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(Symphytum Officinale)

by Dylan Warren Davis:

The Hand Reveals

By Dylan Warren-Davis

Comfrey (Symphytum Officinale)
   By Dylan Warren-Davis

Culpeper describes the rulership of Comfrey as: "a herb of Saturn, and I suppose under the sign Capricorn". The Saturnine nature of comfrey is readily reflected by its preference for shady places that are cool and damp. The leaves of the plant are rough from numerous stiff hairs while the veins of the leaf have a blackish tinge that produces a characteristic shadowy complexion to the foliage. Though the plant can endure sunny locations the sheer intensity of its growth in a few seasons soon produces a dense thicket. The concentration of foliage rapidly creates a sombre darkness in which few other plants flourish. One of the ancient folk names of the plant was blackewoort.

In any plant Saturn rules the roots, which delve down into the earth providing foundation and stability to the aerial parts. The roots are also the part that endures when cold and darkness predominate in winter. Accordingly comfrey develops strong roots, so that its unrestrained growth, once established, makes it hard to dig out of the ground. Many a gardener must have cursed when they tried to reclaim their garden! However its foliage very quickly rots down to form an excellent black compost, so that harvesting the leafy stems is less arduous to the problem of digging out a comfrey patch. Saturn is of course linked to death and decomposition.

The main use of comfrey through the centuries has been as a vulnerary [L. Vulnus = a wound] remedy. Its use for healing wounds and injuries of all kinds, in particular the mending of broken bones, has been established since classical times. This explains one of the herb's lesser known names - 'knitbone'. From a pharmacological perspective comfrey contains the substance allantoin which is known to stimulate cell production in the repair of connective tissue, bone and cartilage, thereby speeding up the healing process. It is also noteworthy that the plant contains significant amounts of calcium and phosphorus, the very minerals needed in the composition of bone.

Saturn traditionally rules the bones. Where bones have become broken or lose their integrity, this can be seen as the influence of Saturn no longer providing sufficient support and structure to the body. What more appropriate remedy than to use this Saturnine herb specifically for this purpose, to strengthen the bones and restore Saturn's influence.

The name comfrey is thought to he corrupted from the Latin confero meaning 'to gather together' which metaphorically captures this healing action of the herb strengthening the tissues of the body. The same latin word explains another obscure name of the herb - 'great confound'. Similarly the generic name 'Symphytum' is thought to be derived from the Greek symphyo: 'to make whole' and phyton: 'plant'.

About 20 years ago as a student of herbal medicine, I reached a point at the end of my second year when I started to doubt whether herbs actually worked or not. Studies up to that point were entirely theoretical and lacked any real practical application. I wanted intensely to experience using herbs in the clinical situation so that I could really get to understand how they worked, rather than just filling my head with 'book knowledge'.

That summer I was holidaying at an international yoga centre in Denmark, where I had stayed twice before. Shortly after my arrival I recognized an American girl at a distance walking with the aid of crutches. I had previously met her three years earlier at the centre. The following day I overheard a conversation in which she described the accident which led to her injury.

Her brother, an Olympic windsurfer, was teaching her how to jump with the surf-board from wave to wave. Unfortunately when she tried to jump she got the timing wrong. The oncoming wave forced the surfboard to tip on its side. As she slid into the sea the edge of the hoard clipped her right knee smashing the cartilage of the patella and tearing both the posterior cruciate and the fibular collateral ligaments. Her orthopaedic surgeon said there was nothing he could do other than allow the knee to heal itself, and that such an injury would take at least six months to heal, of which she would probably need to spend about four months on crutches.

Knowing how keen this girl was on doing her yoga daily I could see what an additional handicap this injury was to her; in particular meditating in the lotus position was completely impossible as she was unable to bend her knee. Knowing that the longer it takes for a joint injury to heal, the more likely it is to become arthritic with age, I realised that this injury could also make her yoga very painful for the future.

I introduced myself to her and apologised for intruding on her conversation. After hearing that her surgeon could do nothing for her I suggested that she might like to try herbal medicine. "Do herbs work?" she asked. "Of course they do" I replied, trying to cover up my inexperience of using herbs at the time. "Well let's give it a go, as nothing else has helped me" she responded.

