Borage has perhaps the prettiest of flowers in the whole herb world. Tanya Jenkyn, of Esperance, Western Australia, examines one that is good to look at, good to eat and good for the garden too.
Borage flowers are so attractive to bees that
beekeepers use it to increase honey production.
I’ve always had a soft spot for borage. I’ve never found myself using it very much but with its tiny
blue flowers and fuzzy buds it’s just so gosh darn
pretty. It was missing from my garden for a while, and so about a year ago I tracked down some seed and
planted a couple. It has now successfully taken over
most of my herb garden (much to the dismay of parsley,
sage and my son, who is also trying to infiltrate
with his blossoming flower habit) and is surreptitiously
trying to colonise the rest of the vegie patch as well.
The flowers can be encased in ice cubes for a
refreshing summer drink, and were the
original garnish for Pimms cocktails.
It pokes its hairy leaves out here and there, I turn my
back for a second, and all of a sudden there’s a massive
patch of the stuff shaking its flower-laden branches
in the air. I chop it back and pull it out but I can’t
stay angry for long. Borage (Borago officinalis) charms
the bees so beautifully that you can hear them buzzing
with satiated pleasure before you go through the
gate. Clever beekeepers will grow borage to increase honey production. So when a little plant pops up in a
new spot, I just leave it be until I need that location for
something else. I think perhaps instead of fighting it, I
simply need to find more uses for it.
The Roman naturalist Pliny believed borage
had the power to make men merry, joyful and courageous.
Well into medieval times borage leaves and
flowers were steeped in wine as a cure for melancholy.
Competitors in tournaments and jousts would drink
borage tea prior to competition, spawning what became (for a time) the common phrase “I, borage, bring
always courage.” An old wives’ tale began that if a
woman slipped a bit of borage into a promising man’s
drink, it would give him the courage to propose. Sadly
though, in the late 1600s folk began to doubt the medicinal
(and perhaps somewhat preemptive nuptial)
value of borage and its use mostly fell back to flavouring
beverages and tarting up desserts.
In Greece borage could appear in a salad,
whereas in Poland it is used to add
flavour to pickles.
Today commercial cultivation is mainly as an
oilseed. Borage seed oil is the highest known plantbased
source of GLA (gamma-linolenic acid) and a
goodly amount of other fatty acids too. In most people,
the body naturally produces a sufficient amount
of GLA. However, some people (such as those with diabetes)
may not make enough GLA and may therefore
benefit from a supplement like borage seed oil (under
medical supervision, of course).
The borage flower has a sweet honey-like taste
and is one of the few truly blue-coloured edible substances.
They can be used sprinkled over salads or encased in ice cubes for a refreshing summer drink.
Borage flowers and leaves were the original garnish for
Pimms (before cucumber muscled in on the act). The
blue star-shaped flowers are adorable crystallised and
tizzy up cakes very well. Just pick them fresh, paint
ever so lightly with an egg white and water mix, sprinkle
with a dusting of superfine castor sugar and allow
to air dry for a day or two.
Speaking of cucumbers, that’s what borage leaves
taste like. Vegetable use of borage is common in
Europe. Each place has different traditions of use. In
Germany it may be used to make a green sauce whereas in Greece it could appear in a salad. Borage is used
to add flavour to pickles in Poland. The Spanish boil
their borage, sauté it with garlic and serve it as a side
with potatoes. The Italians will use borage as a filling
in ravioli. Now I have your mouth watering, I must
issue a word of warning — borage leaves have been
found to contain small amounts of the liver-toxic pyrrolizidine
alkaloids. The levels are extremely low but
I’d exercise some caution and not go downing bowlfuls of borage without thought. These alkaloids are not
present in the flowers or seed oil.
As I mentioned earlier, borage is heaven for bees but its role as a companion plant does not stop there.
Borage also adds trace mi erals to the soil it is planted in, and is awesome for composting and mulching. It
is said to protect or nurse legumes, spinach, brassicas,
and strawberries. Tomatoes are also meant to find
the company of borage to be beneficial. Claims that it
improves tomato growth and makes them taste better
remain unsubstantiated (say one source) and so I’ll
take that as a challenge because this year I’m planning
a bumper crop of tomatoes and rather than remove
all the borage in the patch, I may as well continue to
leave it be and see just how beneficial borage is.