What's big and hairy and good for bumps and bruises?


ANOTHER LIFE:THE BUDGETING OF ENERGY that arrives with advancing age has made certain inroads on my organic aspirations. Buckets of pelleted chicken manure, its veterinary provenance unclear, have supplanted the loads of free and fragrant seaweed from the shore. Many paths and noncrop areas are tamed with herbicide spray. And while canopies of fine net protect the outside vegetables against root fly and caterpillars, my ceaseless war on slugs has sometimes succumbed to the chemical road. Manual slug-hunts by torchlight, as urged by the saints, have merely confirmed that there are millions more molluscs where those came from.

But some old loyalties remain, among them faith in comfrey, the “wonder” herb. As a supermanure, as fodder for livestock and as miracle balm for fractures and bruises, this big, hairy relative of borage and forget-me-not has become an icon of organic orthodoxy. The offer of rooted cuttings in the glossiest of this year’s seed catalogues shows just how far things have come since the ridicule of “sandals, beards and muesli” of only a few decades ago.

The cuttings, moreover, are for the strain of Russian comfrey known as ‘Bocking 14’, acknowledging the need to grow the right stuff.

Comfrey, Symphytum officinale, is a widespread plant of Ireland’s damp and grassy waysides. But Russian comfrey, championed by a 19th-century Quaker called Henry Doubleday, is a cross with rough comfrey, Symphytum asperum, and ‘Bocking 14’ is the super-large-leafed cultivar Symphytum 5 uplandicum, developed at Bocking in Britain in the 1950s by the late Lawrence Hills, a guru of the modern organic movement.

The leading virtue of ‘Bocking 14’ is less its big leaves than its hybrid sterility. Comfrey, rather like horseradish, can be a plant one has forever, any lost fragment regenerating, triffid-like, from the soil. Viable seeds would merely encourage its spread. Back in our pioneering days, I forked out for a bundle of roots on offer from blow-ins in Co Clare, hoping for a bargain lot of ‘Bocking’ and a great source of fodder for our goats. Allowed to flower for the bumblebees and later to set seed, however, the passage of 30 years or so finds new plants scattered in self-sown clumps and thickets among my vegetable beds; indeed, they will turn up almost anywhere. But I have just stuffed a wheelbarrow load of leaves into a plastic dustbin with a cork at the bottom. Pressed down under a weight, they will squeeze out a trickle of smelly black juice, rich in phosphate, for the tunnel’s tomatoes.

Comfrey’s fertilising chemistry – the “natural mineral wine” as Hills called it – is enriched from roots as deep and greedy as a tree’s. For the details of its NPK – nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium – rating and so on, there are plentiful sources online. The plant’s lavish and irrepressible growth allows a harvest (with gloves and shears) several times a year. But comfrey can do more than prime the growth of food crops, and today’s clinical trials of its therapeutic uses are confirming what herbalists had known since Dioscorides.

Knitbone, bruisewort, boneset – the common English names of comfrey – speak for its power to take down the swelling around fractures and strains. In Irish, meacan dubh, or black root, focuses on the plant’s most potent source of relief, and lus na gcnámh briste says it all. In our corner of Mayo a few people know meacan dubh as a herb “the old people” used to value, but even fewer know that this is comfrey or what it was used for.

Even Niall Mac Coitir’s encyclopaedic Irish Wild Plants: Myths, Legends Folklore (2006), surprisingly, missed its herbal history.

We soon came to prize comfrey not only as goat fodder but also as a salve for stings and bites and the bumps and bruises of the smallholder’s life. The root, in particular, is rich in mucilage and in allantoin, a cell proliferant and anti-inflammatory once listed officially in British Pharmacopoeia, the handbook of pre-blister-pack chemists.

Our daughter hobbled home once when young, leading her pony and crying with pain: Báinin had stepped on her plimsolled foot. The bruise above her toes was black and swollen, but a poultice of macerated comfrey had it fading within hours. In Phytomedicine, an international science journal, “a double-blind, multi-center, randomized, placebo-controlled group comparison study” on patients with acute ankle sprains confirmed the efficacy of comfrey ointment, as did a comparable trial on 220 patients with chronic and painful osteoarthritis of the knee.

There may be bounds to the plant’s healthful benefits. Having produced cancer in the livers of young laboratory rats, comfrey was once classed as a potential poison in Australia, thus appalling the thousands of people there and in Europe who were happily eating its shoots in salads or drinking comfrey tea. But comfrey seems to have outlived this controversy, as it outlives almost everything else.

Eye on nature

I saw what I thought was a feeding frenzy by coal tits on a sunflower feeder only to find that they were planting the seeds in flower and tomato pots in the garden.

JG Kelly, Terenure, Dublin

Coal tits hoard food for later.

In May we were fascinated watching a cuckoo on a telephone wire that crosses an open field, always accompanied by up to three small birds. She will sometimes fly low across the field and then return to the wire. Are they dunnocks?

Valerie Clarke, Swinford, Co Mayo

They are meadow pipits.

While kayaking at Dalkey Island, in Dublin Bay, my brother and I saw a jet-black baby rabbit that allowed us to approach to within three metres.

Kevin Lalor Naas, Co Kildare

Genetically, a small proportion of rabbits can be black. Because they are not camouflaged against predation they tend to be found on islands where they are in less danger.

On a quite hidden local beach we were surprised to see a large otter emerge from the sea and walk purposefully to the sand dunes and beyond.

Niamh Mac Gowan, Blainroe, Co Wicklow

There are otters all around our coasts that fish in the sea.

Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo, or email viney@anu.ie. Please include a postal address

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