Growing Borage: The (Rock) Star Flower of the Garden
Feb 20, 2018
Our customers get pretty excited about plants with multiple purposes, and we get excited when we can recommend our favorites.
Borage is definitely one of them.
This easy-to-grow annual is a show-stopper as an ornamental, and a fantastic companion plant for several vegetables and most herbs. It boasts many medicinal uses, and both the leaves and flowers have long been relied upon in the kitchen.
Borago officinalis, also known as bee bread, starflower, and bee bush, will draw honey bees and other pollinators to your garden, and more than a few human admirers as well.
History of Borage
Borage is native to the Mediterranean region, but its cultivation quickly spread throughout Europe. Early naturalists Pliny the Elder and Dioscorides extolled the healing benefits of borage, crediting it with "gladdening the mind" and giving soldiers courage.
In contemporary European cultures, where herbal remedies have gained wider acceptance among the mainstream than it has here in the New World, the herb is commonly relied upon for its medicinal uses.
An Ornamental Beauty
Borage grows 18-36" tall and up to two feet wide. Hair-covered stems and leaves give the plant a frosty appearance, and star-shaped flowers grow in clusters from nodding buds. Borage blooms are usually a cornflower blue, often with a lavender tinge, but some varieties boast snow-white flowers.
Borage buds and the stems connecting them to the stalks are purple to magenta, lending a wonderful color combination to the floral clusters.
When you plant borage, you're in for a long season of spectacular blooms, as plants will produce flowers from spring up until the first fall frost.
Medium-green borage leaves are arrow-shaped, larger at the base and up to five inches long. Younger leaves are soft to the touch, and larger, more mature leaves can be a bit spiny, so it's a good idea to wear light gloves when trimming leaves or pulling plants.
Where Does Borage Grow?
Full sun to part shade: Borage is a fast-growing annual and can grow anywhere it gets ample sunlight: No need to worry about USDA zones when you're planting these herbs!
It can handle partial shade, but this plant tends to get leggy where it needs to "reach" for the sun. This might cause the tender, succulent stems tend to topple, and the lower part of the plant to look a bit ragged, so pick a spot that gets optimal sunlight. Borage blooms best in full sun since its energy isn't being exhausted on stem growth.
All soil types: Borage does best in medium to rich, well-drained soil. Since it's self-seeding, gardeners have found it thriving in the poorest spots in the garden.
Borage seeds, which are dark brown to black and about the size of a grain of white rice, are easy for young kids and those with older eyes to plant.
When to plant: Borage germinates when daytime temperatures reach 70°F. Many gardeners prefer to plant borage seed into the soil or scatter them before they mulch their gardens in the fall. Most gardening guides recommend planting seeds two to four weeks before the last frost. In these cases, the seeds will "do their own thing" when the soil warms.
If you get a late start with your borage, you can plant them at least 80 days prior to the last frost.
Direct seed: Borage has a deep taproot and while it grows well in large containers, it doesn't transplant well. Plant borage seeds 1/4" under the soil. as they need complete darkness to germinate.
If you do plant after the last frost, keep the soil moist but not wet until germination, usually between 5-15 days.
Your goal is to space your borage plants 12" to 24" apart, with two to four feet between rows. Crowding borage will encourage legginess.
Hardy, reseeding annual: Borage plants will reseed themselves as they mature, but in spite of their deep taproot, even mature plants are easily pulled out. Gardeners who love to use borage leaves in the kitchen will often harvest "strays", leaving other plants to grow to maturity for the enjoyment of its copious blooms later on.
Watering: Once established, borage plants do best if their soil is allowed to dry out in between irrigation.
Pests and Diseases
Mildew: Borage is susceptible to powdery mildew and downy mildew, both caused by too much moisture. Prevent mildew by providing plenty of air circulation around your borage plants and thinning out seedlings to prevent overcrowding. Don't overwater, and avoid wetting the leaves.
Insects: Japanese beetles, aphids, springtails and flea beetles enjoy the juices from these succulent plants and can spread plant diseases. Use pesticides as appropriate, and don't overwater or overcrowd plants. Healthy borage can withstand pest pressure.
