An age-old remedy that's right up to date
Its name may be a mystery, but there seems little doubt as to the usefulness of this ancient medicinal herb. Best picked fresh from the garden, use borage seeds, stems, leaves of flowers. The delicate, star-shaped borage flowers give individuality to a summer salad.
Borage, or burrage as it is sometimes called, has been in use as a medicinal herb for so long that the derivation of its name has either been long-forgotten, or was never really known. The Arab physician in medieval Spain knew it is abou-rach, meaning 'father of sweat', and used it to induce perspiration in people suffering from fevers. Another possible solution is that it gets its name from the Latin word burra, meaning 'high hair', because of its bristly leaves. yet another theory is that the name is derived from the words cor ago, meaning 'I stimulate the heart'. Whatever the correct answer, it is clear that borage has been an important ingredient in herbal medicine since ancient times and is not often given the attention or credence that it deserves today.
Borage is very easy to cultivate. It thrives in poor, light, well-drained soil in direct sun or partial shade. Sow the seeds in the spring, and you will have healthy, flowering plants by summer. The mass of cobalt blue flowers are not only lovely in themselves, but will attract the bees to your garden all summer long. Borage self-sows prolifically so, after the initial seeds planting, you could have a lifetime's supply of this historic herb that is as beautiful as it is useful.
Borage is easily recognized. It grows to between 30 and 70 cm (12 and 30 in) in height, has broad leaves with stiff hairs on both sides, and blue, star-shaped flowers that appear on the tips of the stems. The botanical name is Borago officinalis. The appearance of the word officinalis in the name of the plant indicates that it was recognized by the medieval medical profession as being as effective medicine. So much so, that the entry for borage in Culpeper's famous Complete Herbal (first published in 1653) gives more than 14 different medicinal uses for the herb. Opinion seems to have been united on the subject of borage, and this 12-th century quotation, 'When talking of borage this much is clear, that it warmeth the heart and it bringeth good cheer', is typical of much that was written about this fascinating herb throughout the centuries.
Almost every historical description refers to its ability to bring happiness and comfort, and drive away melancholy. The ancient Greeks believed that borage, steeped in wine, was a sure remedy for depression. In ancient Egypt and Arabia, borage was grown as an ingredient for drinks intended to drive away sadness and bring back pleasant forgetfulness.
Pliny, the Roman historian, also believed in borage's mood-altering powers because it was he who first coined the saying, 'I, Borage, bring always courage'.
In Britain, Alfred the Great must have taken borage because he described it as a 'maker of good blood', while Culpeper explained that borage was Nature's 'great cordial' and 'strengthener' because of its ruling astrological signs: Jupiter, for good fortune, and Leo, for bravery. He describes the leaves, flowers and seeds as being 'good to expel pensiveness and melancholy', and adds that borage is also good for 'those that are troubled with often swoonings, or passions of the heart'. Another well-known herbalist, John Evelyn, wrote, 'springs of borage are of known virtue to revive the hypochondriac and cheer the hard student.'
What does it do?
Borage is rich in potassium and calcium and, as these are precisely the minerals that are used up most quickly by the body during stress, it is easy to see how its reputation for enhancing courage was gained. The plant contains a range of chemical substances, including saline mucilage, resins, tannins and volatile oil. Used externally, these ingredients make borage a soothing and healing application for skin irritations. Taken internally, it has a variety of actions, and these partly depend on the age at which the plant is picked for use. It is at its most soothing when young, and at this stage is often used in salads and soups, or cooked as a vegetable rather similar to spinach. It acts as a purifying agent, inducing sweating when it is in flower, and can be used as a diuretic (to stimulate the production of urine) when the seeds are ripening. The whole plant can be used, but the stem has the strongest concentration of active ingredients, then the leaves and lastly the flowers.
Borage originated in the Mediterranean area and the plant is thought to have been introduced into Europe by the Crusaders. It is known to have been cultivated in English gardens well before the 15th century because of its 'cordial qualities'. When the companions of Columbus landed on Isabella Island, one of the first things they did was to plant borage, thus ensuring its spread throughout the new world.
AN ALL-ROUND REMEDY
Among the health complaints for which borage has been used throughout its long history are: fever, poisonous bits, poor milk-flow in nursing mothers, depression, 'stale' system, debility after illness, anxiety, heated or fluctuating moods, red and inflamed eyes, sore throat, mouth ulcers, rheumatism and water-retention. Borage can be prepared in a variety of ways for chills, influenza and other fevers. The usual method is making a decoction by bringing a teaspoonful (3g) of the dried plant to the boil in one litre (2 pints) of water, then allowing it to infuse for 15 minutes. Four of five cups of this borage tea can be taken each day. This also has a diuretic effect and can be used in cases of rheumatism. For the treatment of bronchial complaints, a stronger infusion is made them used as a steam inhalation. Borage is also used fresh, as part of a traditional, purifying cocktail, combined with watercress and dandelion leaves, and crushed to release juice.
Borage has been found to yield an oil, known as 'oil of borago', that has an action similar to that of oil of evening primrose (see EVENING PRIMROSE OIL), as it is known to contain high levels of gamma linoleic acid but in a more concentrated form. This oil has, until recently, been used to mix with preparations based on evening primrose oil, but is now available on its own in capsule form.
IN THE KITCHEN
Raw borage leaves, with their subtle, cucumber-like flavor, are delicious in salads and sandwiches. Use whole or chop finely and add to yogurt or cream cheese. Ensure that the leaves you use are young and fresh ones, as the old ones are too bristly and dried leaves often lose their properties. The leaves can also be cooked as a vegetable, like spinach, and lightly buttered. In some areas of Italy, borage is used as a suffering, again like spinach, for ravioli. Adding the leaves to spring cabbage at the end of cooking will give extra flavour. The attractive, blue flowers have the same refreshing cucumber taste as the leaves. They make an effective garnish sprinkled over salads or fruit and floating on summer wine or cider cups; when candied, they are used to decorate cakes or ice-creams.