Botanical Superheroes: Comfrey

Every plant has its place in the ecosystem. But some plants are extra useful to those of us human beings who engage in organic gardening, be it to grow food/medicine, to support wildlife, or both. For purposes of this post (and maybe for other posts in the future), I have decided to call these extra-useful plants “Botanical Superheroes” or “Super Plants.”

I’m using this term to describe a plant that has as many as possible of the following attributes: 1) grows wild, but can also be cultivated; 2) has a wide geographic range, the more continents the better; 3) grows profusely and is good for land restoration, soil remediation; 4) provides food or medicine (for humans, livestock, or both); 5) supports wildlife. Note, this is not a formal classification; it’s just a term I’m suggesting.

One example of what I’m calling Super Plants is comfrey. From the checklist above: 1) Yes; 2) Native to Europe and Asia, but grows wild in Africa and the Americas also; 3) Yes – nutrient accumulator and mulch; 4) supplemental chicken feed, herbal medicine, and other uses; 5) Yes – supports pollinators, as well as insects that prey on garden pests.

We learn about comfrey in permaculture design courses, and “permies” love it because, among other things, it makes a great “chop and drop” mulch, and it can be used as a supplemental food for chickens. I have not yet incorporated comfrey into my garden, but now that I’ve read this post from Happy DIY Home, and have found some other good articles on comfrey (see links below), I plan to do so!

(As I mentioned, we did learn about comfrey in permaculture design class. But I never latched onto it because I don’t raise chickens (at least not yet), and also maybe because I wasn’t paying enough attention to its many other uses! Sometimes it takes me multiple go-rounds for useful info to sink in. Depending on the circumstances, it can be years later!)

The general word on comfrey is that it grows profusely, so you want to be sure and pick your spot carefully. (I will test out this claim with my black thumb and my deficient-in-everything beachside soil, and will get back to you.) In recent years, as drought-flood extremes become more of an issue all over the country and world, I have become more focused on useful, profusely growing plants as part of the solution. Robust plants help mitigate drought-flood extremes by uptaking rainwater and helping to slow its runoff, creating richer soil and a “juicier” landscape. Living storage of water and nutrients!

Besides comfrey, other plants on my list of Botanical Superheroes include amaranth, sorrel, and clover. What are some of your favorite “Super Plants”?

My purpose in writing this post is two-fold: to let you know about a useful plant; and also, to give you an example of how, in a more general sense, we are surrounded by invaluable allies (plant and otherwise) that we might not know about. And therefore, I want to encourage you to keep your antennas out for the many allies all around you: plant, animal, human, and inanimate!

Further Reading:

How To Grow Comfrey: Care, Types, and Growing Tips (by Elizabeth Waddington on (also linked in my post above) is a great all-around intro to comfrey. “Comfrey is one of the most useful plants to grow in an organic garden. If you are interested in taking care of our planet, its people and wildlife, and creating a way of life that is truly ethical, green and sustainable, this is one plant to include in your growing scheme. In this article, we will discuss this useful flowering perennial.” (Note, I am also adding this article to the Further Reading list of my post on knowing your wild edible and medicinal plants.)

Comfrey: Its History, Uses, and Benefits (by Paul Alfrey in Permaculture Magazine): This excellent article from Permaculture Magazine goes into detail from a permaculture land-management standpoint, as well as describing medicinal uses.

(***CAUTION!!!: While comfrey has historically been used for various medicinal applications (one of its folk names is “bone knit”), and has even been eaten as a vegetable, it has been linked to cancer and liver damage, and is not now recommended to ingest by mouth. I am not in a position to recommend this plant for human food or medicinal applications. As with any plant, do your own research, which needs also to include consulting with your local experts in person.)

And one more comfrey article I found useful: Growing and Foraging for Comfrey, on offers additional advice from a permie perspective. For example, the authors grow it around their fruit trees because it brings up nutrients from the soil through its long taproot.

Wrapping up today’s “resource roundup” for you, I want to share with you a website called Jen Reviews. It’s the sister site to Happy DIY Home (source of the first comfrey article linked above). I’m giving Jen Reviews a boost because 1) it offers lots of practical info, such as this article on ways to control 13 common household bugs without using toxic chemicals; and 2) Jen Reviews offered to share my blog with its readers, in exchange for my sharing their site. (I would not have agreed to this unless I liked their content, which I do.)

Jen Reviews describes itself as “the authority on everything food, fitness and home,” and says “All our writers are experts in their particular niches. Our expert team includes former Olympians, doctors, registered nurses, executive chefs, mountain guides, yoga instructors, certified dog trainers and more.” I appreciate being contacted by the editors of this popular website. And hope you will check it out, and will find lots of useful stuff there!