Slugs: These slimy critters love all tender leafy plants, so be sure to set out slug traps (bowls filled with beer, in which slugs will drown; diatomaceous earth, cornmeal in a container set on its side) or pick them off plants at night.
Borage releases valuable nutrients into the soil that boosts neighboring plants. Borage grows well with tomatoes, squash, cabbage and most other herbs, and even enhances the flavor of strawberries. Borage is known to repel cabbage worms and attract small wasps and other beneficial insects that prey on harmful pests.
Harvesting and Using Borage
Borage plants will hang on until the first hard frost, after which they'll wilt and turn brown after a long season during which the leaves and flowers can be harvested as needed for culinary or medicinal use.
Whether they're actively growing or past their prime, borage is worth its weight in gold. It's high in vitamin C, iron, potassium, B vitamins and calcium, making this plant a popular supplement, especially for women at risk of bone loss or uterine cramping and hormonal issues.
Compost booster: If you pull unwanted borage plants during the growing season, or clean up frost-killed plants, add them to your compost pile. Borage works much like comfrey, adding phosphorous and zinc and plenty of organic material.
Seeds: Those who are interested in learning to save seeds will love borage. Dried seeds are easily picked out of pods left behind by spent blooms. Store them in a cool, dark place until next season, or give them to the friends and neighbors who've admired your garden all season long.
One of our customers began to get annoyed at a neighbor who would spend hours at the edge of her front yard photographing the bees and other beneficial pollinators that visited the showy blooms. "One day I went out there and gave him an envelope of seeds, hoping he'd take the hint and grow his own borage patch."
Oil made from borage seed is very high in gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), known as an anti-inflammatory. Borage oil has a long history as a treatment for the following:
- Skin disorders
- PMS and menopause symptoms
- Adrenal imbalances
- Respiratory issues
- Colds and fevers
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Rheumatoid arthritis
Borage should not be used by pregnant or nursing women. As with all herbs, one should consult with their physician before using borage on an ongoing basis for medicinal purposes.
Leaves: Borage leaves lose their mild cucumber scent and flavor when dried, so it's best to use them fresh. The fuzzy spines on leaves are stiffer on larger, more mature leaves, so most chefs select smaller leaves to garnish salads or beverages. Even the larger leaves, when washed and lightly sauteed in butter, lose their "prickliness" and make a nutritious vegetable side dish or addition to stews and soups.
Finely minced borage leaves can replace mint in jellies, used in vodka infusions or steeped in teas.
Poultices made from crushed borage flowers are used to treat skin disorders, and teas made from a mixture of an ounce of crushed leaves to a pint of hot water are the basic ingredient for internal medicinal use.
Flowers: Borage flowers taste like mildly spicy cucumber. Freeze borage flowers in ice cubes for a delicious boost to cold beverages, or use them as decorations on cakes, or garnishes for salads.
Candy borage leaves by painting them with egg whites and dusting them with baker's (fondant) sugar, setting them on wax paper and allowing them to dry in a warm oven.
Borage flowers are traditionally treasured for their relaxing, refreshing qualities. Put up your feet and relax on your porch with a tall glass of iced borage tea, and watch the bees busy themselves in your garden.
Honey plant: Beekeepers love to plant borage within the flight range of their honey bees. Borage helps bees produce delicious, hive-sustaining honey throughout the spring and summer, and ongoing blooms provide nutrition in between main nectar flows.
Honey harvested from hives kept near borage is a sought-after delight, adding the same light cucumber freshness to wildflower honey blends.
Be The First On Your Block
Whether or not you know a gardener with borage seeds to share, you can always get fresh seeds from disease-resistant, quality parent plants from Seed Needs. We maintain a high turnover of stock sourced from GMO producers to give our customers the best shot at a successful season.
Do you have a favorite recipe using borage leaves or seeds? We'd love to hear from you! In the meantime, be sure to bookmark our blog, as we're constantly adding growing tips and culinary inspiration for your next garden.
BORAGE HERB SEEDS (BORAGO OFFICINALIS)
Single Packet of 100 Seeds