Borage: bread for bees

Shimmering in the morning light

Bring some elven magic into your garden with borage (Borago officinalis, also known as Starflower). It seems to have walked right out of one of the flower fairy books I had as a child, with its bright blue star-shaped blooms perfectly displayed in a silvery haze of hirsute nodding flower heads. When you get up close, it really does look otherworldly, but even from afar it’s what catches my eye when I look out of the sitting room window in the morning towards the veg patch, as it is perfectly silhouetted by the morning sun.

There are many reasons to grow this beautiful annual herb. First of all, it is absolutely adored by bees and other pollinators too, hence it is also known as ‘bee bread’. So, if you grow it with your veg, you can be sure that you won’t have any problems with pollination. Apparently, if you have a honeybee colony, borage gives the honey a wonderful taste. My neighbour has a hive, so I wonder if she’ll taste the difference this year (I may have to demand a taste test).

A bee buzzes in for a nectar-rich snack

Borage also has an interesting history. Native to the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean region, it was prized by the Romans, who introduced it to Britain (along with a great many other plants). They used borage tea mixed with wine to give courage to their soldiers before battle. Victorian ladies also drunk it in a ‘claret cup’ with various alcoholic additions to ward off the blues. The sixteenth century herbalist and gardener John Gerard says of the leaves and flowers, when “put into wine make men and women glad and merry, driving away all sadness, dullness and melancholy”.

Borage oil continues to be used today in herbal treatments and is said to alleviate stress associated with cardiovascular conditions. The leaves are also nutritious, high in minerals like calcium and iron, and can be added to salads. I would only use the very young fresh leaves, as the older ones are a little bit too hairy! Or you could simply use the flowers, which look wonderful mixed with nasturtium and calendula flowers.

I love making ice cubes with the flowers for snazzy summer drinks. Simply pick fresh flowers, pop them into your ice cube tray, add water and freeze. If you want, you can add other aromatic edibles, like sprigs of mint, rosemary or thyme. Last year, I made a batch with viola flowers, which look perfect in a glass of sparkling elderflower cordial.

A pretty ice-cube with viola. Borage flowers work really well too.

Borage suits naturalistic planting schemes well, and in my little veg patch it does take up a bit of room, as these are bushy plants reaching up to 60cm tall, but for me it’s no great sacrifice given both its beauty and its pollinator credentials. As you can see, my plot is home to flowers almost as much as it is to veg: I try to let in as many of the pollinating plants as possible, on the condition that they don’t impede the growth of the vegetables.

Borage grows among shallots and self-seeded calendula, just coming into flower

As a little aside, I was delighted to find some self-seeded chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) in the patch, close to the borage. Goodness knows how it got there, but that’s part of the magic, right? I managed to pick just enough flowers from plants around the garden for a cup of chamomile tea.

Cheery self-seeded chamomile

So, plenty of reasons to find a nice sunny spot for borage. Once it’s in, it will be there for years, as it’s a reliable self-seeder, without being overwhelming. It seems to grow happily in clay. If you can, place it where it catches the morning sun for that shimmery, silvery effect.

Borage flower up close