“This is so well known to be the inhabitant of every garden that I think it is needless to describe it,” wrote Nicholas Culpeper in Culpeper’s Complete Herbal.
He wrote about it in his book, first published more than 350 years ago. But, although he felt no need to describe the plant, he did expound on its uses. “The leaves or roots are to very good purpose used in putrid and pestilential fevers, to defend the heart, and help to resist and expel the poison or the venom of other creatures: the seed is of like effect.” Nor is that all. Culpeper continues by describing the benefits to be had from the leaves, the flowers and the seed of this plant, even recommending a use for the ashes of the dried plant which, “boiled in mead, or honey-water, are available against inflammations and ulcers in the mouth and throat, to wash and gargle it therewith.”
A present-day writer, Deni Brown, writing in “Herbal – the essential guide to herbs for living”, describes the plant as, “A soothing, cooling herb with diuretic effects, borage may help in the form of fresh juice or an infusion for feverish respiratory infections, kidney problems, rheumatic and skin complaints.” However, “It is seldom used by herbalists today.”
Deni, who is also the authoress of “4 Gardens in One : The Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh” goes on to explain that the oil extracted from the seeds of borage is a rich source of gamma-linolenic acid which, although it sounds like a fairly nasty condition, is actually “an essential fatty acid that underpins the body’s hormonal systems and is often deficient in modern diets.” She recommends something which Culpeper would have known nothing of, saying that the leaves form an essential garnish to Pimm’s No. 1, the summer drink of choice of what would once have been termed ‘the upper classes.’
And if I delve further into my library, I find, in “The Illustrated Book of Herbs” … and what a wonderfully old-fashioned title that is … that, “Young fresh borage leaves have a high concentration of vitamin C and are a tasty addition to salads. The fresh flowers can be candied and used for decoration.” Moreover … and this takes us back in the direction of the drinks cabinet … “They (the fresh flowers) also make an attractive addition to a wine and fruit cup.”
But although our ancestors were, apparently, very well acquainted with this plant, we may benefit from a description. Again, borrowing words from “The Illustrated Book of Herbs,” we find that borage is “an annual herb with a tap root and a branched stem bearing many alternate, pointed ovate and sessile leaves with undulate margins” and “the bright-blue, star-shaped flowers are clustered in loose, terminal, monochasial cymes.” I think I understand why Nicholas chose not to describe it! Perhaps the description in Peter McHoy and Pamela Westland’s book, “The Herb Bible,” is more readily understandable. “Borage has bright blue, star-like flowers, each with a cone of prominent black anthers, often described as a ‘beauty spot’. The stems, leaves and flower buds are all covered with silvery hairs which catch the light and give the whole plant a rough feel.” Add the facts that the plant grows to a height of about 60 cm - say, two feet in old money; grows in rough ground in the wild to which it has transferred as a garden escapee; and can be grown very happily among ornamental herbaceous plants in a town garden; and that gives a pretty fair picture of it.
And, since we started in the past, let’s finish there also. Another famous sixteenth century herbalist, John Gerard, said of borage: “Those of our time do use the floures in salads to exhilerate and make the minde glad.” (16th century spellings) Ver-r-ry interesting!
Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society