Comfrey Monograph for Foragers

Foraging for comfrey in the UK.

Symphytum officinale  – Comfrey

Boraginaceae family

Comfrey has traditionally been one of the principle remedies in any materia medica. Comfrey is an elegant plant, common to our inland waterways, and one of more than 25 species of coarsely hairy perennials within the genus.

The common name Comfrey is derived from the Latin ‘conferva’, (to join together) which begins to tell us how the Romans knew of and used the plant. Similarly, its scientific generic name also alludes to this ‘bringing together’ (sympho- from the Greek meaning to unite; phytum from the Latin, meaning plant), whilst the specific name officinale denotes its use as an official apothecary herb of old.

This plant is distinguished by its large, broadly lanceolate leaves (up to 30 cm long and more) which rise each year from a rhizomous rootstock. Its leaves are set on long, relatively thick petioles coming from the crown of the plant.IMG_4737

Comfrey initially grows as basal growth, but can we actually call that often untidy mass of leaves a rosette? Comfrey’s large leaves are coarse and hairy, with curving, and upward-sweeping, netted vein patterns, arising from the mid-vein.  On the growing flowering stems the alternately spaced leaves have progressively shorter stalks, becoming sessile towards the top.

The leaves are quite similar to its family relative’s borage, lungwort, and the green-alkanet. Lungwort has white blotches on its leaves so cannot be readily mistaken for comfrey, though both borage and more especially the green alkanet could be. If you snap comfrey’s leaf stalks, the mucilaginous properties are quickly revealed.

Knowing comfrey from foxglove!

One of the most dangerous misidentifications that a forager can make is mistaking comfrey for another well-known, also medicinally potent, yet poisonous and unrelated species – the foxglove. This plant belongs to the figwort family and has an extremely similar looking leaf to comfrey, even on second glance.

foxglove leaf
Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) leaves with crenated margins

I have heard tales of inexperienced foragers picking foxglove leaves, then eating them in fritters, only to wake up a week later in hospital from a coma! This possibility should install some vital diligence in making absolutely sure of identification. To help in this, the reader is advised to become familiar with both plants.

comfrey comparison
Comfrey leaves with entire, or featureless margins

The foxglove leaves will be seen to have minutely-crenate leaf margins, which comfrey does not have. Furthermore, the foxglove leaf veins do not curve out and sweep upwards. Rather, they rise at a more acute angle from the mid-rib.

It is also worth touching and holding the two plants. The two plants, whether it’s the leaves, stems, or petioles, all feel quite different to each other.

During flowering, the plants are much less likely to be confused. Many people will know the foxglove inflorescence. The glorious purple hooded flowers are borne on spikes and look totally different to comfrey’s inflorescence.

Another way of helping to distinguish comfrey and foxglove from afar is to observe and evaluate the habitat you are wandering through. If you are near streams or rivers or on wet ground below 320 metres, it is very likely the plant will be comfrey, for it delights in areas such as these.

Foxgloves can survive in sub-alpine conditions, and elevations of up to 1650 metres. The foxglove abounds by hedges, roadsides, and waysides, and especially by old, crumbling stone walls. They are often found within their classic lowland habitat of woodlands, where it will thrive at the edges, and within any well-lit glade.

The flowering stems of the common comfrey typically grow to about 150 cm high, although larger is not uncommon. Its flowers are borne on numerous cymes on multi-forked stalks. The flowers are usually creamy yellow-white on the wild comfrey, occasionally pink-purple.

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Certain insects burrow through the comfrey flowers to get to the nectar.

Comfrey has distinctive, tubular or bell-shaped flowers, with a crenate finish to the fused petals. The seeds are little nutlets, which appear in groups of four. Comfrey’s root is thick and many-branched, from an often large crown. It has black skin with white flesh.

You can find out more about how to identify plants using the easy-to-remember- ‘patterns method’ in my previous article.

Comfrey self-propagates from its creeping rhizomes, and gardeners are advised to be careful when placing or removing common comfrey, for it will creep and take over patches of ground due to an ability to grow from any shards of root left in the ground. As a friend and I are all too aware, these quickly re-emerge and grow on.

