Borage is an edible plant that has been used medicinally since ancient times. This herb is nutritious, being a good source of vitamins, minerals and phenolic compounds, which have antioxidant properties.
Borage, also known as burage, ox-tongue, bee plant or bee bread, is an annual herb with pretty blue, star shaped, flowers that is thought to have originated from the northeastern Mediterranean, and in particular the region that is now Syria. Borage flowers are cooked and eaten like spinach and borage seeds are used to make essential oil for medicinal uses. Borage (Borago officinalis) is named for the Arabic phrase ‘abu arak‘, which means “father of sweat,” because of the sweat inducing effect of borage tea.
The origins of borage can be traced back to ancient Greece and in particular Greek Mythology. Some experts believe that the herb called nepenthe, as described by the poet Homer, was in fact borage. A potion of nepenthe was given to Helen of Troy by the Egyptian queen Polidamma, in order to relieve her sorrow and encourage forgetfulness.
In ancient times borage is said to have been given to Roman soldiers before they marched in battle, in order to give them courage and to calm their nerves. However, its more likely the courage was induced by the wine and brandy, that the borage flowers were often steeped in, and the sence of comfort came from the sight of the colorful star shaped flowers. The tradition of giving borage to warriors to induce courage continued through the time of the crusaders religious military campaigns, and into medieval times when men had borage flowers embroiled on their battle dress. As testament to the fact, a popular expression of the day was; “I borage, bring about courage.” It is also possible that the name borage was derived from barrach, a Celtic word for courage. Charles Dickens was also a fan of borage which he included in a potent punch made with brandy, sherry, cider, lemon juice and sugar.
Varieties of Borage: Borage is a member of the Boraginaceae botanical family, commonly known as forget-me-not. The two most common varieties of borage are Borage officinalis or star flower and Borage pygmaea, also know as Corsican borage. Borage pygmaea has blue or pink star shaped flowers and is grown as a perennial. The stem and leaves of this plant have spiny hairs, and only the flowers are edible. By contrast, although the leaves and stems of Borage officinalis are prickly, they are also edible and quite delicious.
The Culinary Uses of Borage: Borage leaves and flowers can be eaten raw or cooked, as the tiny bristles dissolve when eaten raw and are neutralized through cooking. The younger borage leaves are more tender and require less cooking than the older leaves. Marinating the leaves in vinaigrette helps to tenderize them. The best way to cook borage flowers and leaves is by steaming and not boiling, as they loose their delicate flavor easily. Borage flowers are used as an aromatic flavoring in cream cheese, yogurt and also in chicken, fish or vegetables curries. They are also used in soups and salads. Borage flowers are also candied, used for cake decorating and can replace violets, nasturtium or other edible flowers.
The Nutritional Value of Borage: Borage flowers and leaves, especially from younger plants, are extremely nutritious. They are a source of vitamin C, vitamin A; or beta carotene, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, riboflavin, phosphorus, copper and zinc. A one hundred gram serving of borage flowers and leaves contain 25 calories and 0.8 grams of fat.
Borage also contains B complex vitamins, and in particular niacin or vitamin B3. Niacin is an essential human nutrient, vital in the process of energy metabolism. Niacin may also help prevent the build up of LDL cholesterol, thereby helping to prevent atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.
Another constituent of borage is linolenic acid. Linolenic acid is a phenolic compound metabolized in the body to produce GLA or gamma linolenic acid, a type of omega 6 fatty acid. GLA has many beneficial effects such as regulating the immune system and as an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory. Research has demonstrated that GLA can inhibit the growth of cancer cells and is particularly useful for people with rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, skin allergies, high blood pressure, multiple sclerosis, ADHD, heart disease and more. Linolenic acid is also taken as an herbal supplement.
Above image, by Rob Farrow, licensed for reuse under creative commons licence. Primary image, Borago officinalis, image credit flickr.com.