9 Jun 2013

Friend or foe?


Symphytum bee

Symphytum officinale, or comfrey as it's better known, is one of the those plants that was on my 'must have' list for the garden.  I bought a sturdy little plant from Jekka McVicar's Herb Farm last year and, forewarned, planted it into a large pot (rather than the ground where its huge tap root can make it difficult to get rid of).  This year it's grown huge and flowered prolifically, bringing a splash of early colour to the veg patch and, as I pottered around on Saturday, I noticed that it was enticing many bees into the garden too.

This morning, a friend asked me what the plant was - it's very beautiful at the  moment, with loads of purple flowers.  I answered that it was both the gardener's friend and foe.  Compost activator, beneficial mulch for fruit trees, soil enhancer for potatoes and beans when chopped up and buried in the soil under the plant, raw material for liquid fertiliser; balanced against that, it can be a bit invasive and has a hugely deep tap root making it virtually impossible to get rid of once established.

I've used the chopped up leaf method under my potatoes this year. Because the leaves were chopped up, they'll decompose quickly releasing nutrients into the soil that boost leaf production; more leaves, more potatoes.  Let's hope it works! It's also said that slugs love munching on comfrey leaves so it could be a good idea to lay a carpet of leaves on the soil, wait, then slip out at night (or early morning) and roll up leaves and slugs in one go for disposal.  Now that's got to be worth a try!

I think, being carefully planted, my comfrey is more of a friend.  I've also read that the plant is excellent for healing cuts and arthritis - has anyone tried it for this?  I'd be very interested to know what you found out! 


If interested to read more about this plant, there's an excellent info page over at Seedaholic.

26 comments:

  1. Comfrey is a bit vigorous for my garden although I did have some af one stage. I pulled it out 2 summers ago and it hasn't reappeared. My mum tried the capsules for her arthritis but it didn't do anything!

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    1. Hi Claire! Yes, I was surprised at how large the plant has grown this summer! Lucky for you that you were able to despatch your plant so easily; I've heard tales of it coming back for years! Interesting that the capsules didn't work for your Mum - wouldn't it have been lovely if they were effective. It's hard to tell with natural remedies, some work, some don't. Personally, I swear by arnica cream for bruises!

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  2. Beautiful photo, Caro. My Comfrey is anything BUT invasive. OK, I have put it in a dry shady spot, but then I did so because nothing else would grow there, and I had heard that Comfrey would put up with anything. When I have enough of it I use mine for making liquid feed simply by steeping it in a bucket of water.

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    1. Thank you Mark! Ooh, I'm pleased to know that comfrey will put up with dry shade - I could have the perfect spot to pop some into. Although, being grown in a pot, if mine isn't watered it droops very dramatically! It's a timely reminder that I should probably water everything else growing in the garden!

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  3. I'm trying to picture you rolling up your slugs in comfrey leaves!! I think you've solved the problem of it being permanent, no matter how much you try to get rid of it, by planting it in a pot, good one!

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    1. Haha, it does create a good mental image, doesn't it! I've yet to see if it works but as the plant is flowering prolifically, it will be good to chop it back a bit soon ... then I'll be putting the theory to the test!

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  4. I grow a handful of plants alongside my raspberries, and the last few days both have been buzzing with bees. Once it's finished flowering I'll cut it right back to add to the compost heap. I do that several times a year.
    Wear gloves if you do this as it can really irritate the skin.
    I have arthritis so will have to read up on how it's supposed to help. Flighty xx

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    1. Ah, useful information, Flighty - thank you! I didn't know that the plant would regrow if cut back so I'll definitely be taking your good advice; it's supposed to be marvellous for the compost. I like wearing gloves for working in the garden as it helps to ward off bug bites and scratches! Good tip though, thanks!! C xx

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    2. PS Sorry to hear that you have arthritis; I've managed to escape that for now. I hope your research leads you to some useful and helpful information. xx

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  5. Oh your comfrey flowers are so much darker than mine Caro- most attractive. I inherited comfrey with the allotment. I noted the very first summer what a bee magnet it is and naively let the flowers go to seed. I'm still digging comfrey seedlings out years later as I never remember to get to them in time. I have also noted that some other allotment plot holders pass disparaging remarks about my plants, but then every year without fail ask if I can spare them some leaves to brew a fertiliser. May start charging them for it :) A friend as far as I'm concerned but if I ever move will grow the sterile Bocking 14 variety!

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    1. Hi Anna! Good to know that comfrey is a prolific self-seeder - I already have that in the Orach plants I grow and constantly pull out hundreds of seedlings. Don't want to be doing that with comfrey too so will cut it back straight after flowering. I'm really pleased that I have a purple rather than pink or white comfrey - it's one of my favourite colours! I don't like the sound of your fellow allotmenteers - what a bunch of miseries they sound!! I think all plants have something good to be said about them but native helpful plants are particularly lovely! They idea of charging for the leaves, whilst impractical, would be very satisfying!

