Comfrey For The Garden & Orchard

Comfrey is a plant with a multitude of uses not only in the home apothecary but also in the garden. There are several species in the genus Symphytum, all of which merit special attention, but generally S. officinale, or common comfrey, and a hybrid species S.x uplandicum are most often used. The ladder of which is particularly suitable for the home garden because it is sterile and doesn’t spread by seed. The most available variety is called ‘Bocking 14’. These are upright comfreys which can grow 5′ tall. There are also rhizomatous species which only grow 6″-1′ high and spread to form a dense groundcover.

Comfrey is prized amongst herbalists for its incredible healing powers. Comfrey leaves and roots

Comfrey leaves and roots chopped for making an herbal salve.

contain a high concentration of allatoin– a substance that speeds cell renewal. It got the colloquial name ‘knitbone’ for its use in treating wounds and reducing inflammation from broken bones and sprains.  It’s not a surprise that comfrey fulfills a similar ecological niche working to heal wounded and degraded soils. Comfrey is referred to as a mineral accumulator or dynamic accumulator for its ability to mine nutrients with its deep roots (which also loosen compacted soils). Those nutrients are then deposited in the aerial parts of the plant; being especially high in potassium, phosphorus, calcium, and nitrogen. When the aerial parts die back in the fall those nutrients assimilate into the surrounding soil. Gardeners can facilitate this process by intentionally cutting the plant down at strategic times for use as mulch around fruit trees, berry bushes, or in the veg garden. In the permaculture world we

Close up showing comfrey mulch around trunk of tree.
Comfrey mulch chopped around the base of a young peach tree.

refer to this process as ‘chop-n-drop’. Plant comfrey at the base of your fruit trees and simply chop-n-drop the material right in place; breaking the leaves and stalks into smaller pieces will accelerate decomposition but is not necessary. This is an effective way to build topsoil rapidly and reduce off-site inputs. From my experience I’ve been able to get anywhere from 3-5 cuttings throughout the season. One fella recently told me he cuts his back 7-8 times! I like to wait for the first flush of flowers in early summer because they provide excellent bee fodder.

Preparing comfrey tea brew.
Finished comfrey tea will be slimy on top. Discard slimy material and use as mulch or add to compost.

Another strategy for utilizing comfrey’s amazing mineral accumulating capacity is to brew a fermented comfrey tea. This is a very easy procedure which entails chopping up a few handfuls of comfrey leaves and placing them in a 5 gallon bucket with water. Cover with a lid and let the mixture ferment outdoors for 1-2 weeks. Alternatively, start the batch by pouring boiling water over the plant material and letting it steep for a few hours then adding room temp. water to fill the rest of the bucket. The hot water method seems to extract more of the nutrients. You will know its ready when it has a strong stank…a good stank! Apply with a backpack sprayer diluted or undiluted. This fermented tea can be used a foliar feed or applied directly to the soil.

‘Dwarf Yellow’ comfrey

I grow comfrey around my compost bins and periodically add it to new piles or existing piles to jump-start the decomposition process. I also like to think that the comfrey roots capture any leached nutrients from the compost pile. One reason some people bash on comfrey is because its nearly impossible to get rid of as the tiniest piece of root will put on adventitious buds and sprout into a new plant. Easy to propagate? Ooooh yes! Aside from comfrey’s amazing medicinal qualities and numerous garden uses, it is also a very beautiful plant that can tolerate almost any soil type and will grow well in partial shade. Some ornamental varieties include ‘Goldsmith’, ‘Hidcote Blue’, and ‘Dwarf White’. I would love to hear how you’re utilizing comfrey in your garden! Cheers.

Short video clip: Comfrey Chop-N-Drop Timing

Since adolescent pawpaw trees require dappled shade, comfrey is a great multipurpose companion.
Comfrey and mint at base of young persimmon tree.
‘Bocking 14’ comfrey flowers
Comfrey showing itself in early spring by a compost bin.


What did you CHE!?

I first learned of Cudrania tricuspidata aka Chinese mulberry, or CHE, several years ago when reading Uncommon Fruits For Every Garden by Lee Reich. Most midwesterners are familiar with osage orange, which was commonly planted as a living fence on old farmsteads. Its relative che, however, differs in that it produces an edible fruit which resembles the brain-like fruit of the osage orange, but is about 3-4x smaller and a pinkish-salmon color. Being a nut for exotic and unusual fruits, I had to get a che tree growing in my orchard. And so I did. Three years later its about 6-7′ tall and has yet to bear. I patiently await the day I can finally taste the mysterious che fruit! I have heard different reports in regards to flavor, but some claim it tastes like a mixture of watermelon and fig. Yum…

Photo courtesy http://www.eat-it.com

Michael McConkey of Edible Landscaping is one of the few nurserymen to sell che trees. Here is a great video of Michael with his seedless che tree:


Keith Johnson of Permaculture Activist wrote an informatve article on che a few years ago. After revisting his article I thought it’d be a good idea to share it. So here it is:

Che, eh? Mmmm. Nom nom.

