Borage: Companion Plant and Nutritious Herb

From Prehistory to Today

Borage (its taxonomic name is Borago officinalis) is a messy, sprawling, and very untidy plant (which is also called starflower after the shape of its flowers), whose leaves have a taste mildly reminiscent of cucumbers, that grows about three feet tall and its leaves and stems are covered with tiny bristles or hairs. Grown as a source of food since prehistory, the plant originated in Syria in antiquity and eventually spread throughout the world, becoming common in many different world cuisines, but most especially in European and Mediterranean recipes. Borage is noted for its delicate cucumber flavor and its sweet flowers have long been used to add a refreshing twist to both alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks. Oil produced from the seeds is recognized for its health benefits, as well, and borage can be grown as an excellent companion plant for tomatoes and strawberries, and in general acts to improve the health of your entire garden.

A Plant in Bloom

Borage with white flowers
Borage with white flowers | Source

Cultivation

Borage is an annual plant that readily reseeds itself, so after the first year you shouldn't need to plant it again, unless you are harvesting all the seeds. It prefers a fully sunny situation, and because of its leafy surface area, needs to be kept well-watered in comparison to herbs with smaller and shiny leaves. If you are wondering whether you should plant borage, and you grow tomatoes or strawberries, wonder no longer! Planting borage not only improves the flavour of both tomatoes and strawberries, but keeps many common garden pests such as the tomato hornworm away from your homegrown produce.

In many climates, borage produces flowers almost all year long, starting about ten weeks after planting, and continuing throughout the growing season. The flowers are typically blue, but pink and white varieties are also available if you prefer them. The flowers, like those of many herbs, are a powerful attractant to bees (bees love blue flowers), and so if you grow fruits or vegetables that require bee pollination, you may wish to grow borage to attract more bees to your garden. And one of the great attractions of this herb is it has almost no pests or diseases itself, so once it has become well established, this herb needs little care except watering!

In my parents' garden, we surround each tomato and strawberry plant with an entire ring of borage plants, to repel garden pests and to give each plant the benefits of this amazing companion herb. We have a problem with slugs, but it seems that slugs are not fond of trying to navigate the bristles to get to the food-producing plants, and so we lose very few plants to slugs where borage is a barrier to them. We are rewarded with a huge crop of fruit every year, so much that we end up freezing or giving away much of it, because just a few plants produce far more than three people can eat.

Nutritional Benefits

Borage is a good source of Thiamin, Vitamin B6 and Folate, and a very good source of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Riboflavin, Niacin, Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Copper and Manganese. There are very few calories in borage, and so you can add it to your diet without worrying about your waistline.

Use

Borage leaves taste a little like cucumber, and can be used in place of cucumber anywhere, especially if you have unpleasant gastric side effects from eating cucumbers. The leaves can also be used raw in salads (use only the young leaves for this, because of the hairs and bristles on the older leaves), or cooked like spinach and served as a vegetable. The leaves, when cooked, can be made into a savoury or sweet sorbet, or used to flavour endless types of sauces and soups. In some countries, the leaves are added to pickles and relishes, and the flowers and leaves can also be infused in hot water to make a refreshing hot or iced herbal tea. And if you're fond of fritters, borage leaves make delicious fritters, too! Borage is a common ingredient in many Mediterranean cuisines.

Borage flowers have a sweet, honeyed taste, and can be used to flavour desserts, or candied to be used as a garnish or edible decorations, especially on sweet desserts (cupcakes, cakes, mousses, and pies will all benefit, as will a simple bowl of fresh fruit) and salads. Borage leaves and flowers were once used to flavour the alcoholic beverage Pimm's Cup, and are still used as a garnish for drinks made with this liqueur. The Romans thought that this plant instilled courage, and consumed it often. The officinalis in its species name means that medieval people believed it to have significant benefits on health; certainly the studies on the oil from borage seeds bears out that belief!

In cosmetics, borage is often added to products for skin, nails, and hair for its beneficial properties for keratin. If you make your own cosmetics, such as mascara, you may find it beneficial to grow this herb for its seeds, to add the benefits to your own toiletries. Even if you just break a capsule of borage oil into your hair conditioner, you may find that over time you will notice the benefits of healthier hair!

Are you ready to try borage?

  • No. I hate plants.
  • No. I don't hate plants, but I hate gardening.
  • No. I don't hate gardening, but I want prettier flowers.
  • No. I'm not fond of either cucumber or honey, and I don't have tomatoes or strawberries.
  • Well, this sounds a little bit intriguing.
  • I might try it a little later.
  • Hmm, this is interesting, and my tomatoes or strawberries aren't doing all that well at the moment.
  • I think I'll try it.
  • I'm planting it right away!
  • I already grow borage.
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Whether you already grow borage, want to try it, or just wanted to see what the heck it is, and why people in antiquity and in the Middle Ages made such a big deal out of it, I hope I have sparked your interest, and you'll at least order a Pimm's cup some hot summer night in order to see what all the fuss is about.

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Comments 2 comments

barryrutherford profile image

barryrutherford 6 years ago from Queensland Australia

My god i am so ignorant I never heard of it !


classicalgeek profile image

classicalgeek 6 years ago Author

It's no fun to write about the herbs that everyone knows about! I wanted to write about some that have been forgotten or neglected unjustly, so people can try them out. As a medievalist, I am interested in what people used to eat, and these long-ignored herbs came to mind.

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