How to grow, use, and eat borage | The Best Gardening

Borage (Borago officinalis)

Commonly known as: Borage, Starflower, Bee bread
Full sun to dappled shade 
Height: 2-3 feet/60-90 cm
Soil: Average to rich soil, well-draining; allowed to dry in between waterings

Borage is an old herb, known at least since Roman times.

It is said that borage gladdens the heart, and surely the purple flowers are cheery.  But even the small, young leaves are slightly prickly, and the plant may seem rather coarse to a new gardener.

Still, it can add color and interest to any garden, and it has value in the kitchen as well.  For the avid herb gardener, it’s a must.

Description

Borage is also known as star flower.  The flowers are, indeed, a star shape with 5 pointed purple or pink petals (flowers are often pink upon opening, and then turn purplish blue).  The star shape is enhanced by five green sepals that appear at each spot where two petals meet, around the center of the flower.

There is a cultivar of borage that produces white flowers as well.

Borage leaves do contain a small amount of silica which may irritate the skin of sensitive individuals, so handle with care, whether they are fresh or dried.  The leaves, stems, and sepals of borage are covered with fine, silvery or white hairs that give the plant a soft sheen.  The hairs may add to the plants appearance, but some people find the bristle of hairs discourages them from putting borage to greater use in the kitchen.

Cultivation

Borage is one of the easiest plants to grow from seed. If it is allowed to bloom & set seed, it will readily self-seed providing a new generation of borage each year (which may or may not be desirable).

Borage is a hardy annual which means that the seeds can be sown outside in the early spring, or even in the fall and overwintered in the soil ready to come up at the first signs of spring.

Borage seeds need complete darkness to germinate. A full layer of soil should do the trick. Borage is not likely to be successfully transplanted because of its long taproot. Always plant borage in the pot or plot it is intended to grow. When other plants are sown indoors, usually 4-8 weeks before the last frost, borage can be sown outside, where it will germinate within a few days or weeks.

Seeds

Borage seeds are 5-6 millimeters long, and about half as wide, making them larger than many other herb seeds, and easier to sow. They look like little seed pods, with grooves running along the side and a cap on top.

Because borage self-seeds, it can provide many new plants each spring.  However, it is not likely to be invasive since it spreads above-ground (from seeds coming from the flower heads) rather than underground (as in the case of the mints, which spread through stolons).

Unwanted borage plants are fairly easy to remove and keep in control.  Just be sure to weed them out before mid-summer to prevent them from flowering and setting more seeds.

Borage seeds have a fairly long shelf life – the official number given is 3 years.  However, I have seeds that are almost 5 years old, & earlier this spring I got a nearly 100% germination rate.

Soil

Borage originates in the Mediterranean, and prefers an average to rich, well-draining soil.  Since over-watering is often (ironically) a greater problem than under-watering, be sure that you allow the soil around the borage to dry in between waterings.  Working some compost into the soil before planting borage will ensure plenty of nutrients for your borage plants, but don’t add an excessive amount.

Since borage readily re-seeds itself, adding a thin layer of compost each fall as a mulch is likely to not only provide nutrients for the next year’s borage plants, but it also adds a little protection to the seeds that have fallen from the flowers and will over-winter in the ground.

In the Garden

Borage is a medium-height plant and will do well in the middle of a flower border.  Its stems are hollow and succulent, but if they get tall, the lower area can be somewhat bare and unsightly, with sucker branches here and there displaying only a flower or two.

The greatest glory of borage is at the very top of the main stems, where the droops of borage flower buds are congregated en masse.  Planted in the middle of a flower border, with some shorter plants in front, it is a well-balanced display.

Pinching the terminal buds may be effective in reducing the height of the plant and increasing compactness.

Companion Planting

Borage is very useful in the garden. It attracts bees, which increases pollination of nearby plants. Borage may also enhance the growth of tomatoes (by confusing and repelling tomato hornworm); brassicas (by repelling and confusing cabbage worms); and  strawberries may do better when grown near borage.

Other plants that seem to improve when grown near borage: cucumbers, beans (including climbing and bush beans), grapes, zucchini/squash, and peas. It is not known to be antagonistic toward any plants.

Borage is also useful as a mulch and in a compost pile. Its leaves and stems contain calcium and potassium which may account for another reason why tomatoes do well near borage. Blossom end rot, which affects tomatoes, is caused by lack of calcium. Potassium helps plants to bloom and set fruit, which may increase production in tomatoes and strawberries. Whatever reasons for planting borage, it is likely to do a lot of good for your garden.

photo by Hank Shaw

In the Kitchen

The smaller, younger leaves are best in fresh salads since they are not quite as bristly as the older leaves. If you still find them too disagreeable to eat fresh, you may find they are more useful when they’re chopped up and added to soups or sautéed dishes.

Remember that borage tastes like cucumber, so wherever cucumber flavor is needed, borage is likely to be able to act as a substitute. Borage can also be used only for the flavoring during the cooking, and then removed from the dish before serving.

Culinary Uses

1. Borage and Cream Cheese Spread: Finely chop young borage leaves and onion; mix with cream cheese. Add skim milk to spreading consistency. Use on light sandwiches.

2. Candied Borage Flowers: Remove the sepals from the flower. Paint the flowers with egg whites and dip in a very fine sugar. Unpasteurized egg whites carry the risk of food poisoning, so as an alternative, use 1 Tbsp of gum arabic and 1 Tbsp of water. Use to garnish deserts. (A good beginner’s guide: Edible Flowers: Deserts & Drinks by C. Barash)

3. Freezing borage flowers in ice cubes is a fun addition to summer drinks.

4. A borage vinegar can be used in making salad dressings and it’s probably the only satisfactory way to store borage. Freezing & drying produce unsatisfactory results.

