BORAGE; FOR BEAUTY AND THE BEES AND A WHOLE LOT MORE
Over 400 years ago herbalist John Gerard aptly summed up the benefits of Borage (Borago officinalis) when he wrote:
Those of our time do use the flowers in salads to exhilarate and make the mind glad. There be also many things made of these used everywhere for the comfort of the heart, for the driving away of sorrow and increasing the joy of the minde. The leaves and floures of Borage put into wine make men and women glad and merry and drive away all sadnesse, dulnesse and melancholy. Syrup made of the floures of Borage comforteth the heart, purgeth melancholy and quieteth the phrenticke person. The leaves eated raw ingender good bloud, especially in those that have been lately sicke.
Since Gerard’s days, Borage has continued to be used as a “cooling” herb to help break fevers as well as a strengthening tonic for those recovering from a long illness. Herbalists today often recommend Borage for people with high blood pressure and for those prone to worry and anxiety. It is high in both potassium and calcium.
However, despite so many centuries of use, scientists have recently discovered that Borage contains small amounts of an alkaloid that in large quantities may cause certain liver diseases. All I can say with any certainty is that moderation is always a good idea. In our super size society we tend to make the leap that if a little of something is good for us than a bucketful is better. In light of these findings, I would advise against guzzling gallons of Borage, but the odd cup of tea, or a handful of flowers and leaves tossed into an occassional salad can’t hurt – and may even help.
You can dazzle your guests by serving up clear drinks with Borage’s blue star blossoms embedded in ice. The blossoms also look in a salad or candied and arranged on baked goods. Pluck out the black anther to avoid any bitter aftertaste.
If you’re really having a Martha Moment, you can even use some hollow Borage stems for drink straws. However, be sure to use young stems! When they get older the stems acquire little prickly hairs which can give some people with sensitive skin a rash. Though wouldn’t that make for a memorable garden party? Just think of it, you’d be the talk of the town! Well, at least once the rash left your guest’s lips and they were able to speak.
Ditto for serving salads with borage leaves! Only use the leaves for culinary use before those bristles start to protrude. Even if you aren’t sensitive to such things, the fuzzy texture on the tongue can be a bit off putting. That said, I know lots of people who claim the bristles quickly dissolve on the tongue and aren’t a problem in the least. Like so many things, it all comes down to personal taste. To keep steady supplies of young Borage leaves throughout the summer simply stagger your plantings. If you’re just harvesting leaves for tea then the bristles are of no concern at all.
Aesthetically these spines give the plant a beautiful silver lustre – proving that every cloud does indeed have a silver lining; or in this case, a silver sheen. No matter what the scientists come up with, the one thing that will never fall into dispute is the irrefutable beauty of a Borage blossom. If all this talk of dangerous alkaloids and skin rashes has put you off using Borage for medicinal or culinary purposes, you should still plant it for no other reason than to simply admire its blooms. Borage’s purplish-blue star shaped flower punctuated by its striking black anther is enough to plant a joy deposit in anyone’s heart. And we can all use a few joy deposits.
Borage has nice fat seeds that make them easy to plant. To direct seed, cultivate a sunny site about two weeks before the final frost and sow seed just over a centimetre (half an inch) deep. Keep in mind a Borage plant packs a fairly large footprint, growing approximately 60 cm (2 feet) high with a tendency to sprawl out on either side, so be sure to give it lots of elbow room. Borage also makes an eye catching and economical container plant. In most pots, a single seed plunked in the centre is all you need to fill it to overflowing.
This herb gets along in almost any sort of soil, including clay. In fact you can often find it thriving in parking lots or other such wastelands. Poke seeds into your most challenging nooks and crannies and Borage will bravely make the best of it. However, for best results you should plant Borage in rich, well drained soil where it will get plenty of sunshine.
The large seeds and quick growth make Borage an excellent choice for children’s gardens. They will love watching how fast Borage grows and will be thrilled with its beautiful blooms. Some children might enjoy threading the blossoms onto a string to make necklaces, bracelets or headbands. If jewellery making isn’t their thing, they can always try lighting the plant on fire. Apparently Borage contains enough potassium nitrate to produce sparks and a series of small firework type explosions. Obviously this should be carried out under careful supervision.
On a safer note, if planting some bulbs is on your garden to-do list this fall, consider planting a few Borage seeds at the same time. Borage is the perfect solution for hiding all those scraggly spent leaves after your bulbs have finished blooming. Simply tuck a seed or two amongst your tulips or daffodils and by the time they’re finished their spring bloom Borage will be big enough to toss its beautiful gown over the whole shebang. Of course a spring sowing of Borage in the bulb patch will work equally well. Space seed approximately 50 cm (20 inches) apart.
Borage is an annual, but it is also generous with self seeding. Its fallen offspring will continue to make perennial visits to your garden year after year…though not always showing up where you want them! Fortunately they are easy to pull or you can stop the whole thing in its tracks by deadheading blooms throughout the summer. Not only will this prevent Borage from going to seed, it will also extend your bloom period. Or you can simply move the little volunteers to a more desirable location. Despite many writings that warn against transplanting Borage, it can be done successfully so long as you use a gentle touch and are careful to water the roots thoroughly both before and after.
Strawberries are crazy for Borage. For some reason the mere sight of Borage growing nearby makes them perk up and start producing berries like mad. Bookend your strawberry rows with a pair of Borage plants or try adding an entire row of Borage parallel to your strawberries for a breathtaking hedge. Be sure to plant Borage on the north side of your patch to avoid shading your strawberries.
Strawberries aren’t the only ones that fall helpless to Borage’s many charms. Bees are drawn to Borage like gardeners’ to a 50 percent off sale at their favourite nursery and hummingbirds hone in on them too.
So if you’re looking for a beautiful flowering plant, or to grow bigger and better strawberries, to cash in on the pollination benefits from bees, screen unsightly bulb leaves, grow a source of leaves and flowers for dressing up a salad or ice cubes, a tea to banish the blues, or if you simply always wanted to set a plant on fire, Borage is the herb for you!