A suitable comfrey cultivar for the garden can be acquired, which is known as ‘bocking 14′. This variety is clump forming and does not spread to anything like the same extent as our native species.

See what Mrs Grieves has to say about comfrey here.

Parts used Leaves, roots.

Harvest Root in autumn, Leaves throughout season. 

Key constituents Allantoin (up to 2.5%); tannins; mucilage; gums; resins; phytosterols; rosmarinic acid; pyrrolizidine alkaloids (including symphitine, cynoglosine, consolidine); inulin.

Actions Anti-inflammatory, vulnerary, demulcent, astringent, increases cell proliferation.

Pharmacology and uses Comfrey has been referred to as one of the chief plant medicines in the folk repertory of Britain and Ireland. It is an exceptionally effective mucilaginous healing remedy in any materia medica.

Comfrey has been popularly used for cuts, grazes, and lesions (though this is now discouraged), as well as to heal larger wounds, bone fractures, torn cartilage, tendons, and ligaments. The swift wound sealing action is mostly attributed to the allantoin, a recognised cell proliferant, and is partly due to the tannins and general astringency of the plant, enabling it to draw open wounds together.

The mucilage contains the remarkable allantoin. This substance is well known to promote constructive activity of different types of connective tissue such as chondroblasts (cartilage) and osteoblasts (bone) as well as flesh and skin. Allantoin also helps produce neural cells. It promotes keratin dispersal and has been used topically on psoriasis. Allantoin is highly diffusible and its presence means scarring is less likely.

It is because the plant heals cuts so quickly (but from the surface downwards), that comfrey is not recommended for deep cuts anymore. Instead, for these wounds, a number of other common vulnerary plants, such as plantains or yarrow can be more profitably employed. They will both ensure complete healing at the bottom of the wound, working upwards.

Be warned, because there are documented cases of comfrey being applied to baby girls as nappy rash ointments, that have then led to the vagina sealing up, such are its powers. As well as healing and sealing all types of tissue, comfrey also has a reputation for use on bruises and swellings. All parts of the plant yield an oily astringent juice, containing the mucilage, which can be readily applied as a poultice as well as being made into the classic comfrey ointment.

Comfrey ‘plasters’ and ointments for broken bones.

Traditional use for healing damaged limbs was by cleaning, peeling, grating, and then boiling the root. This process obtains a thick paste which is then applied like ‘plaster of paris’. The comfrey plaster acts much in the same way. It helps broken bones by setting the joint, whilst acting somewhat as a poultice, thus enabling the absorption of medicinal components from the outside inwards.

Of the folk records collected, almost half consistently refer to its use on fractures, sprains, and the like. Internal use of the root for the same problems is not documented, so please do not drink comfrey root thinking it will help set your broken bones as successfully. The tannins and resins actively combine with mucilage to help give rise to comfrey’s ‘plaster action’.

Much has been written about the dangers of liver damage resulting from internal use of the root due to it containing liver-toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids. This group of around 660 alkaloids are found in a large number of plant species, approximately 6,000 worldwide. The PA causing the most concern in certain comfrey species, is echimidine. 

Our native wild S.officinale typically has considerably smaller amounts of the toxic alkaloids than the very similar looking comfrey plant most people have in their gardens or allotments, the usually purple-flowering S. x uplandicum. Moreover it does not contain the notably harmful PA alkaloid echimidine in the leaf.

In North America and Canada, you can acquire over-the-counter comfrey remedies from Symphytum officinale, because it doesn’t contain echimidine. British Herbalists may still prescribe common comfrey leaf. In other comfrey species, the root can contain approximately up to 10 times as much PA’s as the leaf.

Suffice it to say here that the dangers of toxic doses from comfrey root, although cumulative in effect, remain very slim due to the minute amounts present per dose when used as medicine. Saying this, comfrey root is now contra-indicated by herbalists for internal use due to the alkaloids. Furthermore, European practitioners do not now recommend topical use on cuts and wounds. 

