“Ego Borago Gaudia semper ago” – “I Borage, bring always courage”
‘Discovering the Folklore of Plants’ by Margaret Baker
I couldn’t make up my mind which Herb beginning with B to choose for this instalment. There were three I really wanted to write about but in the end I settled on Borage or, to use its botanical name, Borago officianalis. (In case you were wondering about the others, one was Belladona and the other was Burdock. I chose not to write about Belladonna because whilst I grow it, it is highly toxic and whilst I use it magically that’s my choice and my risk…I would never do anything which is seen to encourage other people to poison themselves. Burdock on the other hand is quite the opposite, a big constituent of one of my favourite drinks (Dandelion and Burdock) but as I haven’t grown it, anything I say about its habit and cultivation will be regurgitated from other people’s experiences, not my own).
Again, before I continue, I must apologise for the lack of good photos…I haven’t even sown this year’s Borage yet, let alone been able to take pictures. The one featured above is from summer 2011.
Growth and Cultivation
Borage, also called ‘Star Flower’ for obvious reasons, lends its name to a whole Family of plants, the family Boraginacea. Plants like Comfrey, Lungwort, and Forget Me Not all belong to the same family.
Borage is an annual plant which grows very well in a sunny spot of my garden, the first year I grew it from seed the plants almost reached 2 feet tall although last year, probably owing to the dark wet summer we in the UK experienced, it grew poorly, very leggy, pathetic little leaves and didn’t flower at all before they flopped over and rotted off completely. In good conditions (Borage is native to the Mediterranean and Middle East) Borage is an ardent self-seeder as are all members of the Borage family. Start with a small group of plants and you will inevitably end up with them all over your garden. We have Forget Me Not plants everywhere now…even in the lawn much to my other half’s annoyance. I don’t mind though they are one of my favourite flowers.
Last year’s crop didn’t survive long enough to flower but starting to grow your own Borage colony from seed really couldn’t be simpler in either pots or in beds. Simply wait till April, when the soil is warmer and all danger of frosts has passed and then throw the seed down. The seeds are relatively large, like small nuts, so are easy to handle. Water well and germination will happen very quickly. Thin seedlings to give the plants room (the leaves of Borage can get quite large, 4-6” in length, although not as large as Comfrey leaves, and the plants can take up a good foot of space around them when thriving). Flowers will appear from midsummer and if not regularly picked will eventually run to seed which drop on the ground starting next year’s crop. As you can see from the above picture, flowers appear in clusters from the top of a central stem and are most commonly a bright indigo, sometimes a paler blue, although it’s not uncommon to have even pink and blue flowers on one plant depending on the age of the bloom. The flower buds appear fuzzy (as does much of the plant in fact) and the bees love it…if you are looking to attract bees and so on, Borage is one to grow!
If you don’t wish to grow your own Borage, it grows pretty happily all over the UK in drier parts of the country areas especially on derelict wasteland. Here is the South East it seems to thrive, probably owing to the chalky soil conditions. In fact when we first moved into the family home over 25 years ago, Borage was all that was growing in the garden we inherited, one massive carpet. Probably for that reason It was the first herb I learnt to identify and hence why I chose this herb to write about (notice I didn’t say weed…I don’t like that word even though to many people Borage is considered such!)
Not many people these days are aware of just how many flowers are edible, Borage is one of them! The flowers can be picked and added to salads or, one of my favourite things to do is freeze the individual flowers in ice cubes, then adding them to cool summer drinks like Elderflower cordial, Iced tea and the quintessentially British Pimms. The flowers may also be candied but be mindful they are delicate little things so best to simply dip into a cool sugar syrup and then in icing sugar rather than wilt them in hot sugar over night etc.
The leaves are also edible, having a cucumber like flavour (again making them a perfect Pimms addition!) I personally can’t stand the sensation of the hairs when eaten raw so if ever I eat Borage, it has to be fried in a little butter (as you might do for something like Spinach for which it makes a great substitute) or a part of soups. The fresh cucumber like fragrance of Borage leaves is also great for summer drinks. As Borage matures the downy little hairs stiffen and turn to prickles, so pick younger leaves for eating!
Once upon a time Borage was a favoured base for Wine owing to its cheerful, upbeat and enlivening nature, it therefore makes a perfect tipple for the mayday and midsummer sacraments. However I found the following recipe last year (unfortunately I can’t remember where!) and I have to say it’s one of my favourites (but probably best kept for special occasions!)
