by Karyn Siegel-Maier
Ever wonder what was in that little green vile the Wizard gave the cowardly lion to give him courage? Aside from a healthy dose of inspiration, it may have contained borage. Borage (Borago officinalis) has long had a curious reputation to lend one courage and happiness simply by consuming or wearing it. So strong was this belief that Celtic warriors traditionally drank borage flavored wine before going into battle to increase their fortitude, while Roman soldiers braced for contest by reciting Ego Borago gaudia semper ago, which early herbalist John Gerard interpreted to mean “I Borage bring alwaies courage.” Pliny credits borage flavored wine as being the Nepenthe of Homer, the consumption of which made one forgive their enemies. It would seem that borage was believed to ease the disheartened as well, since in his De Materia Medica, the Greek physician Dioscorides wrote that taking borage would “cheer the heart and lift the depressed spirits.”
Pliny also believed this herb to be an anti-depressant and referred to the herb as Euphrosinum since it “maketh a man merry and joyful.” How borage actually received it’s name remains unknown, but many speculate the name is derived from a combination of the Latin cor and ago, meaning “heart” and “I stimulate” respectively.
Still others contend it’s more likely the name originated from Latin borra, the translation being “hair of the beast” and probably pays tribute to the plant’s hairy leaves. The Welsh called this herb “Ilanwenlys” meaning ‘Herb of Gladness,’ and the ancient Celts named it “barrach,” or ‘man of courage.’
Did You Know?
Young ladies used to spike the tea of their suitors with borage, so that they might muster the courage to propose marriage.
"It maketh a man merrie and joyfull. Use the floures in sallads to exhilarate and make the minde glad. Use everywhere for the comfort of the heart, for driving away sorrow and increasing the joy of the minde. The leaves and floures of Borage put into wine make men and women glad and merrie and drive away all sadness, dulnesse and melancholie. Syrup made of the floures of Borage comforteth the heart, purgeth melancholie and quieteth the phrenticke and lunaticke person.” -- John Gerard, 16th century Herbalist
Early herbalists used borage extensively as a diuretic, demulcent, diaphoretic (antidote to poisons) and as an aperient. According to John Lust, the leaves and seeds of the plant are reputed to promote milk production in nursing mothers, and poultices of the leaves are often used to treat irregularities of the skin. In fact, an infusion of borage applied topically is an effective astringent due to the presence of tannin. The tannin content is also responsible for the mild constipating action produced when taken as a tea. The mucilage found in borage gives it a mild expectorant action, and has been prescribed for many years to ease bronchial infections. In many parts of England today, borage is still referred to as “cool-tankard”, since the most popular method of administering borage was to partake of wine in which the leaves and flowers had been steeped, particularly if a dose of courage was the desired result.
Borage may not be solely responsible for inducing courage (something the wine may do alone), but the seeds do contain an unusual fatty acid that is otherwise difficult to obtain in a normal diet and which is receiving much attention for its therapeutic benefit. This acid, known as gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), manipulates the metabolism of prostaglandins to produce a classification of this hormone-like substance which inhibits platelet aggregation - an essential factor in preventing the development of atherosclerosis. The role GLA plays in prostaglandin synthesis leads to a significant anti-allergy and anti-inflammatory action without the side effects often experienced with synthetic drugs. In addition, conditions such as psoriasis and eczema can be alleved with the addition of GLA and other omega-3 oils in the diet. Dr. Andrew Weil, author of Natural Health, Natural Medicine, often prescribes the consumption of specific GLA levels to treat various skin conditions, premenstrual syndrome, autoimmune disorders and arthritis. Borage seed oil is believed to contain the highest concentration of GLA (up to 9%) and is far more economical than other GLA-rich oils, such as evening primrose.
