Borage (Borago officinalis)

borage plant with purple flowers

Overview

Commonly known as: Borage, Starflower, Bee bread
Annual: easy to start from seed
Light: 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.


white-borage-01

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.

borage flowersCultivation

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.

borage seedlingBorage 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.

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.

Borage seeds

Borage seeds

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.

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.

blue borage flowerBorage 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.

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.

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.

Or try these recipes from other bloggers: Lemon Balm and Borage Sparkling Water, and Borage Fizz (we do it without the alcohol) :)

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.

pink borage flowerBorage 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 in normal quantities, but it is always good to be moderate in your consumption. In large amounts, borage may have a diuretic effect.

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

34 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 am #

      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, 2014 at 9:01 am #

      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 am #

    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 8:28 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 am #

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

  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.

    • Catherine August 14, 2014 at 6:03 pm #

      Hi Mike,
      I take Magnesium for my muscle issues, clears up my charlie horses(ouch!!) I am switching to magnesium oil, and will supplement too. Hope this helps.(I also take Omega 3 and 6)
      Cathy

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

    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!

  9. kathy June 18, 2014 at 12:15 pm #

    I live in Eastern Washington and my borage flowers mid June…I have an organic farm and LOTS of bees! I plant a ton of wildflowers and other attractants like lavender , bee balm, and clover…but mostly I am very judicious in my use of organic pesticides.

    • Anni June 18, 2014 at 5:24 pm #

      It sounds amazing. I would love to visit your farm. I’ve always loved wildflowers.

  10. M. Thal June 19, 2014 at 4:59 pm #

    Borage….wonderful. I’ve grown it for three years. I have not had any reseeding, but that’s because I’ve gone from a flat garden to raised beds. Also we are in the midst of a 3-year drought and everything has changed here in northern CA. It attracts all kinds of bees when in flower, lovely. I put the flowers in salads. Haven’t made tea yet, but mine is done for this season already and I’ve cut it back per instructions. Now, bees. My friend is a bee keeper and it’s the nicotionoids or neo nicks as they are called. Bayer products have them most of the big box stores’ plants are raised with them. They are killing the bees. Only organic material in the garden and the fertilizer too and don’t buy or let your friends,family buy plants from the big box stores. There is lots of info on the net about neo nicks and hive collapse. People are really trying to help by planting windflowers and all the bee friendly plants. Maybe we will beat all this and GMO’s too!

    • Anni June 19, 2014 at 7:37 pm #

      Like!
      I totally agree about the neonicitinoids, and the plight of bees. :/

    • David van Wingerden August 9, 2014 at 6:52 am #

      Lots of misinformation about neonics. Some growers used them outside the labeled legal way, and that is what will kill bees. Most growers use them properly and you will not see dead bees around those plants.it is like using aspirin. If used properly, it is helpful. If you take the full bottle, you will have issues. Most of my plants in my yard have them at a young age, and I have bees, butterflies, hummingbirds etc. Every plant trial I have gone to uses them and those trials are constantly visited by pollinators.
      That said, my borage is great. I planted the volunteers next to my strawberries. Next year I will move the to the tomatoes as suggested above. Thanks for the info about using borage for edibles. It is so prolific but my wife is a little nervous about using it.

  11. Kayla July 20, 2014 at 9:20 am #

    So 1 year later – how is the Bee population?

    I have borage in my community plot – last year I had so many bee’s (spiders were eating them!)

    I haven’t seen a single bee all summer at the garden. Not a single one. I have dozens of bean plants – barely any beans.

    This is a serious crisis!!

    • Debbi August 22, 2014 at 11:48 am #

      This is the first year I have planted Borage. I live in NW Montana. It has done way beyond what I expected. The plant just keeps getting larger! There have been enough bees here this summer. My tomatoes and cucumbers have gone crazy with fruit this summer. I am sure it has helped to have the borage close by.

