Borage is a useful herb that ended up pigeonholed. Borage is regularly seen as a strawberry companion, sometimes with some herbal uses. There is little better than borage flowers with strawberries, admittedly, but borage goes so much further.
It’s a big plant, at least two feet tall in most cases, and many times upward of three or four. It grows in a generally upright fashion, similar to catnip and mints, with pale blue or lavender to striking deep violet flowers. It needs sun and prefers well-drained soil, but it can make do with 4-6 hours of light or 8 hours of slightly diffused light and thinner, poorer soils. It will take longer to flower in those conditions and will stay smaller, but the latter isn’t always a bad thing. Shade and thin soils can help constrain its desire to spread.
The seed for borage is larger than a lot of balm-type plants, more in the onion and mustard size range as opposed to clover or poppy seed sized. That can make seeds easier to harvest. It also makes it easier to very selectively drop a series of 3 seeds in a low meadow that’s being naturalized with edibles and bee plants, allowing for more specific and efficient rates and coverage when seeding by hand or with a small-scale seed spreader.
Borage as Food
The leaves are reminiscent of a cucumber-celery cross. The tender new growth makes for an excellent salad or sandwich lettuce addition, especially during seasons when cucumbers have turned bitter or simply aren’t available. Older leaves are a little tougher, but can be cut thin or minced and added to salads or stir fry. They are a fabulous addition to pesto or minced for a gyro.
The flowers are sweet enough to really accent any fruit or be used to decorate desserts. They also brighten up waffles, French toast, and cream cheese pastries. They’re not so sweet as to send out odd notes when used in salad. They really shine in salads with an herbed vinegar, light Italian dressing, apple cider vinegar, or balsamic vinaigrette when used with some of their own leaves, crunchy pale lettuce or chickweed, and earthier tones from spinach or purslane, and some sour tang from a little sorrel or patience dock.
Both the flowers and the leaves can both be made into jelly. Neither is a “peanut butter” jelly, but a flower-only borage or a borage and apple core jelly is just fine on a bagel or crackers for sweetness. The cucumber-hints from the leaves lends itself more as a light element for savory cream cheese and crackers or a chartreuse board, and as a glaze for fish and poultry.
In times past, borage was used internally to reduce fever, improve circulation, and encourage kidney function. It also works in a poultice externally to reduce swelling, and it can be used in a warm foot bath for the same.
But really, this is about how borage helps other plants while also producing a useable harvest, so let’s step into the garden.
Borage is for the Bees (and Other Bugs)
Borage really shines as a bee plant. Borage makes for sweet, light honey similar to early black locust honey. Planting a narrow stand of borage or mixed tall herbs in between squashes and tomatoes – either between rows or individuals interspersed like marigold, nasturtium or calendula – can help with fruit set due to increased pollination.
Borage can also be used near bramble fruits and in between orchard fruits, where it serves the same function. It also increases flowering time in small orchards, especially, serving as mid-season meals for bees, while providing land cover and pest control properties between the larger perennial fruits.
Borage’s narrow flowers encourage the presence of a tiny yellow-jacket type wasp that is parasitic to stink bugs and other pests, without having to wait for second-year parsley to flower. (Basil and other herbs similar to borage or parsley do the same).
There are anecdotal claims that the high concentration of loud-humming semi-territorial pollinators helps cut down on flying pest insects, which may (or may not) be disturbed by the thrumming and zooming of the larger aerial bugs. Mother Earth News buys into that one, but it’s not in any way scientifically backed and is one of the less-touted benefits of borage.
The flower “crop” from borage and its time period as a pollinator attractant can be improved by going through and clipping them, encouraging the plant to make more.
Borage - Fodder for Livestock and Dirt
Borage can also be used as a cover crop. After it flowers, borage spreads at the base. Its density and height and its fast root growth can hold disturbed earth against weeds and erosion. To limit spread, borage needs some controls, although it’s not as voracious a spreader as some mints or comfrey.
Borage biomass breaks down quickly on the surface once mowed and can be used to improve drainage and water retention in thin, poor soils much as hairy vetch, clover, or buckwheat can. It lacks the nitrogen-building component of legumes, but has similar mass production to comfrey – which is commonly grown as a compost or chop-and-drop mulch plant, poultice herb, and bee attractant. Borage leaves contain calcium and potassium, making it an especially useful chop-and-drop compost for the next season’s tomato beds and planters.
The high biomass yield within a relatively small footprint and adaptability to poorer soils, especially combined with human and livestock food and medicinal values, makes it an excellent choice for smaller cultivated areas and areas where soil is being built or improved little bits at a time. Like oats or rye used for cover, once borage dies back in autumn or winter it forms a protective mat over larger fields, limiting runoff, weeds, soil compaction and soil erosion.
Borage can also be grazed or harvested green for livestock in pens and hutches. Borage is cited as easily digestible even after flowering. This can add to its value as a cover and bee crop in orchards, especially, or as a companion to feed stocks in rotational pastures large or small.
A Handy Umbrella
Borage is also a fabulous neighbor for crops that could use a little shade, or to use as a nurse crop in narrow rows beside and around target crops.
Borage is a relatively fast-growing herb that can tolerate some chill and very quickly gains some height. This can help finishing lettuces and cabbages in summer by keeping any exposed soil shaded – thus reducing water loss – and by breaking the harshest sun in the afternoon. Borage can do the same thing in later seasons as well, when plants need to go out in August or September but it’s a little hotter than the seeds and seedlings would really like. Leaving a line a foot or eighteen inches wide after a stand of borage has matured and been harvested, then planting alongside it, can create a cooler space for fall- and winter-harvested root and leaf veggies.
Providing seeds with a shading companion can also improve germination rates by holding moisture in the soil, even when only enough is exposed for the seeds themselves. Better, more even germination allows for denser stands of target crops and more predictable harvests for determinates and succession planting.
Borage, or a mini “hedge” of any similar herb, can also be a nice way to hide from an HOA in cases where neighbors and the Association Gestapo like to make sure everything is a flower, not a nasty veggie. Parsley, colorful lettuces and carrots can sometimes hide in plain sight, colorful chard and cabbages are routinely used in ornamental landscaping, and candlestick peppers, amaranth or quinoa, and buckwheat might only look like an interesting specimen plant, but others can be harder to sneak into some situations. A tall herb like borage can hide more obvious vegetables like squash or a low tomato, providing there is adequate space for light, especially with the lovely flowers borage will make throughout the growing season.
Note: Borage should absolutely not be planted in areas frequented by people with bee allergies. Individual plants in pots and large stands really will hum with activity.
There are innumerable plants and combinations out there that can improve a specific target crop’s flavor, produce an ideal microclimate for a target crop, reduce pests, and improve yields. The best of them offer an additional yield themselves and serve multiple purposes. Some plants don’t get along, though, and it’s important to be aware of water and nutrient competition, shade cast and shade sensitivity, and crowding sensitivity, and to try and plant in guilds that put roots at different levels.
The remnants of bad science from the original biodynamic sensitive crystallization theory still exist in some of the “good friends” and “bad buds” guides, even in fairly reputable source journals, so try to find hints in texts that suggest combinations have actually been used. Diversity almost always offers improvements to soil, pest control, and pollination, but there are some that compete too much for good yields or that actively stunt others.
About the Author: R.S.N. is a former Marine Corps combat correspondent with overseas experience. After the service, her interests turned to sustainability in growing and in maximizing the produce from small spaces.