By coincidence, in traveling to the yoga centre that year I had spotted a thick expanse of comfrey growing beside a ditch, about a mile and a half away. I borrowed a bike and pedaled off to get some. I returned with a plastic carrier bag full of comfrey leaves. After obtaining a bandage from the camp doctors I set down to help the girl.

Comfrey leaves have a prominent mid-rib, that needs to be torn out in much the same way as preparing spinach for boiling. After preparing six of the healthiest looking leaves, I simply laid them directly onto the skin around her knee, with the upper side of the leaf in contact with the skin and the length of the leaf aligned longitudinally with her leg. Finally I wrapped the bandage around the knee to hold them all in place. I told her that after a while the hairs will cause the skin to itch.

About four hours later she said to me "Dylan, I think you have introduced me to a new sensation!" I laughed knowing very well what she was on about, having experienced comfrey leaves strapped on my back after a cycling accident in my early teens. I inspected her knee to find that it had become red and swollen to the size of a football. The inflammation revealed that the healing process had been initiated. I suggested that she subsequently need only apply the leaves nightly as she went to bed, and to take the leaves off as soon as the itching aroused her from sleep.

Her knee progressed well over the next few days; a marked reduction in pain and swelling with increased strength and mobility of the joint. I cycled off every other day to maintain a supply of the fresh leaves for her. About a week later I went to her caravan to see how she was. Her crutches were leaning against it beside the door but she was not inside. I asked to find out where she might be and was somewhat aghast to be told that she had decided to go for a bike ride so she could get some more comfrey leaves. Shortly afterwards she returned, brake pads screeching on the wheel rims, ecstatic that she had just pedaled the three miles without any difficulty whatsoever. I was both delighted for her and stunned at the speed of her recovery. I had no idea that herbs could heal the body so quickly. From that moment onwards I have never doubted the healing power of herbs.

A month after first applying the comfrey leaves, the girl had returned to California. She wrote to me expressing her gratitude for the help I had given her in Denmark. She described how she had walked into her orthopaedic surgeon's clinic and slammed the crutches down on his desk saying "I don't need these any more". After examining her knee he was equally aghast. He responded, "never in 40 years experience have I seen such a serious injury heal so quickly". After being told about the comfrey leaves he did not say a word.

Since the knees are ruled by Capricorn the choice of the Saturnine comfrey to sympathetically heal this knee injury was especially appropriate for the girl. Having my Sun in Capricorn I have often mused on how this experience also confirmed my vocation as a herbalist.

Notes & References:

  1 ] N. Culpeper, Complete Herbal and English Physician Enlarged, 1653; section on dandelion.
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  2 ] D. Warren-Davis, 'Comfrey - The Embodiment of a Saturnine Herb', The Traditional Astrologer Magazine, Issue 11, Winter 1996.
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  3 ] D. Warren-Davis, 'Decumbiture and Humoral Physiology', The Traditional Astrologer Magazine, Issue 2, Autumn 1993.
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  4 ] N. Culpeper, Complete Herbal and English Physician Enlarged, 1653; section on dandelion.
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  5 ] N. Culpeper, Astrologo-Physical Discourse, 1653
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Dylan Warren-Davis has been practising herbal medicine (naturopathy) for 25 years, qualifying as a prize-winning student with the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (UK) in 1982. Since completing his herbal training, Dylan has researched the lost European metaphysical teachings, upon which Western herbal knowledge is based. He has also been engaged in the commercial production of herbal tinctures and has been a consultant on the manufacturing of herbal tinctures to the herbal industry in Britain. In addition to seeing clients, he is currently promoting glyconutrition in both the UK and Australia.

He may be contacted by email at

 In this series:    Valerian & Fennel: Two Contrasting Mercurial Herbs
 In this series:   Garlic: The embodiment of a Martial herb
 In this series:    Dandelion: The embodiment of a Jovial herb
 In this series:    Comfrey: The embodiment of a Saturnine herb
 In this series:    The Myths of Mistletoe

© Dylan Warren-Davis
This article was published in issue 11 (Winter 1996) of the Traditional Astrologer Magazine of which Dylan was an associate editor. Published online, November 2004.

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