History of Comfrey
The genus name of Comfrey, Symphytum, is derived from the Greek symphyo, “to make grow together,” phyton which means “plant,” and officinale which means that this was the official medicinal plant sold in apothecaries and pharmacopoeias. The common name, Comfrey, comes from the Latin con firma, alluding to the uniting of bones, and from the Latin confervere, to boil or grow together, or to heal. The other common names given to this plant allude to its healing powers: boneset, bruisewort, and knitbone.
By 400 B.C. this plant was already in use in Greece. The earliest recorded Comfrey remedies were made only of the root. The Greek historian Herodotus recorded its use and recommended it to staunch severe bleeding and the Greeks later used the root to cure bronchial problems. The Greek poet-physician, Nicander, (of the second century B.C.) mentions the plant as a remedy for poisons in his herbal Alexiphar-mica; and another famous Greek physician, Galen (A.D. 130-200), mentions its healing powers in his writings as well. Greek physician Dioscorides, a well-known natural healer of his day, documented its use in his herbal and prescribed it for healing wounds, broken bones, as well as respiratory and gastrointestinal problems. He was employed as Nero's medical officer to the Roman army (thus, traveling extensively and having much cause to use Comfrey) and documented his experiences in five volumes with descriptive accounts on medicinal plants. Dioscorides prescribed Comfrey for its bone-knitting and wound-healing virtues.
The Roman naturalist and contemporary of Dioscorides, Pliny the Elder, experimented with the roots and remarked that boiling Comfrey roots in water produced a sticky paste which glued pieces of meat together. The people of the first century A.D. made poultices of Comfrey because of this observable fact and drank it as a tea for internal ailments such as diarrhea, bleeding and stomach disorders. Pliny, as well, was an army man and avid writer who compiled fifteen volumes on medicinal plants.
Comfrey appears in monastery writings and herbals from A.D. 1000. Saxon herbariums recommended it for “internal bleedings, ruptures, hernias, for which purpose, to give one example, Comfrey leaves were heated in or over hot, near-ash embers, ground and stirred into honey, and then taken on an empty stomach.” The Cistercians, Benedictines and other religious orders are credited with furthering the cultivation of Comfrey plants during long stretches of warfare because it was a mainstay plant in the monastery gardens and used specifically to heal soldiers' wounds.
The Middle Ages saw continued use of this wonderful plant. Swiss physician Paracelsus, (1493-1541 A.D.) remarked, “To what purpose do you superadde vinegar to the root of Comfrey,” he asked surgeons, “or bole, or suchlike balefull additaments, while God hath compos'd this simple sufficient to cure the fracture of the bones?” The gummy roots actually stiffen into a cast when spread on muslin and wrapped around a sprain, a broken bone that has been set, or torn ligament. Comfrey roots were used in teas for those who would cough up blood, according to Turner's Herbal (1568). By the late sixteenth century the herb had reached a high level of popularity and all levels of social status (from King to pauper) were known to cultivate it in their gardens. Another herbal from this era (1597) was written by herbalist John Gerard, who was renowned during Queen Elizabeth's reign, and who also recommends Comfrey for “those who spit blood and have inward wounds and burstings.”
In the seventeenth century the leaves were also being used in tea form, though English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper still recommended the Comfrey roots, “full of glutinous and clammy juice...for all inward hurts...and for outward wounds and sores in [all] fleshy or sinewy parts of the body...[It] is especially good for ruptures and broken bones.” He also prescribed the herb for hemorrhoids, gout, gangrene, fever, respiratory and menstrual problems. John Parkinson, Master Herbalist and apothecary to King James I, raised Comfrey to a new level of well-deserved acceptance. His herbal, Theater of Plants, (1640) was the bible for contemporary herbalists and physicians of his day. He suggested using the herb internally as an expectorant for lung problems, in tea form to take away fevers and in syrup form for any inward hurts. For external applications, Parkinson cited his findings that the roots were great for gluing together torn flesh and broken bones; a decoction of the root was used to heal hemorrhoids; putrescent ulcers, gangrene and similar problems were also noted to be helped by Comfrey.
Englishman John Josselyn wrote a book titled New England Rarities Discovered (1672), which catalogued his observations of early colonial herb gardens; he notes, “Good examples of the Englishman's herbal transplants were the well-known Plantain, Mallow, Nettles, Dandelion, Shepherd's Purse, Wormwood, Knotgrass and the hardy perennial `Compherie with the white flower.'” In 1812 English physician, Dr. William Withering, recorded various uses of Comfrey in his Systematic Arrangement of British Plants, Vol. II. He lists its edibility, but notes that not all animals seek the herb as forage.
People also used Comfrey for more than medicinal reasons-they cooked it in soups, stews and tossed it into salads; farmers cultivated it as fodder for their livestock; and one Englishman, Henry Doubleday, even used Comfrey as a substitute for the stamp glue, gum Arabic, that was difficult to obtain. He was so impressed with this plant, and moved by the suffering caused by the Irish Potato famine of the 1840's, that he established a charitable organization to research the use and cultivation of Comfrey in hopes of ending world hunger. The earlier part of the 19th century found Comfrey tea as one of the best selling herbal beverages, enjoyed for both its flavor and for its healthful benefits.
In the Americas, the Native American Cherokee tribe is known to have used this plant internally for many ailments and early settlers raised the herb in their gardens. The nineteenth-century Eclectic physicians prescribed it for dysentery, cough, diarrhea, bronchitis and menstrual discomforts. Dr. Charles J. Macalister, the scientist who isolated allantoin from Comfrey, tells of a case in Lancashire, England where a physician he knew had an experience of Comfrey's healing powers. He writes, “Three years ago I was called to see a girl with gastric ulcer, haematemesis and severe vomiting and treated the case in the usual orthodox manner. In three weeks the patient was able to return to the mill. When congratulating the mother on her daughter's speedy recovery the old woman said to me: “Do you mind my telling you something Doctor?” On my replying in the negative-“Well,” she said, “my girl has never taken a drop of your medicine and all she has supped is pints of strong Comfrey tea.” `Since this occasion I have found it an excellent sedative for the gastric mucous membrane.'
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