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Gardening 101: Borage

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Gardening 101: Borage

March 29, 2018

Borage, Borago officinalis: “Bees’ Delight”

If you ask a bee what its favorite flower is—granted, if it could talk—the bee would likely reply “borage.” Now, if you asked a bunch of kindergartners what plant frightens them the most in the school garden they will likely answer the same as the bee. How is this possible?

Well, bees adore the blue blooms on the annual herb and kids are alarmed at how many bees swarm the blossoms. However, after I teach the students the importance of bees (and their current struggle), then instantly borage is their new garden BFF.

Please keep reading to learn how to make borage your friend.

Photograph by Kier Holmes.
Above: Photograph by Kier Holmes.

To be honest, borage is definitely not as common—or popular—as other better-loved herbs including basil, rosemary, and thyme, but that doesn’t negate the fact that it can hold an important role in the garden today as it did in the past.

Native to Mediterranean climates, borage was used long ago in the war as a courage and bravery enhancer. The plant was also traditionally used to treat an assortment of ailments and infections, from kidney issues to jaundice. Even our great-grandmothers preserved the flowers and candied them for cakes. Today, it’s the plant’s seeds that are used for medicinal purposes. (You can buy the oil from health stores). But beware: While some speak of using the cucumber-flavored leaves for tea, there is discussion that large quantities could pose health concerns.

Borage and calendula mingle happily. Photograph by Sylvia Linsteadt.
Above: Borage and calendula mingle happily. Photograph by Sylvia Linsteadt.

In the garden, borage is a three-foot-tall by two-foot-wide, fuss-free, fast-growing annual that will quickly colonize free spaces because of its proficient self-seeding abilities. While this may sound bullish, young plants can easily be removed but after you see how happy the bees are you may have a change of heart. Also, the bright starry-shaped bright blue flowers add a charming meadow embellishment to a garden space. If you find that borage is too prolific, be sure to remove the flowers before they go to seed and self-sow. Tip: After you plant borage in your garden, you will never have to plant it again. This is a garden friend that will pop up next year in unexpected but charming spots.

 B. officinalis var. &#8
Above: B. officinalis var. ‘Alba’ has delicate white flowers. See more at Bayntun Flowers: Florist Polly Nicholson’s Walled Garden in Wiltshire. Photograph by Britt Willoughby Dyer.

Cheat Sheet

  • Borage is a great source of nectar so it is a must for pollinator, herb, or vegetable gardens as it attracts a bounty of bees and butterflies.
  • Plant borage as a companion to strawberries and tomatoes to increase fruit yield (thanks again, bees).
  • The intense, true blue flowers can be picked and tossed into salads or frozen in ice cubes and added to drinks.
  • Borage is great at warding off cabbage moths and tomato hornworms.
Photograph by OliBac via Flickr.
Above: Photograph by OliBac via Flickr.

Keep It Alive

  • The oval leaves are hairy and a bit prickly, so be sure to wear gloves when pruning wayward stems or pulling out exhausted plants. And while this plant can have a tendency to look a bit awkward and off-kilter, it takes well to pruning.
  • Borage will cheerfully pop up in the spring in unexpected garden places but you can easily spot the flat oval leaves and then decide if you want to remove it.
  • To get your collection started, purchase borage seeds and after the last frost date either plant directly in the soil or freely scatter. Thin to at least one foot across when the plants are five inches tall.
  • Plant in full or part sun with well-draining soil.

Ready to design and plant a spring herb garden? See more growing and design tips at Borage: A Field Guide and  Everything You Need to Know About Herb Gardens and more posts:

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