Borage (Borago officinalis)
by Malia Thompson, CCH, CN
Aside from the fact that I am completely enamored with Borage’s beautiful blue blossoms, I am interested in its use as an analog to Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) as an adrenal tonic as well as its growing list of other uses. While the use of the leaves of Borage has it own set of concerns due to pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PA’s), many people do not like the taste of Licorice, and its hypertensive tendencies present barriers for the many people that already struggle with hypertension and stress. Borage is a classic European herb that has been used safely internally and externally for centuries. For these reasons, it is great to understand it and use it properly in the herbalist toolbox. Like many herbs with PA’s, when used properly, Borage is safe and effective with no recorded incidents of adverse effects.
Common Names: Borage, Starflower, Bee Bush, Bee Bread, Bugloss. The name may derive from the latin word burra, meaning hairy garment and referring to the glabourous leaves of this species.
Description/Taxonomy: Borage is a common weed native to the Mediterranean region and is thought to originate from southern Spain and Morocco and is a member of the comfrey family (Boraginaceae). It is a rough, sprawling annual that grows to 1-3’ tall. It features showy, open racemes of drooping, star-shaped, bright blue flowers in summer atop branched stems clad with wrinkled, edible, dull gray-green leaves (to 6” long) that have the taste and fragrance of cucumber. Stems and leaves are covered with bristly hairs. (7) While it is native to the eastern hemisphere, it can be easily grown in gardens everywhere.
Grasshoppers love Borage but it is quite hardy when faced with these garden pests. For this reason, it can be used as a distraction and placed next to plants that are more susceptible to the ravages of grasshoppers. (5)
Traditional/Ethnobotanical Uses: Borage leaves have been used as a potherb and in European herbal medicine since the Middle Ages and are mentioned by Pliny, Dioscorides, and Galen. The name “borage” derives from the medieval Latin “burra,” meaning rough-coated, which refers to the hairs. An alternative explanation suggests it is a corruption of the Latin “corago” (courage), as in Gerard's rhyme “ego borago gaudia semper ago” (I, borage, bring alwaies courage). This is in line with its reputation as an herb to dispel melancholy. Borage leaves also have been used for rheumatism, colds, and bronchitis, as well as to increase lactation in women. Infusions of the leaves were used to induce sweating and diuresis. (2) Before the invention of ice, Borage was used in a cooling drink called a “cool tankard” or “claret cup” consisting of wine, water, lemon, sugar and Borage leaves and flowers. Borage is still widely used in British herbalism but its use has waned in North America. (3)
Pliny the Elder believed it to be anti-depressant and it has long been thought to give courage and comfort to the heart. One old wives’ tale states that if a woman slipped a bit of borage into a promising man’s drink it would give him the courage to propose. (2)
In European traditional medicine, the heart was believed to store the vital spirit and circulate it around the body via the arteries. Thus ‘heart medicines were usually medicines for the spirit —for depression and confusion. Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis), Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis), Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) and Borage were specifics for matters of the heart. These remedies were also used to protect the heart from excess heat in high fevers and Borage was much favored for this. Motherwort and Borage are a useful combination in thyrotoxicosis, which is a modern version of ‘excess heat attacks the heart’. (6)
Parts Used: Aerial parts, flowers, seed oil
Cultivation/Harvest: Borage flourishes in ordinary soil and enjoys sunny to dappled sunlight. Seeds can be sown directly outdoors in late spring or sow early indoors and transplant outside in late spring. Seeds are easy and require no special treatment. Space seedlings 15 inches apart, as Borage is a fairly large plant. Water moderately. Leaves, stems, flowers and seeds are best harvested when the plant is in flower with green seeds beginning to form. (5)
In the garden, Borage is useful to repel pests such as hornworms, attract pollinators, and aid any plants it is inter-planted with by increasing resistance to pests and disease. It is helpful and compatible with most plants — notably tomatoes, strawberries and squash. Borage adds trace minerals to the soil it is planted in, and is good for composting and mulching. It is an annual, but readily self-seeds and thrives in full sun. It is so proficient in self-seeding, in fact, that once a borage plant has established itself in your garden, you will likely never have to reseed again. The bloom period is different for various climates and growing zones and will generally bloom from mid-spring to early fall. (1)
Herbal Actions: Emollient, demulcent, anti-inflammatory, astringent, diuretic (leaves), diaphoretic
Constituents (7): Oil from seeds – mainly glycerides, fatty acids with a high proportion of linoleum acid and up to 24% gamma-linoleic acid (GLA) which are Omega-6 fatty acids, and oleic acid, alkaloids, allantoin (seeds are very high in both).
Aerial parts – rich in mucilaginous polysaccharides, tannins, minerals (silicic acid, calcium, iron, potassium, zinc) unsaturated pyrrolizidine alkaloids (UPA), saturated pyrrolizidine alkaloids, saponins, allantoin.
Borage is a great source of calcium, iron, potassium, zinc, B vitamins, Vitamin C, beta carotene, choline, fiber and other trace minerals
Energetics: Cool, moist, slightly sweet, salty
Tissue states: Atrophy, stagnation (3)
Meridians/organs affected: Lungs, heart, kidneys, bladder, large intestines, fluid bodies (4)
Medicinal uses: The oil from the seeds of Borage is the highest known plant source of GLA, which may actually reduce inflammation. Much of the GLA taken as a supplement is converted to a substance called DGLA (Dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid) that fights inflammation. Having enough of certain nutrients in the body (including magnesium, zinc, and vitamins C, B3, and B6) helps promote the conversion of GLA to DGLA. (9) Other conditions affected by its anti-inflammatory action includes rheumatoid arthritis, reducing dryness and skin irritations such as eczema and dermatitis.
