Champaign-Urbana Herb Society
Herb of the Month
BORAGE (Borago officinalis)
In ancient times, borage was favored by Celtic warriors who liked to drink a wine flavored with it before they went into battle. They believed that it brought them courage, took away their fears, and made them feel elated. According to old wives’ tales, borage was sometimes smuggled into the drinks of prospective husbands to give them the courage to propose marriage!
Pliny called this herb eupbrosinum because he felt that it relieved feelings of sadness. Dioscorides wrote in his De Materia Medica that one should take borage to “cheer the heart and life the depressed spirits.” According to both Pliny asnd Dioscorides, borage was the famous Nepenthe of Homer which, when drunk steeped in wine, brought absolute forgetfulness.
The sixteenth-century British herbalist John Gerard stated, “Those of our time do use the floures in sallads to exhilerate 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 mind. The leaves and floures of Borage put into wine make men and women glad and merry and drive away all sadnesse, dulnesse, and melancholy, as Dioscorides and Pliny affirme. Syrup made of the floures of Borage comforteth the heart, purgeth melancholy and quieteth the phrenticke and lunaticke person. The leaves eaten raw ingender good bloud, especially in those that have lately been sick.”
The Welsh called borage llanwenlys, meaning “herb of gladness,” and Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “The leaf of Burrage hath an excellent spirit to repress the fuliginous vapor of dusky melancholie.” At the close of the seventeenth century, herbalist John Evelyn wrote, “Sprigs of Borage are of known virtue to revive the hypochondriac and cheer the hard student.” Culpepper found the plant “useful in putrid and pestilential fevers, the venom of serpents, jaundice, consumption, sore throat, and rheumatism.”
Decoctions and infusions of borage were given to relieve fevers, diarrhea, and bronchitis. The leaves of the plant were used in poultices, which were reported cooling and soothing and so were applied to external swellings and inflammations. Borage was much used in France for fevers and pulmonary complaints. The juice in syrup was thought not only good for fevers, but to be a remedy for itching and ring worm. Culpepper tells us that in his day, “the dried herb is never used, but the green; yet the ashes thereof boiled in mead or honeyed water is available, and used in inflammation and ulcers in the mouth or throat, as a gargle.”
Because of its saline constituents, borage promotes the activity of the kidneys and, for this reason, is employed to carry off feverish catarrhs. Varro Tyler, author of The Honest Herbal, says that the qualities attributed to borage can be linked to some of its constituents. Its tannin content makes it slightly astringent and a little constipating. Its mucilage is responsible for its mild expectorant actions, which explains why it is popularly used in treating bronchitis. Borage contains potassium and calcium combined with mineral acids. However, Tyler notes that in lab tests with small animals, the only action borage produced was slight constipation. Dr. Tyler states, “It has no significant value as a medicine.”
The name “borage” is thought to have originated in several ways. Some authorities consider that the Latin name borago, from which some believe the popular name is taken, is a corruption of corago, from cor (heart) and ago (I bring), because of its cordial effect. In all of the Mediterranean countries where it is plentiful, it is spelled with a double “r,” so the word may be derived from the Italian borra or French bourra signifying hair or wool. These words in their turn are derived from the low Latin burra, a flock of wool in reference to the thick covering of short hairs which clothes the whole plant. John Henslow, an English botanist, suggests that the name is derived from barrach, a Celtic word meaning “a man of courage.”
Borage is a hardy annual plant coming originally from Aleppo, but it is now naturalized in most parts of Europe, Asia Minor, and Africa. It is widely cultivated in the United States, where it has long been grown in kitchen gardens, both for its uses as an herb and for the sake of its flowers which yield excellent honey. The plant has many leafy, branched, hollow, round stems, covered with coarse white hairs, and it reaches a height of two to three feet. The leaves form a basal rosette, with the upper ones alternating on the stems; they are large, wrinkled, deep green, oval and pointed and they can be three or more inches long and about one-and-a-half inches wide. The rather sprawling habit of the branches creates a handsome, rounded shape. The beautiful sky-blue, star-shaped flowers usually appear in midsummer. They are distinguished from those of every other plant of this order by their prominent black anthers, which form a cone in the center and have been described as their “beauty spot.” The fruit consists of four brownish-black nutlets.
Borage flourishes in ordinary soil in a sunny location. For optimum growth, maintain a fairly rich growing medium. A manure compost is the best fertilizer. The soil should be loose, well aerated, and hoed regularly to eliminate weeds. Keep the soil most by using a mulch. Don’t be disappointed if no flowers appear the first year. Borage can sometimes behave as a biennial. Although difficult to transplant, you may extend the harvest season by sowing seeds three times at four-week intervals. Borage may be propagated by division of the rootstock in the spring, by putting cuttings of shoots in sandy soil in a cold frame in summer and autumn, and from seed. The seeds can be sown from mid-March to May, eighteen inches apart; thin the seedlings to about fifteen inches apart in rows. Borage will seed itself freely and will come up in the same place year after year. Borage grows easily indoors in pots. Just give it a sunny spot, moisture, and a fertile potting medium, with plenty of space for the roots to spread. Borage is a good companion plant because it is said to strengthen the resistance to insects and disease of any plant near it. It is especially good with strawberries, the two plants being mutually beneficial. Just make sure that the borage does not overwhelm the strawberries. If you need to attract bees to your garden plant borage—the bees love the flowers. While borage may be a little rough and sprawling for a formal garden it is attractive in the herb garden, blends nicely with wild flowers, and goes well in the vegetable garden or the cottage style garden.
When harvesting the leaves, gather them when the plant is coming into flower. Strip them off singly and reject any that are stained or eaten by insects. Borage is unacceptable when dried or frozen. The only way to store it for long term is in a flavored vinegar. It is recommended that the blooms be picked just after opening and pick them only on a sunny day when the dew has dried off.
Culinary uses for borage are several. The leaves may be used raw in salads or sautéed like spinach. The stems may be used raw if they are peeled, chopped and used like celery. The leaves and stems enhance cheese, fish, poultry, most vegetables, iced beverages, pickles, and salad dressing. They blend well with dill, mint, and garlic. If you object to the fuzziness of the leaves, use them for flavoring only when cooking, removing them before serving.
The flowers were candied by our great grandmothers and were made into a conserve, deemed useful for persons weakened by long sickness, as well as those subject to swooning. The distilled water was considered useful and also valuable as a cure for inflammation of the eyes. The flowers have a cucumber-like taste and are wonderful in punches, lemonade, gin and tonics, sorbets, chilled soups, cheese tortes, and dips. The are also delicious over ice cream or fruit compote and are attractive when used as a decorative garnish for dishes.
Thanks to Kyra Shair for this report on borage. Her sources were Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, Botanical.Com, a Modern Herbal by Mrs. M. Grieve, and the internet under “Viable Herbal Solutions.”
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