Genus: Borago officinalis var. ‘alba’
• Hardy to All Zones
The herb borage is a well-known hardy annual with memorable sky blue flowers and succulent foliage. Not so well known is an equally beautiful form with pure white flowers. Both are identical in appearance, each growing to 2 to 3 feet tall and almost as wide. Both share characteristic fuzzy, wrinkled gray-green leaves, and the Arabic name — Lisan atheur — aptly describes the large oval shape and texture of the leaf as the “tongue of the bull.” The entire plant, including the hollow, flowering stems and drooping racemes, is protected with short, stiff hairs.
I often convert the casual garden novice to a full-fledged herbal advocate by the simple token of a flower from the white-flowered borage plant, offered for immediate consumption. Initially hesitant to eat a flower, they eventually acquiesce to my gentle encouragement only to be surprised by the subtle cucumber flavor and cooling aftertaste of borage.
Most want to try it again but I first warn them of the pesky little stiff hairs that protect this flower. You must bend the arching flower stems back carefully to reveal the flower, then pinch where the black anthers have come together to form a cone (known as a beauty mark in one herbal reference), while gently pulling away from the stem to separate the edible, star-shaped white corolla. The entire plant imparts a cucumber aftertaste due to a cucumber aldehyde in its chemical composition. For this attribute, borage has always been known as a culinary herb and offers an array of uses: its young leaves can be added to salads; its fresh flowers garnish iced drinks and fruit cups; candied, the flowers may be used as condiments in cakes and pastries; and the herb is an important ingredient in the popular English alcoholic beverage known as Pimm’s No. 1. Folklore suggests if flowers are added to drinks it will instill courage and if “slipped into the drink of a prospective husband it will induce him to propose!” However, borage also contains a toxic compound, pyrrolizidiae, which, if chronically ingested, may cause severe liver damage. Due caution should be observed and frequent use be avoided.
Borage grows best in a full sun exposure in moderately fertile soils with a pH of 5 to 8. Self-sown seedlings appear to be more robust and vigorous than transplanted plants, as borage does not like root disturbance due to its tap root system. Some of the lesser-known common names for borage include talewort, cool-tankard, and beebread — the latter name suggestive of its great affinity for attracting bees. Although the main flowering period (June to September) corresponds closely with plenty of sunshine and heat, I often find self-sown seedlings bloom as early as March and as late as October or later. Propagate by seeds or allow self-seeding throughout the garden.