Left in Andover: The comforts of comfrey

By Susan Leader
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

My family knows better than to get up hope when I decide to bake cookies.  By the time I grate a few carrots, grind up some oats and skip the dairy, gluten, fat and sweetener, the finished result is more likely to resemble a veggie burger than dessert.

Like my mother before me, I can’t seem to follow a recipe. As a result, my every creation in the kitchen is an adventure, with generally palatable and healthy, if unpredictable, results.

The cinnamon fern should not be eaten.

Mom’s parade of greatest hits included pineapple upside down cake, potato salad, lentil burgers and lentil soup. I was especially fond of her Welsh “rabbit,” improvised with freshly foraged fiddleheads suffocated in béchamel sauce on home baked rye toast.

Like many women of her generation, Mom never got a drivers license. She stayed home most of the time. As a middle child on the family farm, it was rare for me to get time alone with her.

On one occasion, I tagged along with her to our Back 40 to help harvest fiddleheads, a loose term for the furled fronds of any young fern. I can still taste the unfamiliar quiet of us two standing there in the grass, listening for the ancient voice of the sea, fingers cupped around our ears.

Susan’s comfrey.

The precise spot, where each spring a new crop of Osmundastrum Cinnamomeum waves on the breeze, is visible from my kitchen window, from whence my fiddler husband plays a tune back.

Mom mistook these cinnamon ferns for the comestible ostrich fern now ubiquitous at local markets. Truthfully I prefer the fleshy texture and mild flavor of Mom’s cinnamon fern. Nevertheless I have not indulged in them for many decades, ever since I learned cinnamon fern is classified “mildly toxic.”

My mother also maintained a stubborn faith in the ambiguous properties of Russian comfrey, or boneknit, an age old herbal medicine used to make poultices and salves. She delighted in sneaking the mineral rich leaves into our salads, trying to keep us as healthy as possible. I could spot the rough hairy things a mile away and avoided them.

Miriam Leader enjoying a picnic at age 90.

The FDA has now banned the oral use of comfrey as a carcinogen and liver toxin, though there is some support for consuming small quantities of the older leaves. They are considered poisonous, if not particularly fatal.

Perhaps we survived Mom’s ministrations by the grace of Hecate, Greek goddess of magic and guardian of travelers, with whom the comfrey plant is associated

Like Johnny Appleseed, Mom planted it everywhere she went. Each of her former homes sports colonies of the attractively flowering but ineradicable perennial.

My husband has repeatedly chopped it all down at my house, but it always grows back with a vengeance. It’s probably a gold mine if I could come up with the right recipe.

In 2012, Mom was interred in a scrupulously groomed cemetery in Northampton. Lacking the gall to impregnate the grounds proper, I tossed Symphytum rootstock from Andover into the woods directly behind her grave, where it has proliferated wildly.

Miriam Leader’s gravesite; a comfrey patch grows well nearby.

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Filed Under: Left in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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