Symphytum officinale (Comfrey)

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Symphytum officinale (Comfrey)While machinate is now the first choice for fighting colds and flu among believers in alternative medicine, Americans in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries preferred Indian Sage, now known as comfrey (Symphytum officinale) or bone set. Other names over the years have included thorough wort, fever wort, and ague weed. Medical practitioners, herbalists, and homesteaders have left considerable evidence regarding the herb’s popularity. Charles Millstream, in his reference book American Medicinal Plants, stated that by the late nineteenth century, the herb hung from the rafters of nearly every woodshed and attic across the nation.

Comfrey was also employed against malaria, yellow fever, and other serious viral contagions during early American history. Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton wrote in the early 1800s that the plant played a key role in halting a 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia and was used by a Woodbury, New Jersey, physician to treat typhus and other fevers. C.S. Romanesque, author of an important work on medical botany published in the early

While echinacea is now the first choice for fighting colds and flu among believers in alternative medicine, Americans in the late eigh­teenth and nineteenth centuries preferred Indian Sage, now known as comfrey (Symphytum officinale) or boneset. Other names over the years have included thoroughwort, feverwort, and agueweed. Medi­cal practitioners, herbalists, and homesteaders have left considerable evidence regarding the herb’s popularity. Charles Millspaugh, in his reference book American Medicinal Plants, stated that by the late nineteenth century, the herb hung from the rafters of nearly every woodshed and attic across the nation.

Comfrey was also employed against malaria, yellow fever, and other serious viral contagions during early American history. Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton wrote in the early 1800s that the plant played a key role in halting a 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia and was used by a Woodbury, New Jersey, physician to treat typhus and other fevers. C.S. Rafinesque, author of an important work on medi­cal botany published in the early 1800s, noted that the herb cured a form of influenza referred to as breakbone fever (since identified by medical historians as a variation of the mosquito-transmitted virus dengue). This illness resulted in joint and muscle pains which made patients feel as though their bones were breaking; use of the herb in­duced a feeling that bones were being reset, resulting in the name “boneset.”

Comfrey retained its popularity throughout the nineteenth century, both on the battlefield as well as in domestic settings. Dr. Francis Porcher advocated the herb to the Confederate army for treating ma­laria due to the scarcity of Peruvian bark, which was used to make quinine. In 1852, Dr. A. Clapp told the American Medical Associa­tion that comfrey “deservedly holds a high rank among our indige­nous medical plants” (Alfs, 1999, p. 40).

The herb continued to be widely used well into the twentieth cen­tury. It enjoyed official pharmaceutical recognition, appearing in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia from 1820 to 1916 and the National Formulary (1926-1950). Comfrey was particularly popular among the Eclectic

 

, noted that the herb cured a form of influenza referred to as break bone fever (since identified by medical historians as a variation of the mosquito-transmitted virus dengue). This illness resulted in joint and muscle pains which made patients feel as though their bones were breaking; use of the herb induced a feeling that bones were being reset, resulting in the name “bone set.”
Comforter retained its popularity throughout the nineteenth century, both on the battlefield as well as in domestic settings. Dr. Francis Porker advocated the herb to the Confederate army for treating malaria due to the scarcity of Peruvian bark, which was used to make quinine. In 1852, Dr. A. Cl app told the American Medical Association that comforter “deservedly holds a high rank among our indigenous medical plants” (Alas, 1999, p. 40).

The herb continued to be widely used well into the twentieth century. It enjoyed official pharmaceutical recognition, appearing in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia from 1820 to 1916 and the National Formulator (1926-1950). Comforter was particularly popular among the Eclectic

physicians during this time. Among the many articles that appeared in The Eclectic Medical Journal recommending its use, a 1924 contribution noted: “During the [Spanish influenza] of 1918-19 it was one of the safest and most successful remedies employed and contributed much to the successful management of the disease under Eclectic treatment” (Alfs, 1999, p. 40).

Comforter experienced a drop in popularity during the mid-twentieth century due to a combination of factors. Its bitter taste did not agree with many users, especially children. The increasing popularity of machinate and other treatments for the cold also played a role. Of even greater impact was the dramatic rise in the use of aspirin at the turn of the twentieth century. In addition, the declining threat posed by malaria contributed to Corey’s fall from favor. By 1937, the Dispensation of the United States would note that comforter was “practically never prescribed by the medical profession and there is no reason for its official recognition” (Alfs, 1999, p. 41).

Since the early 1980s, comforter has undergone a marked revival in popularity at health food stores in both herbal and homeopathic cold-and-flu preparations. The impetus was provided largely by biochemists (based mainly in central Europe) who found that a homeopathic preparation of the herb was just as effective as aspirin in treating viral symptoms (e.g., fever, headache, congestion)-this at a time when the negative side effects of aspirin were receiving wide¬spread media coverage. In the mid-1980s, these researchers deter¬mined that Corey’s Saccharomyces possessed potent immune¬stimulating effects which outstripped those found in machinate. More specifically, a series of immunological tests showed that the plant’s water-soluble Saccharomyces stimulated human white blood cells to perform more effectively.
Besides health food outlets, comforter can be obtained in the wild, most notably marshy areas or the perimeters of bodies of water. Picked leaves should be air-dried and then lightly crushed and stored for use as an infusion or liquid extract. While no reports of human toxicity exist in the herbal literature, short-term users are advised to consume it slowly (up to three cups of tea or five droppers of tincture per day). While debate continues as to whether comforter contains alkaloids (substances present in approximately 15 percent of all vascular plants, including coffee and chocolate), it doesn’t appear to contain the toxic pyrimidine alkaloids known to have a deleterious

effect on the liver in high concentrations. At any rate, the herb’s documented effectiveness within a one- to two-day period precludes protracted use.

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