The sprigs of borage in wine are of known virtue to revive the hypochondriac and cheer the hard student. – John Evelyn, Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets, 1699
Warming to my emerging ‘thrifty edible flowers’ theme, borage (Borago officinalis) is just a small garnish after those bagfuls of havested elderflowers, but it punches above its weight in the list of summer essentials. Wimbledon would be lost without it as no self-respecting Pimm’s No. 1 Cup is complete without a borage flower or two.
I didn’t realise until this week that the entire borage plant is edible, with leaves and flowers tasting faintly of cucumber. Mediterranean in origin, it has been plopped in wine from antiquity as a remedy for mood disorders: for the nervously exhausted, the melancholic, and those simply requiring an energy boost. Crusaders added it in their stirrup cups to aid the action of their Dutch courage. But it was probably brought here by the Romans as our word originates from the Celtic borrach (meaning ‘courage’).
The Welsh name Llawenlys means ‘herb of gladness’. I‘m all for Welsh flower names and for more gladness, wherever it can be found. And, in my continuing gladness quest, I have attained a new allotment. The waiting list was long, but well worth hanging on. I’m discovering a lot of things growing there without very much help from me; besides some rather antagonising perennial weeds, there is the delightful borage.
Borage gladdening the allotment
Borage naturalised in Britain long, long ago and can quite easily be found gladdening waysides and waste places. Almost a weed, it self-seeds readily, and one of my allotment neighbours said I might find it cropping up on its own. Lo and behold, some oval-pointed prickly leaves appeared a few weeks ago, quickly followed by a stem bearing reddish tassely clusters. From downy buds, the most beautiful pure blue flowers emerged. They are star-shaped, giving rise to another name for borage, starflower. Dickens, famed for his showmanship and theatricality, favoured borage punch, and I can imagine how those vivid blue flowers might have bowled him over. His high energy levels and productivity were legendary, so perhaps borage beverages should be required drinking at all literary parties.
A cluster of borage
Often prescribed by herbalists to relieve stress and anxiety, borage is also reputed to cleanse the kidneys. Modern research indicates that it may also work on the adrenal gland, which would explain that association with enhanced courage. It is high in calcium, potassium and mineral salts. Its other major benefit is that it’s an abundant source of GLA (gamma-linoleic acid), useful to treat PMT, menopausal symptoms, eczema etc But watch out, because it does contain some toxins, though in very small amounts; you’d have to eat an awful lot to do you any harm.
What to do with it:
- Freeze flowers in ice cubes to plop prettily into your Pimm’s. You might want to remove the purply-black stamens from the petals first by giving them a gentle pull. I don’t bother.
- Use leaves in salads
- Use flowers in salads (looks stunning with scarlet nasturtiums) or to decorate desserts
- Crystallize flowers for cake decorations
- Chop leaves finely and eat in a sandwich with cream cheese
- Use leaves as an alternative to salt (rich in mineral salts) for those on a salt-free diet
- Use it as a good plant companion: it’s reputed to be beneficial near strawberries, legumes and brassicas, and will do very nicely under roses. Sow it at intervals throughout the summer.
Red currants and borage flower
And finally, there’s Claret Cup, another traditional way to float your borage on alcohol, though the idea of it doesn’t really float my boat. What do you think? Here’s an authentic recipe which appeared in a Victorian magazine:
1 large teaspoonful of white sugar dissolved in boiling water, 1 glass of sherry, 1/2 glass maraschino, a thin rind of lemon and a strip of cucumber rind, 1 large bottle of claret. Let all stand for an hour. Carry to the picnic, packed in ice, and laying a sprig of borage in the cup, add seltzer water when serving. The borage should not be allowed to remain in the cup, but it will impart an aroma that nothing else can. On this account the pretty blue flowers can be had of every gardener during the picnic season, and it is grown under glass all the year round for the express purpose of flavouring claret cup.
If you want something a little lighter (maybe with fizz) there are some more appealing borage drinks over here.
I’ve donated some of my allotment borage seedlings to the new Bath WI edible garden which is currently being planted in the beautiful Bath Botanical Gardens in Royal Victoria Park. If you’re local to Bath, do go along and feast your eyes.