Bonesetting I have a friend who until recently was a leading executive employed by the Ford Foundation in India. He has told me many stories of Indian medicine, and he never ceased to be amazed at the unique "sect" of Indian bonesetters who heal their patients with secret plant preparations, manual setting of fractures, and no cast.
"What is so unusual," says my friend, "is that the patients and my own son was one, and so was an eightyyear old missionary woman friend heal in a fraction of the time it takes with Western medicine!"
He says these bonesetting groups are dying out because they refuse to tell their age old secrets to anyone outside their own families. One of the substances in their healing salve sounds as if it might be one of my favorite healing herbs, comfrey, which some English herbalists consider to be the most powerful healing agent in the plant world. This plant is not only available in live plant and seed form from many organic farmers in the United States, but it is also readily available in dried root, root powder, and leaf tea form from botanical sources or health food stores.
Even if comfrey were not part of the Indian bonesetters' secret ointment, I would want to share with you the incredible virtues of this green plant. For medical purposes, mainly the root is used, but the leaf has excellent healing powers, too.
Ointment I always try to have a comfrey ointment and a comfrey tincture in our nondrug medicine chest. The ointment, which you can either make or buy in a health food store or homeopathic pharmacy, I have used in innumerable first aid cases for the family and visitors. Comfrey root ointment is really healing for almost any kind of sore or bruise or abrasion and, according to many ancient herbal healers, is effective for bones that grind and fracture but I cannot personally attest to these last attributes.
Recently we had a physician and his wife as overnight guests, and although we have been friends for a long time, he believes in his form of medicine and I mine, so I was surprised when he said, "How about one of your special herbs for this sore around my lip?" I thought he was kidding me, but I did bring him some comfrey ointment, and he dabbed it around his mouth and on the sore.
The next morning he was most enthusiastic about the effect and insisted on taking some with him, as the sore had almost disappeared and he was convinced one more application would help. Weeks later he said it had been effective. Moreover he reported his teen age son had also used it and had declared it "magic."
That's just about how the former generations of English countryfolk felt about comfrey symphytum. They called it by other names knitbone, or bruisewort, names which describe its uses. Their praise for comfrey is high. In an old recipe book of a famout noble English family, I found this reference: "It is an infallible remedy for bruises, wounds, ruptures and hemorrhoids and even ulcers in the stomach."
Root And what does the English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper say? His description is mind boggling. He describes how he puts bruised comfrey roots "outwardly" on fresh wounds and cuts and then adds, "It is specially good for ruptures and broken bones, so powerful to consolidate and knit together, that if they be boiled with dissevered pieces of flesh in a pot, it will join them together. "
Indeed this root will produce a high amount of gummy substance, which herbalists call mucilage, and the root and the leaf are both high in allantoin, a substance that helps with cell proliferation. Mrs. M. Grieve, in A Modern Herbal, has conjectured that the healing ability of the plant is probably the result of the allantoin, and this may be the reason comfrey can reduce the swollen skin in the area of fractures, "causing the union to take place with greater facility."
The herbalist John Gerard also confirms this healing ability of comfrey saying that in his experience, "A salve concocted from the fresh herb will certainly tend to promote the healing of bruised and broken parts."
Tincture Our family had an interesting experience with the tincture of comfrey A tincture is a preparation of an herb soaked in alcohol or spirits of wine for enough time to absorb the principal chemicals of the plant. The plant is then strained away. (See "Tincture," Section Three.)
Working in our garden, my husband accidentally dropped a huge rock on his right big toe. The pain was excruciating and the bruise looked bad. Fortunately, I had some tinctures up at the cottage, and I immediately dropped about 15 20 drops of comfrey tincture in a pan of cold water for a half hour foot soak. I also kept the toe soaked in wet dressings of diluted comfrey tincture that whole day and evening. I occasionally added some tincture of calendula.Not realizing what a great pain he was avoiding thanks to the treatment, my husband kept on saying, "What's all the fuss? The foot doesn't hurt at all!"
I am delighted to report that he felt no further pain. The toe did look a sickly yellow blue, but to our amazement, the nail stayed intact. And then after a time (it might have been a month or more it was so very painless that no notice was taken of it) the nail fell off. Lo, there was a whole new nail underneath, though it did have some odd ridges, possibly as a result of the accident.
Friends who have had this kind of traumatic injury to their feet were just amazed at the fact that my husband had no pain and that the nail gave him no trouble. One of our neighbors told him, "I'll never forget the night a big heavy metal table fell on my foot, particularly the big toe. I had incredible pain that first night couldn't walk at all and I had to stay in bed the next day and I was in a terrible temper for at least a week. Also," and she shook her head at the quick recovery my husband had made 1 remember having foot pain and trouble for at least six months afterward."
