Borage is one of the most popular plants for bees to visit and pollinate. Photo by Gennaro Leonardi Photography.
Borage (Borago officinalis) seems like nothing more than a pretty little flower to keep in your garden, but a true gardener knows the powerful benefits that this plant can pack. Borage provides nutrients for the garden, works wonderfully at attracting beneficial insects, and deters troublesome visitors. Additionally, it can be eaten or used for medicinal purposes.
Borage is an annual that you can sow directly in late spring or start earlier indoors before planting it out in your garden. If you wish to have borage in a certain location in your garden, it’s best to start it indoors and then transplant; borage tends to spread far and wide, so transplanting it later on gives you more control over its core location. It’s a resilient plant and can withstand extended wet or dry periods, but its mature size — 3 feet high and 2 feet wide — makes it susceptible to being blown over by the wind, so take that into account when planning its future location. Borage prefers anything from full sun to part shade, and has no special soil needs.
Although an annual, borage will readily reseed itself. Each year, I have a handful of seedlings that pop up throughout my gardens. I tend to leave only a few to grow where they wish, so long as they’re not in an inconvenient location; the others, I pull and add to the compost pile. Because it reseeds proficiently, you may find you only need to introduce borage to your garden once.
Be prepared for a big harvest; borage plants spread far and wide when planted outdoors. Photo by Getty Images/PicturePartners.
It’s hard to believe that such a simple plant can have so many uses and benefits, but borage truly is the plant that keeps giving. I look forward to this beauty popping up in my garden every season, and I can hardly wait to reap its rich rewards.
Borage has many uses in your kitchen: use the flowers to steep a summertime tea. Photo by Adobe Stock/Cora Müller.
Nourishing Flowers and Leaves
The leaves and flowers both have a light cucumber flavor, making them the perfect ingredient when you’re looking to add a splash of freshness to your recipes. The flowers are delicious eaten raw in salads, frozen into ice cubes, and candied as decorations for cakes. Borage flowers continuously all summer long, so you’ll always have a fresh supply in waiting just outside your home. You can crush and steep the fresh leaves to make a refreshing summertime tea; I love adding honey and lemon to mine. Like the flowers, raw borage leaves can be added to salads. I recommend eating the leaves young, before they develop their signature fuzzy texture.
Try freezing borage flowers in ice cubes, and then add the cubes to water for a refreshing cucumber flavor. Photo by Adobe Stock/emberiza.
Healing Seeds and Flowers
Traditionally, herbalists looked to borage tea as a multipurpose tonic that could reportedly speed healing, reduce stress, relieve fevers, promote lactation, soothe digestive issues, and ease throat and chest infections. Today, fresh borage leaves and blossoms are found in topical herbal medicines, because of the presence of high levels of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), which is effective in treating common skin irritations, such as psoriasis, that result from a lack of essential fatty acids. The oil extracted from borage seeds is one of the richest natural sources of GLA, and ingesting it daily can significantly improve skin conditions. You can use chopped fresh leaves to make a poultice for skin irritations, or, for sore throats, create an infusion and gargle it.
High levels of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), which is effective in treating common skin irritations, makes borage a strong medicinal aid. Photo by Adobe Stock/Shannon.
Mining Garden Nutrients
A member of the Boraginaceae family and close relative of comfrey, borage has a deep taproot to mine nutrients that are too deep in the ground for other plants to reach. It pulls these nutrients into its leaves, where they continue to accumulate until the plant dies. As it decomposes, the nutrients are released back into the top layers of the soil, making them accessible to surrounding plants.
Borage is utilized all over the world; these borage petals are for sale in the Grand Bazaar in Tehran, Iran, where they’re used to brew a traditional healing tea known as “damnoosh.” Photo by Adobe Stock/Fotokon.
Borage also produces a vast amount of aboveground biomass that accumulates nutrients, making the plant a valuable compost ingredient. It’ll also make for more potent compost tea. You can even treat borage as a green manure if you’d prefer to skip the compost pile; just allow it to grow (which will naturally aerate the soil), and then till the plant into the soil to slowly release the stored nutrients.
Attracting Beneficial Bugs
Borage blossoms protrude above its large leaves, making them easy for pollinators to spot and access. The blue, star-shaped flowers continue blooming throughout the summer, providing a continuous source of nectar for pollinators. Bees in particular visit borage often, because they find the blue hue particularly attractive. In fact, bees enjoy borage so much that it’s been nicknamed the “bee plant,” and is frequently found in gardens particularly planned for pollinators. Because borage can grow up to 3 feet in height, its tempting blue blossoms dangle above its companions, luring pollinators for a first taste before they find its neighbors.
Borage boasts some exceptionally fuzzy flowers and leaves, but this turns out to be one of its greatest advantages. The fuzzy coating on the large, oval-shaped leaves makes them an excellent location for predatory insects to hide and wait for prey. Lacewings will lay eggs on the fuzzy leaves, where they’ll be protected from predators. In contrast, what we consider to be pesky insects or animals tend to be repelled by borage because of the excessive fuzz. Garden grazers, such as deer, don’t appreciate the overly fuzzy flowers, and will typically steer clear of gardens with borage.
Borage's fuzzy flowers and leaves help deter pests from your garden. Photo by Adobe Stock/PiLensPhoto.
Perhaps it’s time to discover this hidden garden gem, and take full advantage of all it has to offer. When you’re planning your garden this season, save a spot for a borage plant; attract helpful pollinators, deter pests, and pull nutrients into your top soil. If that’s not enough, expand your culinary limits by adding the tasty flowers to summer salads and herbal teas.
Borage Basil Syrup
This flower syrup is thin and easy to pour, making it perfect for use as a finishing syrup over pancakes, waffles, or ice cream. Yield: 2 cups.
- 2 to 3 cups fresh or dried borage
- 2 cups boiling water
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup basil leaves
- Place borage in a medium bowl and pour boiling water over it. Let stand for at least 2 hours and up to 24 hours.
- In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring flower water, sugar, and basil leaves to a simmer. Cook for 4 minutes.
- Remove from heat and pour through a fine mesh strainer into a glass container, then discard solids. Refrigerate for up to 1 month.
Photo by Miana Jun.
Blackberry Borage Fool
A fool is a simple, old-fashioned English dessert made with fruit folded into whipped cream. It’s so light you could fool yourself into thinking it has no calories at all, and the layers of flavors are complex enough that it’s satisfying without being filling. A British accent is optional. Yield: 4 servings.
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1/3 cup borage flowers, plus extra for garnish
- 4 cups fresh blackberries, divided
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
- 1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger (from about 1/2; inch fresh ginger root)
- 1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar
- Mix heavy cream and borage flowers in a covered container and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 24 hours. In a bowl, combine 2 cups of blackberries with lime juice and ginger, and let them infuse while cream mixture chills.
- Mash blackberry mixture by hand or in a food processor.
- Strain borage-infused cream through a fine-mesh strainer and discard solids. Combine with confectioners’ sugar in a mixer, and whip on medium-high speed for 5 minutes, or until cream is soft and billowy, but firm. Reserve a small amount for garnish, if desired.
- Gently fold blackberry mash into borage cream. Divide remaining 2 cups of blackberries between four tall cups or parfait glasses and top with borage-blackberry cream. Garnish with reserved borage cream, if desired, and borage flowers.
Recipes reprinted with permission from Cooking with Flowers by Miche Bacher, published by Quirk Books, 2013.