5. A refreshing tea is made by pouring a cup of boiling water over ¼ cup of bruised borage leaves; steep for 5 minutes; strain & serve. Young borage leaves also go well in lemonade.

Herbal Use & Notes

Borage may help heal insect bites and inflamed or infected cuts. Either use finely chopped borage leaves, or make a tea by pouring 4 cups of boiling water over a large amount of leaves; steep, strain, and pour into a spray bottle. Spray on skin for cooling and healing. The silica may cause irritation to the skin in some individuals, so use it cautiously.

Borage may affect lactation in pregnant and nursing women, so it’s best if it’s not used by a breastfeeding mother.

Cautions: Some herbalists warn that borage can be toxic to the liver. Borage has been eaten by thousands of people for centuries and is likely to be consumed in complete safety, but it is always good to be moderate in your consumption. In large amounts, borage may have a diuretic effect.

Interest: I’ve noticed that when my borage plants are less-healthy, the flowers tend to stay pink. If you have borage plants with many pink flowers, add compost, compost tea, or other organic feed.

Photo credits: http://www.judywise.blogspot.com, http://www.crumpetsandcakes.blogpost.com

About Anni

Gardening for life, liberty, and happiness. I love running, hiking, being with my family, gardening, cooking (most especially the stuff we pick from our garden), and reading.

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15 Responses to Borage (Borago officinalis)

  1. Sue G. July 13, 2013 at 5:10 pm #

    Lovely post. Very informative. I grew borage in my garden just for the fun of it this year, next to cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, eggplant, beets, and carrots. It is such a large and attractive plant! I see bees on it fairly often, even though there seem to be so few bees overall this year, so I adore it for attracting the bees. I will be planting it yearly now, even though it takes up relatively considerable space. as you said, it is cheering, and worth it.

    • Anni July 31, 2013 at 10:55 am #

      Sue,
      Isn’t it crazy?! There are so many fewer bees this year. Not just where we are, but all over the U.S. We’ve heard from people in practically every corner of the country who say they’ve been out hand-pollinating their plants because they’re not getting pollinated by bees!
      Anni

  2. Jackie August 12, 2013 at 4:08 pm #

    Just wanted to add a more hopeful note, having recently learned about the plight of the bumble bee (sorry). There have been many, many bees in our garden this year, largely because of the Borage. We are in southwestern Ontario.
    My question is if dried Borage is as effective as fresh when used for tea?
    Thanks

    • Anni September 3, 2013 at 9:02 pm #

      Probably. If you mean flavor, then I think so.
      I’m so glad you have lots of bumble bees! We grew lots of bee-friendly plants and there was still a considerable difference in the bee populations this year, from our observations.

  3. John August 14, 2013 at 4:29 am #

    I live in Sussex England,and the bee population is under threat by a virus
    that has spread all over G.B.I have noticed that my apples don’t have
    many pips.

    • Anni September 3, 2013 at 9:01 pm #

      We’re hearing stories like that from all over! It’s crazy, isn’t it?! Who knows what to expect. :/

  4. Patricia September 23, 2013 at 4:28 pm #

    We need to start planting seeds that are not genitically altered. The bees need the nectar from plants that are grown the way they are supposed to be grown.

    • Anni October 21, 2013 at 8:48 am #

      Agreed! We’ve seen and heard of some interesting things around here when the bees are primarily gathering nectar from GMO cotton, compared to hives that are placed along the rivers where they gather nectar primarily from wildflowers!

  5. Patricia September 23, 2013 at 4:29 pm #

    Also, i planted Borage this year for the first time and I had lots more bees this year than i had last year.

    • Anni October 21, 2013 at 8:47 am #

      :) Awesome! I bet they loved it.

  6. Andrea February 14, 2014 at 6:08 pm #

    Can anyone tell me what time of year the borage flowers are in bloom? I want to use them in cooking…x

    • Anni February 15, 2014 at 11:34 am #

      Andrea,
      Borage is a fast grower. It germinates quickly and grows fast. I think ours bloomed within about six weeks of seed sowing. You can sow them early and then transplant them, so you can start them 3 or 4 weeks before the last frost and plant them in the garden after the soil has warmed up a bit. But you don’t want them to get root-bound, because they do lose quite a bit of water vapor through their leaves and will dry out quickly if the top is too big and the roots are root bound when you transplant it. They’ll probably bloom by late May to early June. If you stagger sow them, you’ll have borage flowers all the way from late spring to fall.
      I hope that helps!
      Anni

  7. Mike March 7, 2014 at 1:29 am #

    I take an omega 3 and omega 6 supplement each day. The omega 6 is from borage oil. The following website provides interesting info about the good type of omega 6 taken from fatty acids such as borage oil :

    umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/omega6-fatty-acids

    See in particular the comments in that article about GLA and LA

    The website for the firm producing the tablets is http://www.vital.co.za

    Thought I’d mention the above because borage does have a useful role, which I didn’t see in the discussions.

    Regards,

    Mike

    PS I have no commercial interest in the product. I have heart problems and one side effect of statins is pain in the leg muscles. So an increasing number of people are trying natural remedies” over the long term to reduce blood pressure and side effects of medicines.

  8. Margaret March 14, 2014 at 7:40 pm #

    Last November 2 borage flowers appeared in my garden caused either by wind or birds. Now there are dozens of borage plants, both amongst the vegetable and in the flower garden. Most of these have been consigned to the compost heap, but some of my friends have taken some.
    Nice to know I can make a cup of tea from the.

    • Anni April 8, 2014 at 3:04 pm #

      :) However they got there in the first place… at least you can make them useful!

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