Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) has been a stalwart friend to healers since time out of mind. It contains allantoin, a substance that stimulates cell growth, and its use in speeding up bone regrowth after a fracture is well documented. Internally, it can help to heal ulcers and repair the ravages of gastro-enteritis and inflammatory bowel disease. But we don’t take the root internally, because some varieties of comfrey root contain fairly high levels of pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which have been shown (in isolation) to cause hepatoma in rats.

Let’s be clear about this. No reputable herbalist would prescribe something that was at all risky; that’s why we only use leaf preparations these days. Nor do we make a habit of isolating dangerous ingredients, feeding them to laboratory animals and then extrapolating the results to humans. By that logic, all sorts of everyday foods like lettuce, apples and potatoes would be banned! But on radio 4’s ‘PM’ programme on Saturday, Dr Henry Oakley from the Royal College of Physicians stated that drinking comfrey tea causes a few deaths every year in the UK. This is nonsense; an example of the scaremongering that herbs come in for. He may have been thinking of deaths caused by people drinking foxglove tea, thinking it was comfrey; foxglove is not a plant we use. But it’s a good example of the kind of woolly thinking that goes on: if you believe the media, herbs are either deadly or completely ineffective. The huge and wonderful spectrum of healing properties in between those two extremes is ignored: it doesn’t make good headlines, but that’s where most of real life goes on.


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