Comfreys & Allies

Common Comfrey Common Comfrey Rough Comfrey White Comfrey

What are they?

The comfreys are stout, persistent perennials with tubular flowers carried in curled clusters. Honeyworts are very similar in their flowers but are annuals. These plants are members of the borage family, a family of plants that includes many species that are well-known as garden ornamentals or valued for their herbal qualities.

Where are they found?

All but one of the species on this page is a non-native and thus most likely to be found in human-influenced habitats in urban areas or on roadside verges The native Common Comfrey is a plant of wet grasslands, fens and ditch sides.

Identification

Comfreys can be rather variable in appearance and are known to hybridise readily. This tends to complicate identification, but most plants can be identified so long as careful attention is paid to the right features. It should be noted that flower colour seems to be unstable and highly variable in many of the comfreys (particularly the hybrids). It has been noted that the flower colour on an individual plant can be different from year to year and can vary as the season progresses. In the creeping species, the flower colour can even be different on shoots that originate from the same root system. Despite these problems, identification is usually possible using features of the stem and leaf bases, flower colour (within certain boundaries) and details of the calyx (the five fused sepals at the base of the flower tube). Because of misinformation elsewhere, coupled with the complexities of the group, I have needed to use more text on this page than I have typically used on other pages.



Hidcote Comfrey      Symphytum x hidcotense

A hybrid of garden origin. The county floras would lead one to think that this plant is scarce, but it has been much misidentified in the past and also seems to have genuinely become more frequent in recent years. Widespread and now one of our commonest comfreys on roadside verges, woodland edge, hedge bottoms and on waste ground in urban areas. Highly invasive in gardens and thus regularly dug up and dumped into the wider countryside. Flowers March to May. A low, creeping species that spreads rapidly to form extensive colonies of leaf rosettes. Flowering shoots may reach 60-80cm in height but leafy stems are ground hugging.

A much-confused plant that appears to be highly variable in its flower colour and even produces a range of flower colours on a single, colonial plant. The parents of the hybrid are thought to be Symphytum grandiflorum and probably S. x uplandicum and this second parent may well be responsible for the variation in this hybrid. There is a wealth of misinformation on the internet and many horticultural outlets are selling a range of different plants under this name. Most plants seen in the wider countryside resemble the photo that I have labelled as 'Typical flower spike' below, the red buds opening to whitish flowers with blue bases. This seems to correspond quite closely with what is sold commercially as 'Hidcote Blue'. The cultivar 'Hidcote Pink' may occasionally be found (with colonies of this cultivar regularly throwing up odd shoots with 'Hidcote Blue' type flowers), while clear blue-flowered plants seem to be 'Wisley Blue' and I have found this blue cultivar in central Norfolk on a roadside verge.

Hidcote Comfrey Hidcote Comfrey Hidcote Comfrey Hidcote Comfrey
Habit
Typical flower spike
'Wisley Blue'
Leaf
Hidcote Comfrey Hidcote Comfrey Hidcote Comfrey Hidcote Comfrey
Habit
Flower spikes
'Hidcote Pink'
Leaf


Creeping Comfrey      Symphytum grandiflorum

Introduced as a garden ornamental. Scattered on shady hedgebanks, roadsides and rough ground. Flowers March to April. A low, creeping plant that spreads to form extensive colonies. Flowers cream, red in bud. Some older records may refer to Symphytum x hidcotense before its identifying features were understood. Symphytum ibericum is sometimes considered to be a species that differs from this species only in its smaller flower size (14-20mm long versus 20-24mm for S. grandiflorum), but S. ibericum is now usually considered to be just another name for S. grandiflorum.

Creeping Comfrey Creeping Comfrey Creeping Comfrey Creeping Comfrey
Habit
Flowers
Flowers
Leaf


White Comfrey      Symphytum orientale

Introdued from south-east Europe as a garden ornamental. Common throughout most of the region in human environments and often common in smaller market towns where it grows often abundantly from walls, cracks in paving and around churchyards and old gardens. Flowers late March to April. Our only species with pure white flowers. Leaves broader and more rounded than those of other species. Often assumed to be Common Comfrey (which has cream flowers, not white) but the leaves do not have winged bases running down the stem. Calyx teeth short and broadly triangular.