S. x uplandicum is a cross between S.officinale and S.asperum (‘rough comfrey’) and will show typical hybrid vigour in a number of ways. One of these manifestations may well be the greater production of what are essentially predatory-defence chemicals in the bigger, more voracious hybrid plant. 

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The majority of tests carried out into alkaloid toxicity are based on direct subcutaneous injection of the alkaloids into rats, rather than testing the whole leaf or root. This does not replicate what actually occurs when we consume and digest the plant.

It is also worth reminding here that salicylic acid from meadowsweet could easily be as harsh to the stomach wall as aspirin, were it not for the other components present in the leaf (such as the mucilage and tannins) combining with it and providing healing incomparable to what aspirin can do.

I therefore continue to eat common comfrey occasionally, especially in the spring when it is at its best, as well as using it as a topical medicine, for musclular-skeletal injuries.

Comfrey has also been greatly used in the treatment of respiratory conditions and digestive ailments. A water extract of comfrey showed increases in the release of prostaglandins from the stomach wall. This has been suggested as producing a direct action in protecting the gastric mucosa from damage. Rosmarinic acid is also known for reducing inflammation and provides a major component of this plant’s anti-inflammatory action.

Comfrey as Food.

Comfrey is an exceptionally nourishing medicinal food, as was discovered in the 1970’s, containing as much protein as some legumes! The younger shoots and leaves are best used, and if steamed or blanched, offer a texture of succulent, slightly crunchy and mildly cucumber-tasting leaf stalks alongside the pleasant earthy ‘spinach’ taste of the leaf.

Alternatively, and perhaps more well known is using the leaves in a fritter. Simply make a batter and dip a folded leaf in, then fry. Served when golden brown with a sweetened chilli-enhanced soy sauce or such like, they are quite delicious.

If you would like to learn more about identifying and using wild plants, then you can book on one of my courses, or get a set of my new pocket-sized, waterproof, ‘foragers friend’ identification cards.

Foraging Coltsfoot

Foraging coltsfoot – An ancient and potent herbal medicine for the lungs

Tussilago farfara – Coltsfoot. Asteraceae family

We have been foraging coltsfoot for medicine for thousands of years, and its importance to our materia medica remains.

We know from Roman times that this herb was one of our ‘go-to’ remedies for respiratory disorders. Such was its prominence, if you were to walk into an apothecary in the 17th and 18th Century, you would recognise this flower immediately from the picture on the signage outside.

Coltsfoot is a small, creeping perennial herb, notable for its habit of producing beautiful yellow  dandelion-esque flowers in late winter and early spring, before its leaves appear.

We now know that coltsfoot flowers open before their leaves, giving rise to the old latin name Filus ante patrum, or, the son before the father. previously people foraging coltsfoot flowers thought they were harvesting a different plant to the leaves, because of the unusual floral display
The ‘son before the father’ was how coltsfoot was formerly described, due to its flowers opening before the leaves

As a result of this floral phenomenon, the ancient Latin name given to it by botanists of the renaissance period (before Linnaeus and his binomial classification), was Filius ante patrem, which means ‘the son before the father’. The ancient apothecary physicians used this flower as the emblem for their shops, and it is still used by many herbalists today. 

This plant is one of 15 different species in the genus. Many scientific plant names contain clues as to a plant’s origins, or its favourite habitat, and sometimes to a plants main actions or uses. With coltsfoot, the generic name Tussilago offers the hint towards its medicinal use.

It has been a popular anti-tussive (cough reflex inhibitor) herb for centuries and recent research is backing up some of the ancient claims. The specific name farfara, is apparently derived from the ancient name for the white poplar tree (farfarus) whose leaf colour and form resembles coltsfoot somewhat. Our ancestors obviously thought it looked like the foot of an animal, hence the name coltsfoot.

What to look for when foraging coltsfoot.

This is a hardy plant, native to Europe, West Asia, and North Africa. It re-emerges each year from a rootstock of stout, scaly, white (ish) rhizomes. These give rise firstly to its yellow flowers, before the long-stalked, somewhat hoof-shaped, sea-green leaves appear.

