The delicate blue star shaped flowers of Borago officinalis, or Borage, are indeed a lovely sight to behold. Not only does this hardy annual add aesthetic value to any flower bed, but it offers many benefits to its surrounding garden companions and gentle medicinal properties for the humans who tend it.
According to the great 16th century herbalist, John Gerard, there was a saying among Roman soldiers who drank borage wine before going into battle, “ego borago gaudia semper ago,” it means “I, borage always brings courage.” Today, it is known that borage stimulates the adrenal gland, triggering the production of adrenalin, the fight or flight hormone that stirs the body to action in times of stress. The Roman scholar Pliny believed the herb to be an anti-depressant, as did the Greek Dioscorides who wrote in his De Materia Medica that borage will, “cheer the heart and lift the depressed sprits.”
The leaves, flowers and seeds of the plant may all be used for culinary or medicinal purposes. The large, fleshy, and slightly furry leaves taste similar to cucumber and can be added to salads, soup stocks, fresh juices or tea. They may be used raw, steamed, or sautéed like spinach. The stems are edible as well. The leaves and stems enhance cheeses, fish, poultry, most vegetables, iced beverages, pickles, and salad dressings. They blend well with dill, mint and garlic. If the texture of the leaf is bothersome, it can be used for flavoring and removed from the dish before serving.
The leaves can be used as an adrenal tonic for stress, or to counter lingering effects of steroid therapy. They can also be used for dry, rasping coughs and to stimulate lactation. The fresh juice is helpful for depression, anxiety or grief, and can also be made into a soothing lotion for dry itching skin. Poultices made from the leaves are cooling and soothing when applied to external inflammations and swellings. The oil extracted from the seeds can be applied externally for the treatment of eczema. The oil is also taken internally as an alternative to evening primrose oil for rheumatic or menstrual disorders, such as irregularity, or for irritable bowel syndrome, or even as an emergency hangover cure.
The tannin content of borage makes it slightly astringent and slightly constipating, which is why it is used to treat bowel trouble. The mucilage is responsible for its mild expectorant actions, which explains its use in treating coughs and lung disorders. Its high vitamin C and essential fatty acid content could account for its attributes as an antidepressant.
The flowers have traditionally been used in wines and cough syrups. They are said to beautify the skin when eaten regularly. The flowers make a beautiful garnish for all kinds of dishes. The cool, subtle cucumber like flavor lends itself nicely to iced teas and salads. Candied borage flowers make an elegant presentation on any pastry or dessert tray. Borage does not keep well frozen or dried. It can also be preserved through vinegars, tinctures, honey, and infusions.
In the garden, the bright blue flowers are enjoyed by bees and other pollinators. Just as borage is said to give strength and courage to humans, it is also said to increase resistance to pests and disease of its neighboring plants. It is an especially good companion plant for strawberries, drawing in pollinators to help produce a bountiful harvest, while acting as a magnet for garden pests that would otherwise be feasting on the precious berries.
Borage is hardy enough to tolerate more than just a little nibbling. Borage grows easily from seed, but a little goes a long way. These plants will grow to about three feet tall and two feet wide, so let them have a lot of space. They will re-seed easily, if left to their own devices, and will return year after year; they will need to be thinned and maintained to prevent them from taking over everything. They are not picky about soil and like to have lots of sun. Borage makes a great indoor plant as well. Just give it a nice big pot, good soil and plenty of water and sun.
Below is a recipe for Crystallized Borage flowers, a sweet and delicate treat to enhance any dessert, or to be enjoyed on its own.
Crystallized Borage flowers
1 quart raw wildflower honey
1/2 cup fresh cut borage flowers
1 tsp organic sugar
Begin by heating the honey on low until it is barely warmed through, add the flowers and continue heating for 15-20 minutes, keeping the honey warm but not allowing it to get hot enough to simmer. Pour the mixture into a glass baking pan, cover with plastic or wax paper and let sit for two to three days at room temperature.
Strain out the flowers and place them in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with waxed paper. Cover them loosely with another piece of wax paper, to protect the flowers from dust, while still allowing room for proper air circulation. The excess honey may be stored in a jar and used as an herbal honey. Allow the flowers to sit for one week, or dehydrate in a dehydrator on the lowest setting for three days.
Dust the honey covered flowers with sugar; a very light coating will do just fine. Spread the flowers out in a single layer on wax paper and allow them to dry for one to two days. Store them in a glass jar until ready to use; they will keep for two to four weeks at room temperature or for several months if refrigerated.
1. Hartung, Tammi, Medical Herbalist, “Growing 101 Herbs that Heal,” Storey Books, North Adams, 2000
2. Ody, Penelope, “The Complete Medicinal Herbal,: Dorling Kindersley, London, 1993
3. Kowalchik, Claire, and William H. Hylton, Rodales Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, Rodale Press, Emmaus, Pennsylvania, 1987