By Keith Johnson

This odd fruit, Cudrania tricuspidata (which in this image seems under ripe or a different variety than mine), is presently (Fri Sept 5, 09) yielding (finally) beautifully, abundantly and deliciously in my USDA Zone 6a-b ridge-and-valley landscape in Southern Indiana (a quarter century ago it used to be Zone 5) in heavy clay and (this year) a wet season (with a three week drought in late Aug through recently). It seems to be resistant to pests, the birds have tasted it (must observe more) and there are at least 200, inch-to-inch-and-a-half, fruits with about half of them ripe at the moment. About 50 taste testers at recent party said it reminded them “melon”, “mulberry” and “fig” (it is related to the latter two) and generally enjoyed it. It’s six years old, was transplanted here from W. NC, three years ago, and it lived at least its first year in a pot. I’d say that indicates sturdiness.My thornless cultivar is grafted onto an Osage orange seedling. I recommend it highly. You can buy it (where I did) at Edible Landscape in VA.

Moraceae; Common Names: Che, Chinese Che, Chinese Mulberry, Cudrang, Mandarin Melon Berry, Silkworm Thorn.
Distant Affinity: Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis), Jackfruit (A. heterophyllus), Fig (Ficus spp.), Mulberry (Morus spp.), African Breadfruit (Treculis africana).
Origin: The che is native to many parts of eastern Asia from the Shantung and Kiangson Provinces of China to the Nepalese sub-Himalayas. It became naturalized in Japan many years ago. In China, the leaves of the che serve as a backup food for silkworms when mulberry leaves are in short supply. The tree was introduced into England and other parts of Europe around 1872, and into the U.S. around 1930.
Adaptation: The che requires minimal care and has a tolerance of drought and poor soils similar to that of the related mulberry. It can be grown in most parts of California and other parts of the country, withstanding temperatures of -20° F.

DESCRIPTION

Growth Habit: The deciduous trees can eventually grow to about 25 ft. in height, but often remains a broad, spreading bush or small tree if not otherwise trained when they are young. Immature wood is thorny but loses its thorns as it matures. Female trees are larger and more robust than male trees.

Foliage: The alternate leaves resemble those of the mulberry, but are smaller and thinner and pale yellowish-green in color. The typical form is distinctly trilobate, with the central lobe sometimes twice as long as the lateral ones, but frequently unlobed leaves of varied outlines are also found on the same plant. As the plant grows, the tendency seems towards larger and entire leaves, with at the most indistinct or irregular lobing. The general form of the leaves comprise many variations between oblong and lanceolate. The che leafs and blooms late in spring–after apples.

Flowers: The che is dioecious, with male and female flowers on different plants. Appearing in June, both types of flowers are green and pea-sized. The male flowers turn yellow as the pollen ripens and is released, while the wind-pollinated female flowers develop many small stigmas over the surface of the immature fruit. Male plants occasionally have a few female flowers which will set fruit.

Fruit: Like the related mulberry, the che fruit is not a berry but a collective fruit, in appearance somewhat like a round mulberry crossed with a lychee, 1 to 2 inches in diameter. The ripe fruits are an attractive red or maroon-red color with a juicy, rich red flesh inside and 3 to 6 small brown seeds per fruit. The flavor is quite unlike the vinous quality of better mulberries. While still firm they are almost tasteless, but when fully soft ripe they develop a watermelon-like flavor that can be quite delicious. The sugar content is similar to that of a ripe fig. In colder areas with early leaf drop the bright red fruit are an attractive sight dangling from smooth, leafless branches.

The Holistic Orchard: Growing Tree Fruit and Berries the Biological Way

Michael Phillips, the author of The Apple Grower, recently released his latest book titled The Holistic Orchard: Growing Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way. After purchasing this newly published book I’ve struggled to set it down!  Phillips presents an approach to orcharding that extends beyond the realms of organic agriculture into the ideas of maintaining and vitalizing the health of the entire ecosystem— the trees, the bees, the fungi, and all other organisms. He analogously compares conventional and organic practices to allopathic medicine, whereby symptoms are treated instead of root causes. Alternatively, the holistic approach seeks to involve the whole system and discover underlying reasons for systems problems such as pest or disease outbreaks. You can think of it as antibiotics vs. probiotics. Antibiotics kill and eliminate problem-areas where probiotics encourage increased health of the whole organism as preventative means for reducing disease onset. By employing a slew of practices such as  applying herbal foliar sprays(‘tree probiotics’) and maintaining high levels of woody organic matter VIA ramial woodchips, Phillips has developed a way to grow nutrient-dense, tasty fruit without the use of any toxic pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides. You can buy the book and learn more at Michael’s website: www.herbsandapples.com. For now, check out the following videos of Michael explaining his exciting work:

Lost Nation Orchard – the Holistic Approach from Chris Conroy on Vimeo.

Lost Nation Orchard – Groveton, NH from Chris Conroy on Vimeo.

Golden Raspberry Video

The season is winding down and winter will soon bare it’s grip here in SE Michigan. However, one thing in the garden which continues to produce are the golden raspberries. It’s especially delightful to bite into a plump, sweet raspberry this late in the season; most small fruits and berries have become a distant memory of summer and a reminder of the cold months ahead as they sit on the storage shelves in the form of jam, jelly, and fruit leather.
The ability to fruit on primocanes means that, if allowed, golden raspberries will produce a crop throughout much of the season all the way into the fall. Find out more about this in a previous post on golden raspberries, but for now enjoy the video clip!