Borage, an herb famous for its bright blue flowers and cucumber-scented leaves, adds beauty to gardens and boasts a long tradition as a companion plant to strawberries and tomatoes. Technically an annual, Borago officinalis self-seeds freely, so the herbs tend to reappear every year on their own. Borage flowers, leaves and seeds possess culinary, cosmetic and medicinal uses as well as the obvious ornamental qualities they bring to the landscape.
Set borage seedlings 12 to 15 inches apart, or plant the seeds directly in the ground after the last frost date. Grow the herbs in sunny sites with light, well-tilled soil. Depending on the variety, borage grows between 12 inches to 30 inches tall.
Companion Plant Uses
Strawberry growers often plant borage near strawberries to increase yield, perhaps because the flowers attract pollinating bees. The plants also emit a scent that repels tomato hornworms.
In "The Green Witch Herbal," Barbara Griggs suggests using fresh borage flowers to aid dry skin. Use them in facial steams or add chopped petals to egg yolks for an herbal face mask. Add to oatmeal or barley baths for chapped, irritated skin. The seeds, which contain gamma-linoleic acid, are pressed for borage seed oil, prized by massage therapists and soap makers.
Borage turns up in literature and legends going back thousands of years. Homer's nepenthe--a special wine used for forgetfulness--relied on the borage flower, according to the ancient scholars Pliny and Dioscorides. The petal color was copied by medieval painters to achieve the perfect hue for the Virgin Mary's robes, and the flowers appeared in the tapestries and banners from the same period, notes herbalist Lesley Bremness. She says the Crusaders drank borage-infused drinks before setting out on their missions.
Nicholas Culpepper, the 17th century physician, recommended using only the fresh flowers--with the exception of ashes of the burned plant, which he recommended boiling in mead or honey water for cold sores and sore throat. Poultices of the fresh leaves were used to treat wounds and bruises, a practice herbalists like Bremness still recommend.
Add young leaves, which taste and smell strongly of cucumber, to classic cocktails such as Pimm's cup or claret cup. They also work well in green salads and with plain yogurt and cucumber. Cooked leaves substitute for spinach. The fresh flowers make pretty, edible garnishes for green or fruit salads; crystallized petals decorate old-fashioned desserts.
Because borage contains potash, it emits sparks and mild booming sounds when burned.
Borage's name likely comes from the Celtic word for courage, borrach. The herb's long association with cheerfulness and noble emotion may be based in science. Bremness notes that medical research shows borage affects the adrenal gland, which seems to influence feelings of bravery and courage.