Restores adrenals to natural balance (adrenal tonic), general glandular stimulant (6)
- Sedative effect on nervous system, calms nervous conditions, uplifts mood
- Dispels melancholy and hangover
- Promotes courage for the worn down
- Insomnia, nervousness, fainting, dizziness
- A poultice of crushed Borage leaves is also used to relieve insect bites and stings, reduce swelling and bruising and to clearing up boils and rashes.
Because of its cooling property, Borage is used to treat fever, asthma, bronchitis, pleurisy, colds and flu.
Promotes digestion and helps to relieve stomach-aches such as gastritis and irritable bowel syndrome.
Skin infections and inflammation such as dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis, pimples, herpes, nail fungus, inflamed eyes, and mouth ulcers (cankers).
Heart palpitations due to hyperthyroidism, not heart disease (3)
- Softens cervix (Borage oil)
- Tea increases breast milk production – it is speculated that it acts at the top of the endocrine chain on the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. (3)
- Postpartum nervous exhaustion
- Eases mood swings and depression associated with PMS and menopause
- Adrenal support for peri-menopause and menopause
- Hot flashes
A recent article published by the University of Maryland Medical Center lists the following conditions that benefit from the use of Borage (9):
Allies: Fumatory (Fumaria officinalis), Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca), Vervain (Verbena officinalis), Milky Oats (Avena sativa), Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis), Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
Culinary uses: Borage has a sweet, salty flavor similar to cucumber and has various culinary applications. The leaves can be used as a salad green and the flowers are candied as edible decorations. This herb can be used in soups, salads, refreshing summer beverages and cocktails, preserves and jellies, sauces, (1) and cooked as a stand-alone vegetable just like spinach, kale or other greens. Leaves lose their flavor and potency when dried.
Side Effects, Cautions & Contraindications: It is not recommended that Borage leaves be taken long term internally because of the concentration of pyrrolizidine alkaloids that can damage the liver. Some recommend limiting use to 4-6 weeks, others say 2-3 months at a time. Most sources specify low doses and limited use. Young leaves have been shown to contain less PA’s than older ones. Do not take Borage if you are taking anti-coagulants without discussing it with your doctor first. Borage can cause nausea, cramping, bloating and headache in some, although they are relatively mild. Currently, not recommended during pregnancy or lactation, but it has been traditionally used as a galactagogue. The hairs on the fresh leaves can irritate the skin.
Dosage/method of use: Use Borage with the same considerations as with other medicinal herbs containing pyrrolizidine alkaloids (See the Cautions section above). That said, the plant parts are used in the following way: leaves made into tea, washes and poultices; flowers eaten; seeds pressed for oil; tinctures made from leaves and flowering tops.
Matthew Wood recommends 1-3 drops of tincture, 1-3 times a day. Cold infusions, syrups and tincture preparations increase the cooling and moistening properties. Poultices and washes made from fresh leaves and stems for external uses.
Malia Thompson, CCH, CN, Flower Essence Practitioner
As a child of hippie parents of the 70’s in Flagstaff, Arizona, I grew up with a close connection with Nature. Campfires were our dining room and entertainment center; rushing rivers were our roller coasters; and the animals, rocks, plants and trees were our teachers. My elders were guides for building community, happiness and respect for our earth. I am forever grateful for these experiences, and shaping who I am today.
My interest in foods and herbs as medicinals developed during my college days in Durango, Colorado. I love learning about the many healing uses for foods, herbs and spices commonly found in most kitchens. My work with an herbalist/nutritionist, and the tremendous impact it had on my own health and overall wellbeing, lead me to become certified in herbalism and nutrition.
In January, 2014, I began my training in the Vitalist tradition of Western herbalism at the Colorado School of Clinical Herbalism in Boulder, Colorado. I am eager to share this knowledge with those that are ready to take charge of their own health and wellness.
I am a member of the American Herbalist Guild, whose mission is to promote clinical herbalism as a viable profession rooted in ethics, competency, diversity, and freedom of practice. The American Herbalist Guild supports access to herbal medicine for all and advocates excellence in herbal education.
I am also a member of the American Botanical Council whose mission is to provide education using science-based and traditional information to promote responsible use of herbal medicine — serving the public, researchers, educators, healthcare professionals, industry and media.
My creative outlets include making art, sneaky healthy cooking (Kick-ass drumstick to name one), plant identification and admiration, medicine making, hikes in the mountains, taking photos of flowers, bugs and anything interesting, as well as making compelling connections with people’s health complaints.
1. All About Borage, Permaculture News, 2011, www.permaculturenews.org
2. Borage, https://www.drugs.com/npc/borage.html
3. The Earthwise Herbal, Matthew Wood, 2008, North Atlantic Books
4. The Energetics of Western Herbs Vol. 1, 4th Edition, Peter Holmes, 2007, Snow Lotus Press
5. Growing 101 Herbs that Heal, Tammi Hartung, 2000, Storey Publishing
6. Heart Medicines in the European tradition: Christopher Hedley M.N.I.M.H. Medical Herbalism, Paul Bergner
7. Herbal Vade Mecum, Gazmed Skenderi, 2003, Herbacy Press
8. Missouri Botanical Garden, www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/plantfinder
9. Omega-6 Fatty Acids, University of Maryland Medical Center, 2015, http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/omega6-fatty-acids