Russian Comfrey: The Plant from Hell, or Belgorod

Let’s talk about my gardening mistakes. Buy a keg and stop  by — when the two of us have emptied it we’ll have arrived at the story of Comrade Comfrey, the monster mafiya thug in my garden.

See him? That big ole hosta is  two and a half feet tell, so you get the scale. He’s lurking in the background with his hairy leaves and droopy violet flowers. We rarely name our plants because 1)My father is a strict Gardening Latin guy and I try not to shame myself when I talk plants with him, and 2)My roses have pretty names of their own — Therese Bugnet, Abraham Darby and Betty Prior for three.  But Comrade Comfrey isn’t just a plant: (Symphytum x uplandicum , Daddy) he’s my garden antagonist, my Professor Moriarty, my own personal KGB Colonel.  Somehow, “That damned Symphytum x uplandicum” doesn’t have the right ring. We curse him by name.

Oh, twenty years ago I went through a misguided and unselective  course of reading about medicinal herbs, and bought a book called “Medicinal Herbs”. The authors were true believers, and described comfrey (folk name Knitbone) as a cross between penicillin and all-natural steroid skin ointment. There is some evidence, real clinical trials and everything, that prove that used topically it can speed up healing of flesh wounds, rashes, bug bites  — even acne. But the authors neglected to provide the small print: “When taken internally in sufficient quantities Symphytum x uplandicum may cause liver failure and some forms of cancer.”

So much for combining it with sorrel for soup. Darina Allen provides a recipe for Comfrey Fritters in her Forgotten Skills of Cooking, but she adds this caveat: “No one should eat too much comfrey as it can cause liver toxicity’but these fritters, made from the young leaves are nutritious and delicious — in small doses of course.” Ta, Love.

Wouldn’t you know, the best purpose for Comrade Comfrey is to him cut him up and let him rot! He’s such a hog for nutrients that  he makes a sensational fertilizer tea or mulch. Check this out, from the interwebs — not only does peeing on him not kill him, it makes him strong. The Commissars trained him well.

Comfrey is a fast growing plant, producing huge amounts of leaf during the growing season, and hence is very nitrogen hungry. Although it will continue to grow no matter what, it will benefit from the addition of animal manure applied as a mulch, and can also be mulched with other nitrogen rich materials such as lawn mowings, and is one of the few plants that will tolerate the application of fresh urine diluted 50:50 with water, although this should not be regularly added as it may increase salt levels in the soil and have adverse effects on soil life such as worms.

Comrade wasn’t planted near the hosta, he was planted in a bed thirty feet away. When I was slashing the original plant with a machete a piece of one leaf blew across the lawn and found a place it liked. That monster grew from one leaf lying on the ground. It spreads more efficiently than mint. (Mint: My gardening mistake #1.  Bring over the rum and I’ll tell you all about it over mojitos.) I thought Victor and amigos had eradicated the original plant. Hah!

So last night we surrendered. The KGB has won and our garden’s in the hands of the plant Politburo. Long live Comrade Comfrey and Mother Russia.



Filed under Growing things, Home, On the Street Where I Live, The Great Outdoors

13 responses to “Russian Comfrey: The Plant from Hell, or Belgorod

  1. peter

    Thank-you for that delightful dose of schadenfreude.

    Field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensishe) is the Boris Badenov to my Bullwinkle, the Alexander Ovechkin to my Sidney Crosby.

    I don’t think Philly has any notable Russians so I’ll just have to say “Go Blackhawks!”

  2. Ah, convolvulus arvensishe! The monster who’s landed in my garden from another planet, its mission to strangle my roses. Don’t tell me you actually planted it! Gardening schadenfreude indeed.

    And yeah, Go Hawks!

  3. Dean, frikkin Creeping Charlie took over our lawn in such volume this spring that it was a wave of purple. I held my environmental nose and told Victor to just kill it. The lawn’s Charlie-free, but the garden isn’t. Groan.

    But neither of us planted , Plectranthus australis, right? I brought on my gardening grief by actually buying a baby Comrade Charlie. I a foo.

  4. Caro

    ‘Tis but to laugh. I have an indoor Angel Wing Begonia, that is apparently the evil twin to your comfrey.
    Is growing out of control, and seems to be reaching for heaven from an occasional table in the living room, no shit, the thing is like 4 1/2’ tall, needs to be repotted, but I’m scared to try, for fear of breaking it.

    As to the mint, I’ll bring the bourbon (we southern girls like our juleps) if you give me growing tips. I know it should be planted in a pot and then pot into ground, to keep it in check, and yet I can’t seen to get a decent patch going (even sans pot) to save my soul!!!

  5. Caro, hmmmm. I just plunked four (!) plants in tilled soil in a sunny place, sans pot, and within a year it was climbing up the house like a vine in a noxious fairy tale.

  6. Pingback: Larkspur: My Perennial Annual « Cheap and Cheerful

  7. How the blue HECK did I miss this???!!! Had you not referred me BACK (I do love a redundance) I’d never have seen your soignee prose, let alone have caught my OWN CHILD saying SHIT online!

    Hummmph. And you’ve never seen our yard. It’s not lush—it’s positively stinko, with hanging things and creeping things and all sorts of ivies (good and evil) underfoot, and every tree and bush gone wild. So, from this far remove, I’ll
    still love the name “comfrey” and await like kudzu, the branch that you aim my way.

    Need to talk to you about Autumn, when you get a sec.

  8. Any time, Rachel. (sorry I busted you, Caro!)

  9. Steve

    If you really want to understand comfrey, read Lawrence D. Hills’ Comfrey, Past, Present and Future.

    If you don’t want to understand it, it’s a communist.

  10. There is nothing wrong with eating comfrey leaves, you just can’t do it in ridiculous amounts. There have been few reports of death related to comfrey and all the info you need can be found here: . Anyone concerned with liver damage also shouldn’t take Tylenol or any other drug containing acetaminophen. The point is, there is proof that pyrrolizidine alkaloids can cause liver damage, but only isolated by itself or by consuming comfrey (or other sources of PAs) in mass quantities for several years at a time. Comfrey does make a good fertilizer, but as a practicing herbalist, the best use I’ve found for it so far is as an external compress for painful, injured areas of the body.

  11. Tala

    If you want to kill the comfrey, use the sheet mulch technique or build a compost over it. Don’t ever try to dig it out, it propagates by root cuttings. Each root piece can turn into a comfrey plant. And it is a mineral accumulator. Its roots go deep into the ground, “mining” for minerals that other plants can’t reach. So if you cut the comfrey leaves and place them under plants and trees, you actually are fertilizing them. Comfrey can be your friend, if you let it. Good luck.

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