Monday, December 10, 2007

Comfrey - Symphytum Officinale (Medicinal Herbs)

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale L.) is a perennial herb of the family Boraginaceae with a black, turnip-like root and large, hairy broad leaves that bears small bell-shaped white, cream, purple or pink flowers. It is native to Europe, growing in damp, grassy places, and is widespread throughout the British Isles on river banks and ditches.

Comfrey has long been recognized by both organic gardeners and herbalists for its great usefulness and versatility; of particular interest is the "Bocking 14" cultivar of Russian Comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum). This strain was developed during the 1950s by Lawrence D Hills, the founder of the Henry Doubleday Research Association (the organic gardening organization itself named after the Quaker pioneer who first introduced Russian Comfrey into Britain in the 1910s) following trials at Bocking, near Braintree, the original home of the organization.

Other species include:

* Symphytum asperum, Prickly Comfrey, Rough Comfrey (synonym: S. asperrimum)
* Symphytum bulbosum, Bulbous Comfrey
* Symphytum caucasicum, Caucasian Comfrey
* Symphytum grandiflorum, Creeping Comfrey (synonym: S. ibericum)
* Symphytum orientale, White Comfrey
* Symphytum tauricum, Crimean Comfrey
* Symphytum tuberosum, Tuberous Comfrey
* Symphytum x uplandicum, Russian Comfrey, Healing Herb, Blackwort, Bruisewort, Wallwort, Gum Plant. (S. asperum x officinale, synonym: S. peregrinum)

Medicinal uses

Dorothy Hall writes that 'Russian comfrey and garlic could together, according to natural health usage, almost halve the present ills of western civilization' . An extravagant claim perhaps, but comfrey did indeed have a wealth of medicinal uses in bygone days. Contemporary herbalists view comfrey as an ambivalent and controversial herb that may offer therapeutic benefits but at the potential risk of liver toxicity.

One of its country names for comfrey was 'knitbone', a reminder of its traditional use in healing. Modern science confirms that comfrey can influence the course of bone ailments.

The herb contains allantoin, a cell proliferant that speeds up the natural replacement of body cells. Comfrey was used to treat a wide variety of ailments ranging from bronchial problems, broken bones, sprains, arthritis, gastric and varicose ulcers, severe burns, acne and other skin conditions. It was reputed to have bone and teeth building properties in children, and have value in treating 'many female disorders'. In past times comfrey baths were popular to repair the hymen and thus 'restore virginity'. Constituents of comfrey also include mucilage, steroidal saponins, tannins, pyrrolizidine alkaloids, inulin, vitamin B12 and proteins.

Internal usage of comfrey should be avoided because it contains hepatotoxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) (Note, there are also non-hepatotoxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids.). Use of comfrey can, because of these PAs, lead to veno-occlusive disease (VOD). VOD can in turn lead to liver failure, and comfrey, taken in extreme amounts, has been implicated in at least one death. In 2001, the United States Food and Drug Administration issued a warning against internal usage of herbal products containing comfrey.

Excessive doses of Symphytine, one of the PAs in comfrey, may cause cancer in rats. This was shown by injection of the pure alkaloid. The whole plant has also been shown to induce precancerous changes in transgenic rats.

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