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Spotlight on Borage

Updated: Jul 18, 2023

A Super Plant, in more ways than one.

Close up of borage plant

Borage is native to the Mediterranean and to North Africa, but has spread and naturalized in many other areas. It can be found throughout Europe and North America. Along with Comfrey it is a member of the forget-me-not family Boraginaceae.

View of masses of borage plants against background

It grows easily in the UK but is not often found growing wild. If you sow it in your garden you should find it comes back year after year. It’s a very low maintenance plant and fairly pest- and disease-resistant. It has a cottage-garden character, and is visually attractive with its striking blue star-shaped flowers.

A handful of borage flowers on white background

There was a trend a while ago to rename it as “Starflower” – for obvious reasons - but most people still know it as borage.

As we know, bees depend on flowers for their survival. There are two main components here: nectar and pollen. Sugars in nectar provide carbohydrate energy for bees' flight and all their busyness, whereas pollen is their primary source of proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals for building muscular, glandular and skeletal tissues. Not all flowering plants produce nectar. If a plant can have its pollen transported via the wind then it doesn’t have to rely on insects for pollination. And it's not only bees who need pollen. Many other creatures including some ladybirds, various beetles, flies, some spiders, and even some fungi feed on pollen.

Bee approaching borage flower

Why every garden needs borage!

Borage flowers are particularly attractive to bees. According to Gardener’s World, after a bee has visited a flower, the flower refills with nectar within two minutes. I remember reading somewhere that the borage flower is pretty much the fastest flower to refill with pollen too, completing this task in about twenty minutes - as opposed to two hours, which is common for other plants. This ready supply of both pollen and nectar, along with its long flowering season, makes borage one of the best pollinator-friendly plants. Not only is borage a super-food for bees and other creepy-crawlies, it is great for the garden too. It is very efficient at drawing up and storing nutrients (such as potassium). Just like comfrey, a mulch of borage enriches the soil, adding trace minerals. So borage is great for the compost heap or for making liquid manure.

bottle of borage oil

These days Borage’s main medicinal use is the oil extracted from the seeds. Borage oil can be taken internally as a supplement, or applied externally in skin-care preparations. It is significantly more expensive than oils such as almond or sunflower, so the market is not flooded with borage oil products. If a label promotes its product as ‘containing borage oil’, check the list of ingredients and see how far down the list borage comes. You will rarely find it towards the top, so, once again, don’t be fooled.

Borage seed oil is noted for its high GLA content, of which it is the richest known source. It contains 2-3 times more GLA than its closest rival: Evening primrose oil. Gamma-Linolenic Acid is Omega-6. It is anti-inflammatory and for this reason benefits conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease and - topically - eczema. Eczema and dermatitis don’t seem to benefit from oral supplementation with borage oil, but do benefit from topical application. Taken internally, borage oil can help balance hormones and help with PMS or menopausal symptoms and other health problems.

Woman tipping capsules onto hand

So, take capsules to help with systemic health problems, but for skin conditions such as eczema or acne

Woman applying cream onto hand with eczema

apply products containing borage oil, such as New Leaf Expresso (so named because it brings express relief to itchy uncomfortable eruptions) or SpotTea.

The Omegas are well known to benefit brain function and can play an important role in supporting people with ADHD etc. As well as its high Omega 6 content, borage oil also contains omegas 3, 7, 9 and various other fatty acid compounds. There are on-going studies and research into the benefits of borage oil. One study found that it helps lower bad cholesterol. Another study states: "Recently, interest in borage has been renewed because its seeds are considered as one of the best sources of GLA. This unusual fatty acid is an intermediate of indispensable compounds in the body such as prostaglandin E1 and its derivatives. Borage seed oil has been promoted as an effective treatment for different pathologies, such as acute respiratory distress syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, atopic dermatitis, diabetic neuropathy and menopause-related symptoms. It has also been shown to decrease inflammation, improve bone health, and exhibit beneficial effects on the function of the skin and on the regulation of lipid [fat] metabolism."

But enough of all this scientific talk! Borage flowers are very pretty and it’s sad that they have fallen out of fashion over the last century or so. In the past it was common to use the flowers in salads or to decorate cakes and freeze in ice-cubes to prettify drinks.

Glass with ice cubes with borage flowers

The flowers have a sweet, honey-like taste. Leaves taste fresh, a bit like cucumber. As mentioned, the leaves are a rich source of minerals. Young leaves can be used in salads, but older leaves become quite hairy and are better added to soups or stews. For a useful list of ideas and recipes click here.

So, all in all, borage is an amazing gift. It can help our bodies and delight our taste buds, as well as keep the bees and the garden happy. Including parts of the borage plant in your culinary practice will not only add a nice flavour to dishes but will also contribute to your good health, apparently not just physical…

John Gerard’s Herball, first published in 1597, says of Borage:

"Those of our time do use the flowers in salads to exhilarate 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 flowers of Borage put into wine make men and women glad and merry and drive away all sadness, dullness and melancholy, as Dioscorides and Pliny affirm. Syrup made of the flowers of Borage comfort the heart, purge melancholy and quiet the frantic and lunatic person. The leaves eaten raw engender good blood, especially in those that have been lately sick."

Cheerful man

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We have had borage in several gardens in the past, and hoping for an appearance this year too, from a wildflower mix. I love the name starflower - suits it so much better than rhyming with porridge🤣. Great info, which will make sure we don't waste any.

Regards Bren

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