The leaves will typically grow somewhere between 10-25 cm long. They have a few, small angular teeth on somewhat undulating margins.

People who regularly go foraging coltsfoot, know that it can be found on the poorest soils.
Coltsfoot is happy finding a home on the poorest soils

The leaf surfaces when young are  covered with loose, white, woolly hairs, but those on the upper surface will fall off as the leaf quickly grows and expands. The broad leaves have angled, sometimes pink-tinged, main veins, running away from the central vein, akin to the burdock to which coltsfoot is not too distantly related.

Coltsfoot’s composite flowers are pretty similar in appearance to the dandelion at first glance, although the flower stems are quickly seen to be different. Coltsfoot’s terminal flowering stems are scaly and slightly woolly (unlike the dandelion), topped with striking yellow flower heads. More information on how to identify the daisy family can be found in my plant family patterns article.

These striking blooms consist of yellow disc florets and yellow linear ray florets (unlike dandelion which has ray florets only). The flowers will generally grow to no more than 20-25 cm high, and always appear before the leaves have emerged. 

As with many of the daisy family plants, coltsfoot produces a spherical seed head of tiny fruits (achenes), attached to downy white, silky, pappus hairs. Goldfinches were known to line their nests with these soft hairs, as were the Highland peoples of Scotland, who reportedly suffed mattresses and pillows with them.

This plant used to grow far more abundantly throughout England. Yet it can still easily be found on a range of sites up to altitudes of 950 metres. These include waste-grounds, along the sides of railway banks, on cliffs and dunes, and occasionally on roadsides. It grows as well in wet ground as in dry situations.

Nowadays however, with the ever increasing development in 21st century Britain, its abundance has been curtailed somewhat, especially in urban areas. However, when foraging coltsfoot, you will find it still thrives in towns, in any place that remains a little wild, rough, and unkempt.

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Young coltsfoot leaves, already displaying the angled margins without serrations

Be sure it is not the young leaves of Butterbur (Petasites officinalis, syn P.vulgaris syn P.hybridus), or the winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans) you are collecting by mistake when you are foraging coltsfoot! To help your identification, I have covered winter heliotrope in my foraging videos.

Make sure you know the difference in the foliage between Petasites species and Tussilago when you are foraging coltsfoot
Winter heliotrope has larger leaves, without the angled margins or downy white covering

Both of the Petasites  resemble coltsfoot in flowering habit and leaf shape, although butterbur is less likely to be mistaken when mature, because its leaves are so much larger than coltsfoot’s. 

Both of the Petasites species have more rounded leaves, and without the slightly angled and toothed margins or the white downy fuzz. Butterbur can frequently be found dominating areas of canal and river banks.

Winter heliotrope will similarly be found in large carpeting expanses, be this at the edges of woodlands or hedgebanks, as well as other shady spots.

Coltsfoot loves life by the sea. On the Jurassic coast in Dorset for example, and repeated on much of our coastline, this plant grows in reasonably large populations. When I was there in 2011, it was clearly enjoying the North West coast of England close to the Lake District, enjoying the long stretches of sandy dunes and eroding field / beach edges to be found there.

Coltsfoot has been classed as an invasive plant not suitable to garden cultivation by the RHS, but to be fair, this organisation is not widely known for either their medicinal herb gardens, or specialisation in wild medicinal plants, or come to think of it, organic gardening principles.

You, like me, may think that invasiveness and rapid colonising of bare soil is a valuable asset in the medicinal herb gardener’s fight against weeds. If I had a medium-large medicine garden, then this plant, along with other effective ground-covering medicinal species, such as ground ivy (Glechoma hederaceae), would be a most welcome and valued addition to the medicine cabinet.

Parts used Leaves and flowers (the flowers were formerly much used, but not so today as you will shortly discover).

Harvest Leaves: when fully-grown. Flowers just before opening.