    • Barbara September 19, 2014 at 4:30 pm #

      sorry to hear about no bees in your garden, i have a big pumpkin patch n i plant sunflowers n yellow daisys to bring them in n i live in cow country n have bee farmers too but i too had 1/2 my crop of pumpkins this yr, n butternut…going to grow lots more flowers in future to bring bees…

  12. suzanne July 27, 2014 at 4:43 am #

    Hi, I have a few plants in my garden, dont know who gave them to me or maybe evenhow they got there? They appear to be borage, with the tough prickly leaves, but each one has only ONE upright cluster of star shaped flowers on a sturdy stem. Eminating from the main flower are many young plants which are runners from the main plant, and the flower itself on the main plant hasnt yet seeded? I just cant figure it out! Maybe its not borage!

    Would love to have someone’s comments.

    • Anni July 28, 2014 at 8:28 pm #

      Borage doesn’t produce runners… Do you have a picture of the plants?

  13. Dorothy July 28, 2014 at 5:21 am #

    As for the bee here in PA we still have the bees and boy do they like this plant. This is the first year growing it and it is so pretty love the star flowers. I used the leaves to make a tea to use on a spider bite I got on my ankle seems to be helping. I also made a paste with it mix it with cornstarch to put on it. So far so good.

  14. Jure Zubak August 14, 2014 at 1:26 pm #

    Plese,

    can you sell me 50-100 kg of Borago seed. I wish to try plant it in Croatia.

    Best regards from Croatia,

    Jure Zubak

  15. Pamela August 23, 2014 at 5:35 am #

    I enjoyed this blog, you don’t find a lot of information about borage . This year I have a large garden and planted a 12′ by 18′ plot of borage towards the center. I have had thousands of bees all summer. Borage is one of those flowers that replenish their nectar every half hour, so it is a very active area of the yard. Even during the rain the bees are busy gathering in my gardens.

  16. Jess August 26, 2014 at 1:03 pm #

    Thank you for the informative post! I grew borage for the first time this year at the end of my berry patch. I had no idea it would grow to be so enormous, and COVERED in flowers! We have taken to calling it the purple monster…but we still love it! When near it, the plant seems to be buzzing, as it is so full of bees! And everything I’ve grown near it has produced generous amounts of fruit. I will certainly welcome borage in my little garden in the future. Now to try to use it in other ways. I have not been brave enough yet to try it the kitchen, or as an herbal remedy, but it seems a waste not to try.

    • Anni August 26, 2014 at 6:25 pm #

      It’s absolutely wonderful in the kitchen. It’s not one of those ‘out there’ medicinal herbs. It really does just taste like cucumber, and it’s little more than a mild green.
      Purple monster. Love that. :)

  17. David October 25, 2014 at 3:06 am #

    I live just outside Warsaw, Poland. Bee population fantastic here, butterflies too. Polish honeys are second only to Greek honey. As our glorious autumn comes to an end I’m gathering the last of the borage (still in flower) for our tortoises and wondering what I can do with it for humans. As my wife (at work) entrusted me with the cooking I’ll sneakily add some to a stew today, stripping out the stringy parts. Might make some tea too. Hope I’ll live to tell the tale.

  18. Green Bean November 12, 2014 at 10:03 pm #

    Love borage – and so do the pollinators in our garden. Here in California it blooms overwinter so it is nice to always have something in bloom.

  19. Diane November 25, 2014 at 3:20 pm #

    I live in New Bedford, MA….and have not seen borage blooming in this area….

    I really love the fact that borage plant tends to attract bees!

    If I were to plant borage seeds, would they flourish in my area; and
    would their re-seeding be successful over our winter?

    Thank you!

    • Anni November 25, 2014 at 6:23 pm #

      It would definitely grow in your area, and I’m pretty sure it would reseed itself if you let it. I grew it in northern Utah and it reseeded itself there, so I would hazard a guess at “yes”. :)

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