Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Permaculture Thoughts: Borage Plants

I've managed to plant a few trees around my urban homestead, and one of the big movements is permaculture.  I like the idea of permaculture, and I think it help my trees look better.  One idea I keep seeing is planting plants around your trees for compost.  The big plant that is mentioned is comfrey (Symphytum officinale) or Russian comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum, or Symphytum asperum x officinale).  Comfrey has lots of uses, it can attract beneficial insects, it can ward off bad insects, and the most important part in my opinion is it's fast growing and can be composted right where it grows.

When discussing plants, one problem that always crops up is identification.  Many plants can go by many common names, but plants will typically only go by one scientific name.  This is not always true, as our genetic science gets better, our understanding of plants and animals gets deeper.  Things can and will be reclassified in the future.  It will be much easier to identify and use Symphytum officinale  even if it gets reclassified into  Borage officinale (this is facetious, I know of no plans to do this), than it is to look back in a hundred years and try to decipher whether they meant Symphytum officinale  when they listed medicinal usages of Comfrey, or whether they meant Cynoglossum officinale.  I am going to do my best in the future to give scientific names to all the plants that I discuss in the future.

Russian comfrey is a natural cross between two different types of comfrey (rough comfrey and common comfrey, Symphytum x uplandicum, or Symphytum asperum x officinale).  Russian comfrey is high in protein, (20-30% dried).  This is a great food for chickens and rabbits.  It is also very high in biomass.  While alfalfa can yield 18 tons per acre,  Russian comfrey can yield up to 100-120 tons per acre.  The plant is also high in potassium, somewhere between 5 and 7%.  The NPK ratio is also very similar to manure.  All of this sounds great, but I do have one problem, it is a hybrid plant, so the seeds won't produce true.   It is cultivated by the root stems.  I still prefer open pollinated, seed bearing native plants.  Russian comfrey is a cross, not a GMO, so you could plant the different kinds of comfrey, and make your own hybrids. 

If I could find some locally to purchase and grow, I probably would just for testing purposes.  I like the idea of it, but I'd have to order it.  I've never ordered live plants or seeds before, but I prefer to deal with locally owned and operated business's.  This leads me to search for alternatives.  One thing I have learned is that Comfrey is in the Borage family of plants.  And Borage plants are native to my area.  The one I am most interested in is Cynoglossum virginianum (Hound's Tongue, or Wild Comfrey).

This plant sounds promising to me, it has a very similar common name, it is in the same family, and while I may not be able to buy it locally, it is a native plant that I can probably find growing wild nearby.  But how does it compare to Russian comfrey?

This is a good question. While many people have done studies on the "true" comfrey's, I can't find any research on the Cynoglossum's.  I did find one article that discussed the nutrients of the plant when eaten.  (https://journals.tdl.org/watchbird/index.php/watchbird/article/view/1973/1944).  When using these numbers to calculate the percentage of protein was about 3%, while the potassium was about .3% and the phosphorus was .01 to .02%.  I'm not positive that this is a one-to-one ratio as I originally intended.

There are other benefits to using the native comfrey.  It is attractive to bees, both honey and native bees.  This is a huge benefit to growing it around your fruit trees.  It also puts down long taproots, so it will help to add trace minerals closer to the surface.  Cynoglossum virginianum also is purported to have medicinal benefits.

There needs to be more research done to determine if native comfrey can replace the other comfreys in my garden, but any renaissance person worth their salt can do research.  Hopefully, I'll get a chance to get in the woods next weekend, and do some foraging for wild comfreys.