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  6. I chickened out and planted Bocking 14, and will have to wait until next year to be able to harvest enough leaves to mulch or feed. On the other hand, I do have lots of seaweed I could use as and when I get around to it. Such a beautiful plant though, I rather wish I had the space to let it be rampant. I have read that if you plant it as a sort of barrier around a foot deep it can keep couch grass at bay, which has to put it firmly in friend category!

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    1. Ah, interesting info, Janet! I'd rather have a comfrey barrier than couch grass any day! Of course, yes, you'll have masses of seaweed to fertilise your borders - I brought some back after it was washed up on the beach a couple of years ago - it's supposed to be terrific as a mulch so lucky you!
      I would say that you erred on the side of caution when buying Bocking 14 - I had a feeling that my plant was not the sterile strain so had to plant in a pot - which of course means more watering and looking after. No, I think you've been very sensible!!

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  7. I planted Bocking 14 this year too - the roots came from another gardener friend and the plant isn't supposed to self-seed or be too invasive. However, like Janet above, I'll have to wait until next year to start harvesting it. At least the local wildlife is benefiting from it in the meantime :)

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    1. Hi Tanya! I'm wondering if you planted your comfrey near to your beehives - the bees do seem to love it!! My plant was on the small side last year and I had no idea it would grow so large - this year it's shading out the bed next to it!! A good chop down will hopefully see it regenerate again before the year end.

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  8. For years i wanted to make the Comfrey tea I hear about from gardeners but didn't have the comfrey supply to do it. I never got round to buying any either and it was literally this weekend that i saw Monty Don do it on TV. When I saw the Comfrey plants I couldn't believe it, I recognised it immediately as the 'weed' that's been growing rampant over the land for the past 10 years.
    I now have my first batch of comfrey tea brewing - feel a bit silly not knowing the plant though lol.

    Linda - The Tenacious Gardener.

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    1. Hello Linda! You're not alone. I'm still not sure what elderflower looks like, while others write happily of picking it for cordial or wine, etc! I really mean to go on a foraging course so that I can have a passing shot at identifying wild plants - doesn't sound very urban does it? I live near Hampstead Heath and so we still have a little bit of 'wild' nearby to be discovered!! Thanks for popping by and commenting - really pleased to have discovered your blog!

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  9. We have a patch or two of comfrey on our plot and the bees certainly love it. It does tend to flop over and get mildew if left to its own devices.

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    1. Mine's just reached the floppy stage, Sue! I can't believe how large this plant gets - amazing! I've just chopped the leaves down to add to the compost heap as I've read you can do this several times a year. I do feel a bit mean depriving the bees ... but then they've got plenty of other stuff to visit at the moment!

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    2. We've just chopped ours and laid it between the ridges of the earthed up potatoes as a mulch. The flowers are still there for now so the bees can still visit if they like. Though as you say they must be a bit spoiled for choice .

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    3. Ooh interesting! I wouldn't have thought of using the leaves as a top mulch - does this attract slugs? Although, thinking about it, slugs above ground around spuds would probably be a good thing ...
      I chopped up leaves earlier in the year and put a layer under the soil where I planted my chitted potatoes - they're looking really healthy at the mo, but the real test will be what I get at the end of the season!

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    4. It has never been a problem before Caro.

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  10. Hi Caro! How's it going?! I once stupidly let someone use one of my raised beds on my allotment, she was a friend of a friend and desperate to get a plot and I was going traveling for a few months so said she could have a go. She said she was interested in growing herbs so I lent her my front bed on the plot thinking she would make a lovely display. She planted a comfrey smack bang in the middle at the front and when I came back she said she no longer wanted to borrow the bed but left me with the comfrey!!!! I liked it, but not there and by eck did it take some digging out. I'd love another one but would have to take measures to stop it taking over. It's not my friend quite yet due to the trauma of 'Brenda' the allotment nuisance!!

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    1. A cautionary tale if ever there was one, Anna! Lovely to hear from you, hope you're well and enjoying the garden! I'm looking forward to pressure easing at the end of the college term so that I can get on with doing stuff in mine - it's all woefully behind!
      I made a similar mistake when I created my first herb bed here: horseradish, PLANTED!!, in the corner of the bed. Thought it was quite a sweet little herb and now I know better! That's another one that will take some digging out - have tried a couple of times and now know that I'm going to have to EXCAVATE!!! Ee, it's a learning curve, isn't it?? !! Caro xx

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  11. My comfrey shares a patch with my mint, and they get along famously! I pick a lot of the comfrey (although I'm lazy, it usually goes in the compost bin) and a lot of the mint, so it keeps both under control. Last year it got trampled by men from the council (they also broke my compost bin) but this year it's come back with a vengeance!

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    1. I imagine both mint and comfrey are pretty indestructable and like the idea of them battling it out in one plot. I bet the bees love it! I'd love to have swathes of mint and comfrey, amongst others, but as mine is a community garden it would take some convincing the neighbours! Hope you managed to get a replacement compost bin from the council!

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Caro x

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