle, and label. I prefer the plant material freshly dried because Comfrey is a juicy girl who smells pretty foul when processed, and drying seems to lessen not only the odor but cuts way down on the chances that your oil will contain rot-inducing water. Yay! Adding a few drops of good quality vitamin E oil (another natural antioxidant) will also extend the life of your infusion.

I have used Comfrey oil for many things, including superficial skin wounds, blisters, bruises, pregnant bellies, diaper rash, sore nipples from breastfeeding, and on my own daughter's eczema. It is easily made into a powerfully healing skin salve by gently melting in .25 (+/-) oz beeswax per 1 oz of oil. Comfrey is an important part of our muscle and joint pain salve, 'Elbow Grease', made with descendants of the very plant I found by my front door on that fateful day. I also love to add Plantain Leaf (Plantago spp.), Yarrow Leaf/Flower (Achillea millefolium), and Chickweed (Stellaria media) oils to make a versatile, all-purpose skin salve. Have fun with it. The weeds in your area are quite useful ... dare I say important ... but that's for another post.

I guess I should mention that there has been some controversy over the internal use of Comfrey, which contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids which may cause severe liver damage when consumed in extremely large doses. Those last three words being the operative thing to note here, although I should also mention that the FDA has officially declared it unsafe for internal use. I really do not want to get into a debate about it here, but you must do your OWN research and decide for yourself if you want to use Comfrey internally. I personally have no desire to inject myself with an isolated compound made from the roots (where the highest concentration of PAs in Comfrey are found) of any plant from any laboratory. I also do not wish to drink copious amounts of Comfrey infusion or tea, as I simply don't enjoy the taste. However, I have ingested cultivated Comfrey leaf infusion on several occasions with no ill effects. Quite the opposite, actually, specifically during bouts of respiratory illness. We make and sell Comfrey Tincture in the store at Red Barn, used internally by drops, with great success I might add for tissue and bone healing. I'm not advising, either way.

Comfrey is also known as, Knitbone, or **Boneset, because it contains a substance called ‘allantoin’ that is able to accelerate cellular mitosis, meaning it speeds the process of new tissue growth. Pretty cool, huh?

To me, Comfrey signifies not only healing, but stability and grounding. The feeling of security that
comes from familiarity, the permanence of family ties, and lifelong friendships. A sturdy, loving grandma who tends your wounds but demands your respect. I hope you'll consider growing some of your own, if you're able. She blooms so beautifully (as you can see in the pics above), and is such a lovely addition to any place.

If you see her, give her a nod and a smile from me :-)

**Also the common name of a local favorite, Eupatorium perfoliatum. Which leads me to note that I cannot stress enough the importance of correct botanical identification and proper labeling of plant medicine! Relying on common names will get you into a lot of trouble.

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