The comfrey (Symphytum officinale L. 1753) is a herbaceous species belonging to the Boraginaceae family.
From a systematic point of view it belongs to:
S. officinale species.
The terms are synonymous:
– Consolida major Garsault;
– Consolida major Gilib.;
– Symphytum album hort.;
– Symphytum album hort. ex Steud.;
– Symphytum ambiguum Pau;
– Symphytum coccineum Schltdl.;
– Symphytum commune Faegri;
– Symphytum consolida Gueldenst.;
– Symphytum elatum Tausch;
– Symphytum majus Bubani;
– Symphytum molle Janka;
– Symphytum officinale var. glabrescens Nicklès;
– Symphytum officinale var. rectiflorum Touss. & Hoschedé, 1898;
– Symphytum patens Sibth.;
– Symphytum stenophyllum Beck;
– Symphytum variegatum Hort..
Within this species, the following varieties are recognized:
– Symphytum officinale var. ochroleucum;
– Symphytum officinale var. officinale L.;
– Symphytum officinale var. purpureum.
Also known are interspecific hybrid verses:
– Symphytum × coeruleum Petitmengin – Hybrid between: S. officinale and S. peregrinum;
– Symphytum × foliosum Rehman (1868) – Hybrid between: S. officinale and S. tuberosum;
– Symphytum × hyerense Pawlowski (1971) – Hybrid between: S. floribundum and S. officinale;
– Symphytum × uplandicum Nyman (1854) – Hybrid between: S. asperum and S. officinale.
The term Symphytum comes from the Greek συν syn con, together and from φυτόν phytόn plant: plants that grow in groups.
The specific officinal epithet comes from a medieval laboratory workshop: as a plant usable in pharmaceuticals, herbal medicine, liqueurs, perfumery and the like.
Geographic Distribution and Habitat –
Symphytum officinale is a perennial herbaceous plant with European and Caucasian origin but has naturalized in America and Asia while in Australia it is widely cultivated.
In Italy it is present everywhere, even in the Alps, apart from some southern and central areas on the Adriatic side.
Its habitat is that of marshy places, in ditches, canals and peat bogs; but also in humid meadows and forest edges. The preferred substrate is both calcareous and siliceous with neutral pH and average humidity values, where it grows up to 1300 m s.l.m ..
Symphytum officinale is a perennial herbaceous plant that normally grows between 30 and 60 cm but can reach up to 120 cm.
Its surface is covered with rigid (patent or deflected) white hairs.
The roots are secondary to rhizome but very robust; they go deep and allow the growth of abundant foliage. Sometimes the roots of this plant appear as tuberized rhizomes. The rhizome is horizontal, large, sometimes divided into several parts. The outside is dark, while the center is lighter.
The epigeal part is erect, fleshy and branchy; along its entire length there are wings produced by the extension of the basal part of the cauline leaves. The stem can have a zigzagging pattern and its section is angular (quadrangular) and the surface is covered with hair.
The leaves are generally broad and rough, thick, robust and tomentose. They have a certain texture to the touch and their color is strong green on the upper page and almost silvery on the lower one. The edge of the lamina is crenated and the lower page has protruding nerves.
The basal leaves are oval-elongated or lanceolate of medium large size; they are also long petiolate and the apex is acute. Size of the basal leaves: width 10 – 20 cm, length 30 – 80 cm.
Those cauline are alternate, and mostly sessile (only the lower ones are petiolate). The shape is strictly lanceolate with a sharp apex. Moreover, they often decurrent for a long time, up to the underlying leaf, so they seem almost opposite. Average size of cauline leaves: width 2 – 7 cm, length 8 – 18 cm; size of the petiole of the lower leaves: 2 – 4 cm.
The flowers are gathered in an inflorescence which is a pseudo panicle composed of dense groups of flowers gathered in bifid (once or twice bifid) and unilateral (scorpioid racemes, ie developed only on one side) tops; the inflorescence is placed at the axil of the upper leaves.
The flowers are hermaphrodite, actinomorphic, tetracyclic (formed by the 4 fundamental whorls of the angiosperm: calyx – corolla – androecium – gynoecium), pentamers (the flowers are made up of 5 parts). The flowers are also regular and without bracts, they are carried by long arched peduncles so that the flowers are hanging, their shape is tubular. The color can be very varied: off-white or yellowish or greenish; but also pink, purple to violet.
Pollination is entomogamous, by means of bees, the antesis is between May and July while the seeds ripen from June to July
The fruit is a microbasarium (tetranucula) with monosperm mericarps (nucule) of 3.5-4 x 2.4-3.4 mm, ovoid, smooth and shiny, with a basal ring of about 0.5 mm, smooth and toothed at the base.
Symphytum officinale is a perennial plant that is often harvested in its natural state for local use as a food, medicine and source of materials.