One of my favorite comfrey stories concerns an 18th century journalist named Thompson. He had a terrible accident in the woods and was so badly wounded that his friends .and a local doctor wanted to take off his leg. He was almost ready to let them do that when he decided to try comfrey poultices on the chance it would help. Poultices of the root did save his leg.
Then there is a fairly well authenticated story of a locksman (a canal worker) in Teddington, England. The bone of his little finger was broken and was grinding and "grunching" for two long months. He was very uncomfortable, so one day he spoke to a doctor travelling on the canal, The doctor smiled and pointed to a huge green comfrey plant growing along the canal path. "Take some of that root, wash it, chomp on it, and put it around your finger and wrap it up," he said. Four days later, as the doctor was making a return trip, the locksman was happy to report, "I'm just fine now, doctor. My finger is well." But we are talking of course about an era when common wayside and garden plants were used daily for healing of various problems.
Poultice I like using comfrey root in various oils or lanolin to produce a marvelous and healing ointment. I also use drops of the comfrey tincture in water for various compresses. The green leaves are slightly hairy, have a slightly sticky surface and may be somewhat irritating on sensitive skin. However comfrey poultices have been successful on insect bites and burns.
Comfrey has so many healing properties that it has long been used for its soothing and internally healing qualities. It contains a great deal of B12 a vitamin hard to find in other plants, and has long been used as a source of this vitamin, particularly by vegans.
Because comfrey can heal the digestive tract, it is also often combined with pepsin or fenugreek in tablet form, or powder form for internal use.
It now appears that this use of comfrey may not be safe. The latest laboratory research has uncovered alarming news about the internal use of young comfrey leaves. The news is the result of work done by the prestigious Henry Doubleday Research Association of Great Britain, an organization devoted to organic farming, and the use of comfrey as a world food. Since this organization has been in the forefront of the interest in comfrey, its suggestions and facts and bulletins must be taken very seriously. They report the following:|
Comfrey is in the same plant family as several other plants (Senecio, Crotolaria, Heliotropium), and these plants, investigation now indicates, contain some natural poisons in the form of pyrrolizidine alkaloids. These plants have been implicated in various accidental human and animal poisonings.
The young leaves of comfrey thought to be so edible and rich in chlorophyll, and used in many natural green drinks, may contain up to 0.15 percent (1,500 parts per million) of the alkaloid. Dr. Claude Culvenor of the Animal Health Division of the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization has worked on this subject and studied this alkaloid in pasture weeds. He is particularly conversant with heliotrope, a weed from the same plant family as comfrey.
He notes "At least four of these alkaloids are known to be carcinogens, and it is probable that the type found in comfrey is also carcinogenic. While it is unlikely that anybody eating comfrey in small quantities would suffer serious effects, its regular use as a green vegetable could cause chronic liver damage or worse.
"Plants in the same family have caused human poisonings in the USSR, Africa, India and Afghanistan after their accidental consumption in bread over a period of one or two years."
"The evidence of these outbreaks, considering the amount of the alkaloid we have measured in comfrey suggests that daily consumption of several young leaves of the plant over a similarly lengthy period will lead to serious disease."
According to an interesting article in the New York State Natural Foods Associates Newsletter which led me to the information contained in this caution, it has been suggested that there may be some hidden factor in comfrey which protects against these alkaloids, since it has been fed with seeming immunity to racehorses, and livestock throughout the world.
The Henry Doubleday Research Association is continuing its research on comfrey, and it may well find there is some compensating factor in comfrey which cancels out the alkaloid. While the organization believes that comfrey ointment, which shows only 3 parts per million of the alkaloid, is entirely safe for external use, and the fresh leaves, pulped leaves, or comfrey flour is safe to use as poultices, it indicates that until additional research is available, human beings should not eat or drink comfrey in any form.
Powder Comfrey also comes in powder form. "Use it dry or as a wet mash on troublesome growths and oversize persistent body warts," says Dr. Kirschner in Nature's Healing Grasses.
To use the root powder, dampen it with water until it forms a gummy mass. Place this mass in a clean handkerchief and apply it to bruises, inflammations, ulcers, and sores.
On the whole, comfrey is easier to use in ointment form, unless you have large areas to heal, and here the root or the leaf poultices would be easier and cheaper to use.
Arthritis Swiss physician Alfred Vogel says to apply softened comfrey roots to alleviate pain of arthritis. "The pain will gradually fade out," according to him. Dr. Vogel, author of The Nature Doctor, also uses comfrey for gout as well as for broken bones.