White Comfrey White Comfrey White Comfrey White Comfrey
Habit
Flowers
Flowers
Leaf


Russian Comfrey      Symphytum x uplandicum

Introduced from mainland Europe as a fodder crop, this is the comfrey much used by gardeners as a source of green manure and consequently much dumped into the wider countryside when it gets out of control! Common throughout the region on roadsides and in rough ground. May be found on most soils, but persists and spreads must readily on damper soils, especially beside roadside ditches. Flowers May to July. Our tallest species, growing to 200cm in height with leaves up to 30cm in length. A hybrid between Symphytum asperum and S. officinale and highly variable in flower colour, from pale pink to various shades of blue washed with red to produce mauve tones. Leaves unwinged at the base or with very short wings running into the stem.

Russian Comfrey Russian Comfrey Russian Comfrey Russian Comfrey
Habit
Habit
Flowers
Flowers
Russian Comfrey Russian Comfrey
Leaf
Main stem


Common Comfrey      Symphytum officinale

Native. Generally uncommon, but can be locally common in wetlands, besides rivers and ditches and in fen habitats in The Fens and The Broads. Flowers May to June. May grow to 120cm in height but often much less and often 'flopping' over in ditchside vegetation. Flowers usually cream-coloured in East Anglian populations, but purple-flowered plants may occasionally be found. Calyx lobes very long and narrow; leaves with long wings at the bases, running down the stem to at least the next leaf, or further.

Common Comfrey Common Comfrey Common Comfrey Common Comfrey
Habit
Flowers
Flowers
Main stem


Rough Comfrey      Symphytum asperum

Introduced from South-west Asia as a garden ornamental and fodder crop. Rare but persistent at the few sites from which it is known on roadside verges and in grassy field corners. Flowers May to July. Stems 90-180cm in height. Flowers red in bud, opening sky blue. Calyx lobes long and narrow; leaves without basal wings. Stems and calyx have rather stiff, bristly hairs on them.

Rough Comfrey Rough Comfrey Rough Comfrey Rough Comfrey
Habit
Flowers
Leaf
Main stem


Caucasian Comfrey      Symphytum caucasicum

Introduced from the Caucasus as a garden ornamental. Rare but persistent at the few sites from which it is known on roadside verges where it has probably spread from nearby gardens. Flowers late April to June. Stems 30-60cm in height. Flowers clear blue. Calyx lobes short, broadly triangular; leaves without basal wings. Stems and calyx more softly bristly than Rough Comfrey.

Caucasian Comfrey Caucasian Comfrey Caucasian Comfrey Caucasian Comfrey
Habit
Flowers
Leaf
Main stem


Norfolk Comfrey      Symphytum x norvicense

A plant of uncertain, hybrid origin that has been found at a handful of sites around Norfolk. Flowers late April to June. Stems 60-150cm in height. Flowers red in bud, opening clear blue or sometimes with some white in them. Calyx lobes of medium length compared with other comfreys; leaves without basal wings. Considered to perhaps be a hybrid between Symphytum asperum and S. orientale.

Norfolk Comfrey Norfolk Comfrey Norfolk Comfrey Norfolk Comfrey
Habit
Flowers
Stem leaf
Basal leaf


Tuberous Comfrey      Symphytum tuberosum

Introduced from mainland Europe. Rare in a few scattered locations on grassy banks as an escape from cultivation. Flowers May to June. Stems 60-150cm in height. Flowers creamy yellow. Calyx lobes long and narrow; leaves without basal wings.

Tuberous Comfrey Tuberous Comfrey Tuberous Comfrey Tuberous Comfrey
Habit
Flowers
Flowers
Leaf


Greater Honeywort      Cerinthe major

Introduced from mainland Europe. Not recorded in East Anglia until the late 1990s but increasingly turning up where self-seeding from cultivation into rough ground, roadsides and disturbed corners. Flowers April to June. Stems to 60cm in height. Flowers dark purple and similar in shape to those of the comfreys, but partially hidden among purple, leaf-like bracts. Rather similar to the comfreys but an annual plant and completely hairless.

Greater Honeywort Greater Honeywort Greater Honeywort Greater Honeywort
Habit
Flowers
Flowers
Leaf