Key constituents Flowers: mucilage; flavonoids (rutin, carotene); taraxanathin; pyrrolizidine alkaloids (senkirkine, senecionine, tussilagine). Leaves: mucilage; flavonols (quercetin, kaempferol and their glycosides); tannins; inulin; phytosterols (sitosterol, stigmasterol, taraxasterol); sesquiterpene (tussilagone); zinc.

Actions Expectorant, anti-tussive, demulcent, anti-catarrhal, anti-inflammatory.

Pharmacology and uses Coltsfoot was formerly a prized pulmonary tonic and curative against emphysema, chronic bronchitis and whooping cough. There are still many reasons to go foraging coltsfoot.

Culpepper mentions that  “…the fresh leaves, or juice, or syrup thereof, is good for a bad, dry cough, or wheezing and shortness of breath”.

With the emerging flower buds and yellow flowers, foragers will know that its almost time to start foraging coltsfoot
The buds and first flowers signify that its soon time to start foraging coltsfoot.

The substantial amount of mucilage in coltsfoot confers the demulcent and expectorant activities.

This is also true of other soft leaved plants, such as mallows (Malva spp) and mullein (Verbascum thapsus), and is something worth remembering when out and about foraging…namely, that soft-to-the-touch leaves, usually mean a soft and demulcent medicinal action when taken internally.

Previously, this meant that many people smoked the flowers to help with coughs. The ancients of Greece and Rome were known to advises this, including Dioscorides, Galen and Pliny. We now know that this method is not the best way forward, although you can still find coltsfoot in a number of herbal ‘tobacco’ blends.

Just like its relative elecampagne (Inula helenium), the roots and flowers of coltsfoot have been used to make a cough sweet. Boiled in honey or sugar syrup, a type of ‘rock’ made with coltsfoot was once a popular remedy to alleviate coughs and asthma, which was especially useful to people who almost unfailingly were to sit in dusty churches for a few hours, at least once a week.

The overall anti-inflammatory action of coltsfoot is reportedly similar to the pharmaceutical drug indometacin. The water-soluble polysaccharides are partly responsible for the anti-inflammatory action, as they are in a number of other species in the daisy family. The trace element zinc, reportedly found in reasonabaly high amounts in coltsfoot, also adds to the anti inflammatory action. 

The alkaloid tussilagine has been demonstrated as an effective cardiovascular and respiratory stimulant. However, as with a number of plants containing the pyrrolizidine alkaloids, liver toxicity from chronic low exposure has been demonstrated in tests, albeit mainly on rats.

Further to this, pregnant women are known to pass on toxic pyrrolizidine compounds to their unborn child, resulting in at least one reported case of fatal, hepatic veno-occlusive disease. This death was of a newborn infant whose mother had regularly taken cups of herbal tea containing coltsfoot and a Senecio species (a genus also known to contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids).

It is now believed the budding flowers of coltsfoot contain the highest concentrations of these compounds, so current advice from pharmacologists is usually that only the leaves should now be used in a tea, and not for prolonged use.

Coltsfoot has been shown to be anti-bacterial against bacteria including Staphylococcus aureus, Proteus spp and Psuedomonas aeruginosa.

It is also a mild diuretic and has been used to treat cystitis. There are no documented adverse drug reactions recorded for coltsfoot.

Coltsfoot leaves have also been used as a vegetable. The downy leaves can be simmered and blended with onion and potato into a thick soup, or the leaves can be steamed like spinach, then served with a knob of butter. Some authors have said the leaves have a liquorice flavour. I do detect a sweetness in coltsfoot leaves, but liquorice is pushing the description somewhat. Well, to my smokers palate at least.

Want to know more about foraging coltsfoot? Try the classic Mrs Grieves online herbal.

Discover lots more plants that can easily be found in winter and spring in my short seasonal guides. Alternatively, you can peruse my monthly wild food guides, that began this January, in conjunction with these colour coded seasonal harvest charts, that are available as a download, so you never a foraging trick this year.

If you are wanting more help in the field with learning the arts and crafts of foraging, then check out these pocket sized, waterproof I/D cards, created in a field guide style, then pop over to my foraging courses page and find a course near you.