It is a plant that can be grown largely in substrates but prefers moist soil with some shade.
Plants can be invasive, often spreading freely by means of self-sown seeds. The root system is very deep and difficult to eradicate, even small root fragments left in the ground can produce new plants.
Propagation occurs by seed; sowing is in spring or autumn in a protected seedbed.
The young seedlings must be transplanted, if coming from seedbeds, in spring or early summer; however it can be sown directly in the open field in spring.
It can also be propagated by division at any time of the year; just use a spade to cut the top 7 cm of root just below the ground level. A number of roots can be obtained, each of which will make a new plant. These can be potted or planted directly in the open field.
Customs and Traditions –
Symphytum officinale is a plant that over the centuries has been cultivated in Asia and Europe as a medicinal plant and for herbal use.
It was used for leaf and root wraps to treat bone sprains, bruises or fractures. Even the roots could be crushed and then wrapped around a broken limb, once dried they formed a hardened “plaster cast”.
This plant, still today and in some areas, is used by popular medicine for its vulnerary properties (it heals wounds); it also seems to stimulate the formation of callus in case of fractures. When the plant is dry, its most consistent parts are grated on wounds, sores or burns: it seems that relief is assured (the healing process is given by a substance called allantoin, a substance also used in synthesis by the pharmaceutical industry for the same. purposes). Mucilages are used as an expectorant (a function that favors the expulsion of bronchial secretions) and also seem valid for coughs. The leaves are also astringent (they limit the secretion of liquids).
Other properties include: decongestants (decreases the blood supply in a given part of the body), astringent (limits the secretion of liquids), emollients (resolves an inflammatory state) and analgesic (reduces pain). Externally it seems to be very useful for various skin conditions such as burns, inflammations, sores and ulcers.
Among the contraindications it should be remembered that several texts advise against prolonged or abundant use because liver diseases could arise due to some hepatotoxic substances such as pyrrolizidine alkaloids. Furthermore, in the plant there is, fortunately, in a very small form, an alkaloid (the “symphyto-cyanogloxin”) that is toxic as it paralyzes the nervous system. In several states its use as food has been banned, such as in the United States of America and in Italy (it is on the Ministry of Health’s list of plants not allowed as food supplements).
The substances present are: mucilage, resin, tannin, chlorogenic acid, gum, choline, starch and asparagine. Consolidin is also present (it is a glucoalkaloid).
Among other uses, it is reported that the leaves of these plants are valid for the production of an excellent macerate for fertigation, and are used directly as a green element (i.e. rich in nitrogen) in the fertilizer (i.e. for composting and the production of humus. ).
Another interesting feature of Symphytum officinale is that it can be used to enrich poor soils with the practice of green manuring, as it is a rustic, vigorous plant, with abundant biomass and can grow even in very poor soils – therefore it is a plant of high interest for organic farming to enrich the land with organic methods. For example, the leaves left to soak for a week in a little water form an excellent preparation for crops demanding potassium such as tomatoes.
Finally, it can be used as a forage grass, and has also been cultivated for this purpose in the past.
It is also a plant visited by bees for its nectar.
There are also industrial uses. In Hungary (and beyond), from some parts of the plant, treated with bismuth, a full-bodied brown color is obtained with which various cosmetics are produced.
However, it should be remembered that being plants that self-sow easily they become invasive and being the root system very deep they are then difficult to uproot. Furthermore, some small fragments of the root always remain in the subsoil which are still capable of producing new plants.
Preparation Method –
Symphytum officinale mainly uses the root but also the leaves. The root harvest is done in autumn-winter, while the leaves in spring before flowering.
In the kitchen you can produce a good tea from the leaves properly treated, while the roots can be used as sweeteners (it contains sugars in addition to starch and more). In some places, the upper parts of the plant are used for food as if they were asparagus. In other areas the leaves are boiled and eaten like spinach. Or the roots, if peeled and finely cut, can be added to vegetable soups. The leaves when roasted can produce a coffee substitute. However, it should be borne in mind that this plant has a certain toxicity, as underlined in the contraindications of the previous paragraph.
Roasted roots are used with dandelion and chicory roots to make a coffee succession.
– Acta Plantarum – Flora of the Italian Regions.
– Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
– GBIF, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.
– Useful Tropical Plants Database.
– Conti F., Abbate G., Alessandrini A., Blasi C. (ed.), 2005. An annotated checklist of the Italian vascular flora, Palombi Editore.
– Pignatti S., 1982. Flora of Italy, Edagricole, Bologna.
– Treben M., 2000. Health from the Lord’s Pharmacy, Advice and experiences with medicinal herbs, Ennsthaler Editore.
Warning: Pharmaceutical applications and alimurgical uses are indicated for informational purposes only, they do not represent in any way a medical prescription; therefore no responsibility is taken for their use for curative, aesthetic or food purposes.