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.