While the benefits of GLA found in borage seed oil sounds promising, there is sufficient reason to resist self-medicating with the oil for any extended period. Various parts of the borage plant have been found to contain from 2-10 parts per million (ppm) a number of pyrrolizidine alkaloids, similar to those found in comfrey and coltsfoot. In fact, borage is restricted in Australia and New Zealand due to its pyrrolizidine alkaloid content. One such alkaloid, called amabaline, can damage the liver and is a suspected carcinogen. Varro E. Tyler, PhD, author of The Honest Herbal, reports that amabaline has not been detected in the seed oil in amounts greater than 5 ppm, but warns that even lower amounts have caused harm when habitually consumed over a long period of time. As with any botanical with such potent constituents, moderation is key and medical supervision advisable.
Having been sufficiently cautioned, you may rest assured that an occasional salad of borage leaves, or the ingestion of the blue star-shaped blossoms, will invoke no harm. In fact, if you don’t mind their fuzzy texture, the leaves can be served raw or steamed as a vegetable. The entire plant imparts a mild cucumber-like flavor and therefore has a place in pickling and in prepared salads. The leaves, flowers and hollow stems make a flavorful addition to soups and compliment cheese, poultry and fish as well. The mashed leaves and whole flowers may be added to jams, jellies and cordials, the latter being a favorite form of consumption by Charles Dickens. The flowers, devoid of the bristly backs, may be candied by first dipping in a well beaten mixture of one egg white and 1/2 tsp. cold water, then in granulated sugar. The candied flowers can be served alone as a confectionery, or as decorations for cake tops and pastries. The leaves don’t hold up very well to drying or freezing, so you’ll need to use them fresh. Otherwise, they may be preserved in vinegars. Of course, you may prefer to flavor your wines with borage as an old English rhyme advises:
“To enliven the sad with a joy of a joke,
Give the wine with some borage put in to soak.”
To the gardener, borage is highly praised for its arching sprays of blue-purple flowers. It prefers full sun, but will tolerate partial shade and enjoys the poorest of soils. Reaching a height of up to two feet, borage is best displayed against a contrasting wall or among rocks. The floppy leaves tend to give the plant a ragged appearance, but frequent pinching of new growth can help prevent this.
Borage is an excellent companion plant to many vegetables, particularly tomatoes since it deters tomato worm. Borage itself can fall prey to the Japanese beetle, but this can be checked by mulching to prevent the rotting of lower leaves, and by planting near herbs that thwart the beetle, such as tansy, garlic or rue.
Borage leaves are best harvested as the plant begins to flower. The plant is short-lived however, so it is advisable to sow successive crops in spring and summer. The rather large black seeds may be collected when mature in autumn. Considered an annual, and sometimes biennial, borage will self-sow in the garden, and the taproots usually produce some autumn volunteers.
Charles Dickens Punch
2 cups boiling water
½ cup sugar
2 tbl lemon zest
¼ cup borage flowers
2 cups sherry
1 cup brandy
4 cups apple cider
Steep the sugar, lemon zest and borage flowers in the boiled water for 10-15 minutes. Strain and add the sherry, brandy and apple cider.
Herb Tea Punch
This recipe comes from Buffalo Springs Herb Farm in Virginia
1 cup sugar
½ cup water
1 cup each: fresh mint leaves, fresh lemon balm leaves
2 cups fresh borage leaves
6 cups boiling water
4 cups strongly brewed tea of choice
Juice of 6 lemons
Juice of 2 oranges
1 cup unsweetened pineapple juice
3 quarts chilled natural ginger ale
Place the mint, lemon balm and borage leaves in a large bowl. Pour the boiling water over the leaves and allow to steep for 5-10 minutes. Strain off liquid into a punch bowl or other large container. Discard herbs. In a small saucepan, heat sugar, water over medium heat until completely dissolved. Add the sugar/water mixture to the punch bowl. Add the tea and fruit juices and stir well. Chill for 4-5 hours. Makes approximately 50 servings.
Other Common Names: Star-flower, beebread, bugloss, burage, common bugloss, Herb of Gladness