For myself I hold no preferences among flowers, so long as they are wild, free, spontaneous.
A neighbor sent me a plant ID request a week or so ago asking if I knew the name of a wildflower she had seen on her property. The picture she sent showed some large basal leaves and a central flower stalk with small pale flowers. I remember struggling to identify this plant years ago when I encountered my first one in the woods. Turns out that in the fifteen or so wildflower ID guides on my shelf, it is mentioned in only two.
It is Wild Comfrey, Cynoglossum virginianum. Another common name comes from the Greek origin of the genus name, which literally translates to Dog’s Tongue. This species is sometimes called Blue Dog’s Tongue, for the pale blue color of its flowers.
Both in name and appearance, this plant appears contradictory. I keep wanting to make the common name Wild Comfey (omitting the “r”). And to be walking in these woods, where most herbs are only an inch or two high before being snarfed down by the hungry deer, and suddenly see this large-leaved almost 2 foot tall plant, seems strange. It looks more like a summer weed that should grow at the edge of your garden, than a forest-loving spring wildflower. And it must be deer resistant to survive so well here.
The plant is a member of the borage family, Boraginaceae, and is related to Forget-Me-Nots, a more common and widely recognized wildflower.
Besides its distinctive flower stalk and overall plant size, this flower can be recognized by its distinctive leaves. The basal leaves can be almost a foot long, and the stem leaves clasp the stem with a heart-shaped base.
And all parts of this plant are hairy, very hairy. Plant people call this condition, hirsute.
But one of the few references I found on this plant described it like this – both leaf surfaces are hairy and rough to the touch, like a man’s day-old stubble.
Cherokee used this plant to treat a variety of ailments from cough to cancer. Nineteenth century physicians used it as a substitute for the widely-used European plant known as Comfrey, but there is not much evidence it has similar medicinal properties. I did find a couple of interesting uses in some old references. In one, a poultice was made from the large leaves to relieve insect bites. And a couple of other unusual uses may relate to the other common name, Blue Hound’s Tongue. It was once believed that leaves beaten into small pieces and added to swine grease could heal dog bites. And my favorite…some people would supposedly put leaves under their feet to keep dogs from barking at them. I now have a new appreciation for this oddly-named wildflower.
One of the few natives not browsed by deer.
I recently saw some of these at Johnston Mill Preserve. I went through Newcomb’s and a bunch of other guides trying to figure out this ID to no avail. Thank goodness my mind is finally put to rest. (It wasn’t in flower–just budding up)
I was surprised at how few of my field guides even mentioned this plant, so I, too, struggled to ID it years ago.
Comfrey is used by herbalists for healing. Look up Dr. John Christopher’s uses. He’s a noted herbalists and uses it for healing broken bones, to cancer treatments.
Yes, John, I have seen several mentions of Wild Comfrey being used to treat a variety of ailments, although the European plant that goes by the common name of Comfrey seems to have been used more.