Roots of any medicinal plants are usually harvested in Autumn when, just like humans, plants turns inwards for the winter. Leaves of various plants are picked at different times of year when their active constituents are at their highest.
Comfrey is one of my favourite herbs to put in ointments or healing oils. Comfrey contains allantoin which is a substance known to promote new skin cell growth. At the end of this article are a couple of websites that will help you understand the benefits of using comfrey for bruising, pulled muscles, inflammation and even broken bones. They will also explain the potential dangers of using comfrey internally. Some say the leaves (but not the root) are safe internally, however the leaves contain the same potentially dangerous alkaloids that are in the root, even though in lesser concentrations. Comfrey preparations for internal use are banned in New Zealand (as in the US).
Comfrey in my garden in early May. The leaves are starting to die down a bit but there are some new leaves appearing still. The flower heads have seeded and died back.
If you grow comfrey May is the time to pick it. You can use the leaves and/or the root for external preparations. Obviously only harvest the root if you have plenty of plants or know how to divide roots and still keep the plant alive.
To use the leaves, pick them in the afternoon after all the dew has evaporated. Leave to wilt for 12 hours. The less moisture the better or your oil may go mouldy.
Place 2 cups of chopped comfrey leaves into a large jar and cover with 4 cups of olive oil. Leave in a warm place for 2 – 3 weeks. This makes an infused oil that can be rubbed on dry skin and on sprains or strains. It can also be used to counter skin inflammations like eczema. Do not use on infected wounds.
Any medicinal plant extraction is best begun at a new moon and then bottled at the full moon. So for the comfrey if you pick and chop the leaves at the new moon you will have had it sitting in the oil for 2 weeks by the full moon. A few days either side is okay.
You could also pick the comfrey leaves and leave them to dry until needed. Pick and dry on flat non absorbent surface (like an oven tray) until crunchy dry. Bottle in air tight bottles. In the Middle Ages ‘comfrey baths’ were often used for dry or inflamed skin and for aching muscles. The dried leaves would be ideal for comfrey baths over winter.
In general it is uncommon for a herbalist to use one herb alone so once you have a comfrey oil extract it can be combined into an ointment with other herbs that you have extracted, or you can extract several herbs with complimentary properties into one oil. If you are just beginning to use herbs I suggest you do single herb extracts and use them regularly for a while until you fully understand how they work for you. Remember that we are all different and will respond more or less or not at all to various herbs. Just as our bodies differ as to which foods or smells we respond to.
WellnessMama has a great comfrey leaf herb profile, and Mountain Rose blog has a list of oils that you might like to try infusing and a short description of their uses. Richard Whelan’s website is also a great New Zealand website to check out uses of herbs and also any safety concerns.