By Julie Christensen
Borage (Borago officinalis) is an old-fashioned herb that isn’t grown as often as it once was – which is a shame because this humble plant has so much to offer. Borage makes a lovely plant in the flower bed, herb garden or even the vegetable garden, where its scent repels tomato hornworms and other pests. This annual plant grows 2 to 3 feet tall in the course of one summer and readily reseeds itself. Plant borage once and you’ll probably never need to plant it again.
Borage has attractive green foliage, lovely star-shaped blue flowers and woolly stems. In the garden, it readily attracts bees of all kinds, including European honeybees, bumblebees and native bees. On a warm summer day, the plants hum with activity.
But borage isn’t known for only its ornamental value. Both the leaves and the flowers are edible. The leaves have a mild cucumber taste and can be used in salads, garnishes or thrown in smoothies. The flowers add flavor to lemonades and other drinks, as well as ice cubes and baked goods.
Borage has even been used for centuries as a medicinal herb. Pliny the Elder believed it prevented and cured depression. It has also been used to increase a mother’s milk supply and to relieve symptoms of adrenal failure. Borage is a good source of Omega-6 fatty acids, B vitamins and fiber. If you’ve got a sunny spot in your garden, plant some borage this year.
Borage takes almost no effort to grow. It grows best in full sun, although it tolerates partial shade. It needs an area protected from high winds, which can knock the plant over. Plant the seeds in late spring after the last frost in well-drained, slightly moist soil.
Cover the seeds with a handful or two of compost or soil so they’re buried ¼ to ½ inch deep. Keep the soil evenly moist until the seeds germinate. Once borage starts to grow, it can tolerate drier conditions. Borage needs a lot of room in the garden. Thin the seedlings to 18 inches apart when they stand 3 inches tall. Unless your soil is very poor, borage probably won’t need to be fertilized.
Cut the leaves throughout the growing season to eat and harvest the flowers, as well. If you want the plant to self-sow, leave a few flowers on the stems. Allow the plants to remain standing in the fall to provide shelter for wildlife during the winter. Cut them down in late winter. Chances are, you’ll see new stems emerging in spring.
You can also grow borage in a container on the patio or near the back porch for easy access. Plant it in a pot that holds at least 2 gallons of soil and keep the soil moist. Fertilize container-planted borage once every six weeks with a diluted all-purpose fertilizer.
Problems with Borage Plants
Borage, like most herbs, rarely experiences problems with disease or insect pests. If planted in soggy, poorly-draining soil, it may suffer root and stem rots. You might also notice leaf spots or powdery mildew, especially in humid weather. In general, these problems aren’t serious, although you can treat them with a fungicide if you like. Clean up all fallen leaves in autumn, especially if they’re diseased.
Borage has a strong fragrance and repels most insects that might eat it. It is also deer and rabbit-resistant.
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Julie Christensen learned about gardening on her grandfather’s farm and mother’s vegetable garden in southern Idaho. Today, she lives and gardens on the high plains of Colorado. When she’s not digging in the dirt, Julie writes about food, education, parenting and gardening.