Sparkling Borage Cocktail
1 bottle dry White Wine
1 bottle Champagne or Prosecco
1 can Lemonade (clear not cloudy)
1 can Ginger Ale
¼ cup brandy
¼ cup smooth orange juice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Borage leaves
2 tablespoons sugar
Steep the Borage leaves in the wine overnight. Strain into a large bowl and add the remaining ingredients. Stir well and pour into jugs containing lots of ice, decorate with Borage flowers.
As above Borage has been shown to present some toxicity to the liver when used internally over sustained periods of time and in high doses, as with all of our green kin treat with care, respect and caution!
There are two main functions Borage fulfils for me personally. First and foremost is its use as a tonic for the nervous system. When feeling low, run down exhausted or drained Borage is a great little pick me up. Even looking at the delicate yet striking little flowers can’t help but lift the spirits and simply adding a few flowers and shredded leaves to cool water and steeping overnight, served over ice revives and rejuvenates, hence one of Borage’s other names is the ‘Herb of Gladness’. Borage seems only too willing to impart its fresh vibrant vigour and for that reason it’s especially useful for those recovering from long-term illnesses, depression, stress, exhaustion and so on.
A similar infusion is also of benefit as a cooling eye bath when eyes are feeling sore through tiredness (a boon for us contact lens wearers when, after a long day’s wear, your eyes feel ‘prickly’. Soak a couple of cotton pads in a cool Borage infusion and place the pads over eyes (the similarity to cucumber is not just in fragrance alone!)
Borage leaves also lend themselves perfectly to use as poultice’s, not only because of their size but also Borage’s anti-inflammatory properties which, as an eczema sufferer helps calm stress related flare ups, owing to its cooling, revitalising nature. I simply pick a leaf or two, bruise them gently and hold them over the itchy inflamed area and the relief seems almost instant.
It was only when I began studying Aromatherapy massage last year that I learned Borage Oil (widely available) is also good to apply topically for rashes, eczema and psoriasis and so on. Borage Oil can be made through maceration of the leaves and flowers or Borage Seed oil can also be purchased for use in massage and medicine. Borage seed oil contains approximately 23% GLA (gamma linoleic acid) which is therapeutically beneficial for those suffering from arthritis and so on. Most people take Evening Primrose Oil for these complaints; little do they know Borage Seed oil contains far more GLA and is safe to use on a more regular basis than say the tincture or infusion of the leaves
Borage is supposedly a masculine plant ruled by Jupiter and indeed the blue colouration of the flowers is reminiscent of the blue often associated with Jupiter’s royal emperor like energy. The fact the flowers are star shaped however, often sporting 5 petals per flower screams Venus to me which I think corresponds better with its uplifting, cheerful and carefree nature …but then who am I to argue with centuries of lore?
Just as the flowers can be added to drinks, I like to add the flowers to magical baths to invigorate the spirit (as within so without!). Some sources suggest that Borage also heightens psychic awareness either through imbibing or adding to baths as already stated. Personally Borage wouldn’t be my go to herb for that kind of work….especially when the likes of Artemisia are so readily available in my garden, but, each to their own.
The most common use for Borage in folklore makes use of its ability to impart courage and valour. The name ‘Borage’, according to Mrs Grieve, comes from the ‘Celtic’ barrach meaning ‘a man of courage’ and it is said that women would create embroidery patterns featuring Borage flowers for their warrior men to impart its courage upon he who wore the emblem. So carrying a small posy of Borage flowers in your button hole or a small pouch filled with borage may be particularly useful in times of trial or ‘battle’ when the courage and support of Borage can help us to endure. As an interesting aside, the blue colour of Borage is often associated with the Goddess in her dark destroyer aspect, the Hindu Goddess Kali is also depicted as blue, a colour somewhat reminiscent of the woad painted blue faces of Britain’s ancient warrior class!
One of Borage’s relatives Comfrey is grown in my garden for its use as ‘green manure’ and plant food. Borage leaves, having the same high Potash and Nitrogen content as Comfrey can also be used for this purpose (as can Nettles incidentally). Potash is required for fruit and flowers, Nitrogen for strong leaf growth. Harvest leaves from the Borage plant and either add straight to the compost heap or make a rich organic liquid plant food by placing the leaves in a bucket of water and adding just enough water to cover. Cover the bucket with a loose lid or polythene and leave to ferment. The plant food is ready when the smell coming from the bucket makes you gag…no really, the smell is disgusting and not unlike sewage! Strain off the plant matter (add that to the compost heap) and dilute the liquid in a watering can for one of the best plant feeds ever. All fruiting and flowering crops will love it…especially tomatoes!
As I mentioned before Bee’s adore Borage, so plant Borage in your garden to attract Bee’s which will then pollinate other flowers in the area. Even if you decide to grow Borage for no other reason, grow it for the Bee’s which here in the UK are in decline and need all the help they can get.