Comfrey is a popular permaculture design plant because it is a hardy pioneer plant and it has an extremely fast growth rate. It is also a hyper nutrient accumulator, meaning its roots mine the soil at depths up to 3 meters, and bring those nutrients to the surface, in the leaves.
Comfrey, also known as Symphytum Officinale for close friends, gardeners, and permaculture folk, is a vigorous perennial plant that grows from 80 cm to 1.30 m high and has multiple uses. It is extremely hardy, with thick, hairy leaves and very melliferous flowers. Its roots are very strong and can reach a depth of 3 m; in fact, if its roots are disturbed, it will actually regrow even stronger than before.
It is native to Europe, growing in damp, grassy places. It is frequent on river banks and ditches. It occurs in North America as an introduced species. The flowers are mostly visited by bumblebees.
In folklore, Comfrey roots were used in traditional medicine internally or externally, but today it is favored for its many, many uses in the garden:
Hardy pioneer plant
Comfrey can grow in almost any condition, and in any soil type. It can be propagated during almost the whole year (check locally, for climate variations). It needs cold and humidity to germinate, and it flowers from May to July, in cold and temperate climates.
Root cuttings can start growing even underneath deep bedding, and quite often it will be the first plant to grow leaves with the arrival of spring. If it encounters dry and hot conditions, the leaves will melt on the ground, but as soon as the rains and coolness come back, they will come back to life in the same season.
Once it’s established, Comfrey can take almost any kind of “abuse”; try to eradicate it, by cutting its roots, or digging it up, and any fragments that are left behind will come back to life. On more than one occasion, I’ve been able to take between 50 – 100 root cuttings from a single mature plant (2 – 3 years, minimum).
Its leaves can be harvested up to four times per year, but I’ve gotten even as far as 8 times, in total, on certain occasions. It can be used to mulch between garden rows, or around fruit trees. The leaf regrowth will be almost instantaneous.
Extremely fast growth rate
I’ve done the experiment of cutting plants every 2-3 weeks, in summer, and the recovery was always constant. This makes it a wonderful plant to place on the edge of gardens, orchards, or animal paddocks, as it can be recycled very quickly through the system.
Including animals in the Comfrey cycles brings even more advantages, as the bacterial inoculation from the guts of the said animals will enhance soil life.
How to manage food forests with a chop’n’drop strategy, from Geoff Lawton: https://youtu.be/-5501yGvSW8
Hyper nutrient accumulator – both in quality and quantity
While opinions abound about whether this is very exact, in comparison to other plants, this is beyond the point. Comfrey has an extensive root system, can “cover” the ground efficiently, and can return a great volume of organic matter to the soil, in repetitive cycles. Being a perennial plant compatible with both gardens and orchards, it can perform in all possible conditions better than probably any other plant.
Its resilience ensures it will provide functions efficiently, and the overall returns far outweigh the energy needed for establishing it.
Edge plant – for gardens and food forests
Comfrey plants can be put to even greater use if they’re placed in strategic positions around the growing areas.
Gardeners will find that it is capable of blocking even the most sturdy of invasive plants, such as grasses or bindweed. Comfrey roots are voluminous and spread both in-depth, and horizontally, in the ground.
In a similar manner, placing a Comfrey plant next to a young fruit tree will also block invasive grasses, while also shading them. The piling of leaves on the ground, next to the tree, will also help the transition from a bacterial-dominated soil, towards a more forest-like soil. The decomposing leaves will also attract a wide array of decomposers, adding to the diversity.
Next to a mature tree, Comfrey performs supportive functions. Auxiliary insects and animals will also find nutrition or refuge with it, adding another layer of diversity to move the system into balance.
Compatibility with every phase of succession, all the way to climax.
As mentioned above, Comfrey can fit into several scenarios, in appropriate climates. It is a pioneer, a tutor during succession, and also a support plant in mature, regenerative ecosystems.
In folklore, Comfrey roots were used in traditional medicine internally (as a herbal tea or tincture) or externally (as an ointment or compresses for reducing the pain of osteoarthritis, or for back pains.) The leaves were also thought to be edible as a vegetable, similar to spinach.
Comfrey macerations are used to spray on plants, in polyculture gardens and orchards.
The wide range of minor and major elements that it mines, and then returns to the living soil through the intervention of humans (and animals), make it an irreplaceable element in cultivated ecologies.
However, this does not mean that Comfrey is the answer to every question or every problem. Permaculture is inclusive and extensive: other plants need to be integrated, for each function mentioned in the article, overlapping Comfrey or providing other functions.