Borage - an ancient herb with modern applications

 Image by virginie 1 from Pixbay Image by virginie 1 from PixbayBees adore borage to such an extent that it’s often called “bee bread” and humans grow it for its refreshing, slightly salty, cucumber flavour, and its unforgettable vivid-blue flowers. Borage is also an invaluable companion plant and “green manure” for organically grown vegetable and fruit crops. Read more on growing and using this miracle herb below.

I hope you enjoy this excerpt from my newest e-book “Growing Culinary Herbs in South Africa”

While borage is not as common as thyme or basil in kitchen gardens today, it is a unique plant for the culinary garden, with a refreshing, slightly salty, cucumber flavour. Its vivid-blue flowers are unforgettable, and many of us may remember our great grandmothers candying the flowers to preserve them for decorating cakes; or dipping the fresh young leaves into batter before deep frying them until crisp, golden brown and delicious!

Borage is a hardy warm season annual herb which originates in the Mediterranean region, and has been knows since at least Roman times. Its name is thought to have derived from a Celtic word barrach, meaning “a man of courage.” Traditionally borage was cultivated for culinary and medicinal uses, and has been used as a potherb since The Middle Ages. Historically it was said to dispel sadness and melancholy, and was drunk with wine as the “herb of gladness.”

Borage is easily recognized by its bristly, grey-green leaves and star-shaped blooms, which are usually intense blue. However, less common varieties with white or pale blue blooms are also available. Borage varies in height and spread, growing 60 to 90cm tall with an equal or greater spread.

Bees adore Borage  Image by jggrz from PixabayBees adore Borage Image by jggrz from PixabayUses in the Garden & Companion Planting:

Borage is not only a truly beautiful herb with its large hairy leaves and unusual star-shaped flowers, but also a wonderful companion plant for organically grown vegetable and fruit crops. Borage helps to repel tomato and cabbage worms by attracting beneficial insects such as bees and tiny wasps. It also has a reputation for improving the flavour and growth of strawberries, and grows well with tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, and squash.

In the garden, you can use its nutrient rich leaves as mulch, or in the compost bin. Borage is also planted by organic gardeners as a “green manure.” Green manure crops are grown in beds which are not being cultivated for a season for the sole purpose of digging them back into the soil as a living soil enricher. This practice is considered a season of giving back to the earth, and results in deeply aerated beds which are healthy, rich in nutrients, and ready for the following seasons crops.

The green crop is allowed to completely break down before planting again. Borage, with its deep tap roots, returns high nitrogen, as well as potassium and calcium to the soil. Green crops are usually tilled back into the soil before they flower, but if you are tempted to allow borage to flower, that’s not a problem, but remember it can reseed itself prolifically in the garden.

Bees adore borage to such an extent that it’s often called “bee bread” and its flowers yield an excellent, sweet honey. So, even if you can’t be convinced to bring it into the kitchen, grow some in the garden to attract these endangered pollinators. Borage is also a ‘must have’ for all butterfly gardens.

Borage White Image by Marc Pascual from PixabayBorage White Image by Marc Pascual from PixabayHealth Benefits:

The modern use of borage comes primarily from the use of the seeds to make borage seed oil, which contains the highest natural source of Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA) so far discovered. GLA is a naturally occurring fatty acid, essential for human health. Many herbalists today still consider borage a good tonic for treating stress related problems because it is extremely rich in potassium, magnesium, calcium and mineral salts. An herbal tea made from the flowers and leaves is a wonderful tonic for treating convalescing patients.

In the Kitchen:

Borage leaves have a salty taste and a mild cucumber aroma and flavour, and if finely chopped, can be added to soups and stews just before they are done, simply for their health giving properties.

Today the beautiful blue flowers of borage are still used to decorate cakes and desserts; and are an unusual garnish for fruit salads, as well as green salads. The fresh young leaves are delicious if dipped into a batter and deep fried until crisp and golden brown.

When steeped in water, borage leaves impart coolness to it with their faint cucumber flavour - add lemon and other fresh fruit, along with a sweetener to make a refreshing and restorative summer drink. Try freezing the flowers in ice-cubes to delight your guest next time you serve them cocktails and punches.

Borage Pink. Image by manfred Antranias Zimmer from PixabayBorage Pink. Image by manfred Antranias Zimmer from PixabayCultivation

Borage is great to have around, and so easy to grow from seeds sown directly into garden beds, but remember, borage grows quite large so do not plant it where it will overpower smaller crops. If you don’t have space in your garden, or if you’re concerned about the plant’s rambunctious growth habit, consider growing borage in large containers.

Borage is a warm season, annual herb which thrives in hot dry gardens with poor soil, but adapts to most garden soils which drain well, including clay and loam. In very poor soils it will respond well to some added compost.

You can start by sowing seeds or purchasing a small plant from your garden centre, although plants may be hard to find. Seed germinates and grows quickly and easily if sown directly outdoors in spring once the soil has warmed up and all danger of frost is over. Seed can be started early indoors, but because borage has a long taproot, it is sometimes difficult to transplant. In garden beds, cover the seeds with soil and keep the beds moist until germination occurs.

Borage varies in height and spread, growing 60 to 90cm tall with an equal or greater spread, so the seedlings should be thinned accordingly, as overcrowding prevents healthy growth.

Although borage will grow in full sun or light shade, in too much shade, and in very fertile soil combined with too much water, the plant can become lanky and top heavy, so do not overwater or over fertilise this herb. Water moderately during long, hot and dry summer spells, letting the soil totally dry out between watering, but not allowing the plants to wilt.

Other than keeping the beds free of weeds and tidying up the plants occasionally, borage should require no further attention or feeding during the growing season.

If borage is allowed to seed itself it will do so freely, growing in large clumps; and you should always have it popping up somewhere in spring.

Borage grows easily in fairly large containers, but the taproot is long and it needs a sturdy container with a depth and width of at least 30cm. A commercial potting soil is fine, as long as it drains well.
Water as for plants growing in the garden, but remember, potted plants require more watering than those growing in the soil.

If the potting soil is good, the plant should require no further feeding, but a supplemental feeding with a water-soluble fertiliser at half the recommended dosage, will do no harm. Avoid overfeeding, as this promotes lush foliage but few blooms.

If it looks overgrown in mid-summer, trim your potted plant and deadhead blooms as soon as they wilt, or the plant will go to seed. Potted borage may also need stakes to keep it upright.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

Borage is pest resistant, but keep an eye out for slugs and aphids. Control aphids with an insecticidal soap or a blast of water from a hose pipe.

A white powdery looking substance on the leaves indicates powdery mildew, which is especially prevalent during warm, wet weather. This can be treated with an organic fungicide.


 Although no side effects have been reported, borage leaves, flowers, and seeds contain small amounts of pyrrolizidine alkaloids that may be hepatotoxic (damaging to the liver) especially if high doses are used for long periods of time.

Borage may also affect lactation in nursing women, so it’s best not to use it when breastfeeding.

The leaves also contain a small amount of silica which may irritate the skin of sensitive individuals, so handle with care.

Always consult with a health practitioner before starting a home treatment programme.