By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
The borage herb is an old fashioned plant that can get up to 2 feet (61 cm.) tall, or more. It is native to the Middle East and has an ancient history in war as an enhancement for bravery and courage. Growing borage provides the gardener with cucumber-flavored leaves for tea and other beverages as well as bright starry blue flowers for decorating salads. All parts of the plant, except the roots, are flavorful and have culinary or medicinal uses.
While not as common as thyme or basil, borage herb (Borago officinalis) is a unique plant for the culinary garden. It grows quickly as an annual but will colonize a corner of the garden by self-seeding and reappearing year after year.
June and July are heralded by the presence of the borage flower, an appealing, small, brilliant blue bloom with attracting qualities. Indeed, the plant should be include in the butterfly garden and brings pollinators to your veggies. The oval leaves are hairy and rough with the lower foliage pushing 6 inches in length. The borage plant may grow 12 or more inches wide in a tall bushy habit.
Herb cultivation just takes a little gardening know how. Grow borage in an herb or flower garden. Prepare a garden bed that is well tilled with average organic matter. Ensure that the soil is well drained and in a medium pH range. Sow seeds directly into the garden after the last date of frost. Plant seeds ¼ to ½ inch (6 ml. – 1 cm.) under the soil in rows 12 inches (30+ cm.) apart. Thin the borage herb to at least 1 foot (30+ cm.) when the plants measure 4 to 6 inches (10-15 cm.) tall.
Planting borage with strawberries attracts bees and increases the yield of fruit. It has limited culinary use in today’s foods, but the borage flower is often used as a garnish. Traditionally the borage plant was used to treat many ailments, from jaundice to kidney problems. In medicinal use today it is limited, but the seeds are a source of linolenic acid. Borage flowers are also used in potpourris or candied for use in confections.
Borage can be perpetuated by allowing the flowers to go to seed and self sow. Pinching the terminal growth will force a bushier plant but may sacrifice some of the flowers. Borage herb is not a fussy plant and has been known to grow in refuse piles and highway ditches. Be assured you want the plant to regrow annually or remove the flowers before it seeds. Growing borage requires a dedicated space in the home garden.
Sowing the seeds every four weeks will ensure a ready supply of borage flowers. The leaves may be picked at any time and used fresh. Dried leaves have little of the characteristic flavor so the plant is best consumed after harvest. Leave the flowers alone if you are hosting a honeybee colony. The blooms produce an excellent flavored honey.
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Borage is a hardy annual that’s easy to grow from seed, and will liberally self-seed if flowerheads are left on over winter. The star-shaped, startling blue flowers are particularly beautiful and plentiful, but is best used fresh as it does not dry well.
Borage plants average about 75 cm (30 inches) in height, about half as much in width, and can be a bit straggly in very poor soil. It can be grow in pots or containers, but prefers space in the veg plot or flower bed where it’s an excellent bee attractant. The leaves are covered in stiff white hairs on branched hollow stems that will easily snap in strong winds, so growing them in self-supporting clumps is recommended.
Primarily the blue-flowered plant is grown, though a white-flowered borage is available.
Borage is one of the few problem-free herbs to grow other than occasional Japanese beetle problems.
Due to their tall, hollow stems, borage plants can snap in strong winds so overcrowding the plants to self-support is highly recommended.
Pick the flowers and the young leaves as and when you want to use them. They do not store well. Borage flowers are often used to replace candied violets for baked goods. The flowers are also a key ingredient for Pimms, as well as an attractive garnish.
Borage’s mild cucumber taste blends well with cucumbers in a salad.
The young leaves, in moderate amounts, are nice in a mixed leaf salad, or sauteed like spinach.
Use borage as a companion plant with any other plant in your garden. Borage increases the productivity of neighboring plants by attracting bees and pollinating insects. It repels tomato hornworms if planted with tomatoes, and cabbage worms when planted with brassicaes. Borage plant debris is a beneficial mulch it contains high levels of calcium and potassium which improve blossom set and fruiting on all fruits and vegetables.
Use borage blossoms as garnish and in drinks. The flowers have a cucumber-like flavor that is very light and refreshing. Add borage flowers to green salads do this at the last minute as they wilt rapidly in vinegar-based dressings. The plant's flowers can be frosted with sugar or candied to decorate cakes and pastries. Freeze borage blossoms in ice cubes to float in drinks or a punch bowl or add them directly to iced tea, lemonade or ice water.
Add borage leaves to your recipes. The leaves taste of cucumber as well. Chop or shred the leaves and toss them in a salad. Add leaves to soups or stews. They may also be cooked like spinach or mixed with other cooked greens for a bright flavor. Dip individual leaves into a light batter and fry them.
The fresh taste of borage makes it a good herb to use with fish or in fish accompaniments.
Drink borage tea to improve adrenal function and restore strength. It is helpful during convalescence after surgery or to relieve stress. Make borage tea by pouring one cup of boiling water over one-quarter cup of bruised fresh borage leaves and steep for five minutes. Strain before drinking.
Use borage tea as a gargle for a sore throat. The tea is also good for cough, cold and bronchitis. Borage is used to treat digestive problems and irritable bowel syndrome.
Make a poultice for insect bites, stings, and skin rashes including eczema. Chop or shred enough stems and leaves to cover the area of skin you are treating and hold them in place by wrapping gauze around the area.