Borage

Short version:

A self-seeding, upright annual that can grow to about 80cm tall. It has lovely edible blue flowers that bees and butterflies love. The young leaves can be used as a cooked green. Older leaves can be blitzed into soup.

My child thinks that I am really cruel for not growing her proper showy flowers in the garden. The general rule is – if I can’t eat it (or some part of it) I won’t grow it. Having a small garden in the city means that space is a premium. Even if I get a pot to put something fun in, that would still be a pot that I could grow something edible in. I won’t grow a bee or butterfly friendly flower for the sake of it. Some part of the plant also needs to be edible. I am, however, trying to convert the lawn into more of a bee friendly flower patch though, with edible clover and wild pansies. There’s more info how the lawn came to be here.

Borage ticks all the boxes for the little critters, the little critter and me. My little one absolutely loves grazing on the flowers and she loves to put them into drinks. We also like to make little ice cubes with them in.

How to grow

If you want very early plants, you can start them in individual in small pots from February. I say individual as the seedlings are rather large and they do grow quickly. Otherwise, the easiest way is to sow them straight into the ground around 1cm deep where you want them to grow between March and May. Give them plenty of space between plants as they can spread around 45cm. I like to squeeze them in, so I usually have them around 20cm apart. They like full sun best but will do fine in some shade. From seeing where my self-seeded seedlings have popped up, I can tell that they are not too fussy, but love a good compost.  

That is something to be aware of. Once you have sown borage, you never need sow again.  Self-seeded seedlings can appear as early as March, but they don’t mind being transplanted.

How to harvest

You can eat the young leaves. In fact, if they have self-seeded themselves into a nuisance you could pick lots of seedlings to eat. I love how borage can turn weeding into harvesting. I say ‘young’ leaves as borage leaves are a little prickly. The older the leaf the pricklier. After cooking the young leaves, the prickles will have wilted and not be noticeable. If you really want to use the older leaves it would be better to blitz them into soup. You would need some gloves to protect your hands. They don’t sting like nettles do, but they can be uncomfortable to handle. Once the flowers start appearing you can pick the flower off and eat straight away.

No matter how much you try to eat every flower (believe me, the kid has tried) you will never get them all. That’s a great thing. It’s good to leave some for the bees and butterflies. You can still eat the flowers after they have visited, but it’s hard to time harvesting after a pollinator has had a feed. The plant will give out plenty of flowers over a long period. This plant has been flowering for 6 weeks and it doesn’t show any sign of giving up. Unfortunately I didn’t stake it up so it has collapsed all over the place and it has also become a bit diseased.

How they taste

The leaves and the flowers have a cucumbery-lettucey taste.

The flowers have a bit of added sweetness due to the nectar. They are best eaten raw as a foraging snack, scattered in salads or sprinkled on dishes as a garnish.

The salad above was mostly picked by little madam. It had to be washed about 4 times due to the large amount of bugs. All ingredients were from the garden:

Borage (obviously), nasturtiums (the yellow and orange flowers should be added in moderation as they are spicy), siberian purslane (tiny pink flowers – their rather bitter taste is masked by everything else), winter purslane flowers (really tasty but not bitter – the flowers are so tiny that you pick the whole stem, with a circular leaf), there were some kale flowers (taste a bit cabbagey), there was some three cornered leek flowers (I added those, but she then demanded I remove them for being too garlicky), rose petals, Caucasian spinach leaves, dill and mint.

Borage looks and tastes great in Pimm’s. This is also where the borage ice cubes go down a treat. My four-year-old likes to put mint and borage together. It’s like she’s preparing herself to drink Pimm’s one day.

The leaves, when cooked, are very soft. They shrink down a lot, like spinach does.

Problems

The only disease that has affected my borage, so far, is powdery mildew. This is something I get a lot in my garden – on the brassicas, tromboncinos and even on peas. Probably because I’m constantly trying to pack the plants into a small space. It is also because I get the little one involved in watering which inevitably leads to a spraying on the leaves. This provides perfect conditions for powdery mildew – humid air that doesn’t have space to circulate well. I’m afraid the best way to get rid of it is to catch it early and remove all affected leaves. If left too late the whole plant must be binned. It can’t even be recycled in the compost as the spores will make infection more likely next season.

Fun science stuff

The flowers make for a great acid test. If you put the flowers into an acidic drink, they will turn pink. It does takes quite a while though (20 mins) and happens very gradually.

Things kids can do with flowers

Short version:

Pick them, eat them, press them and bathe in them. It’s safer to do all these things with edible flowers to avoid poisoning or dermatitis. Beware of even the ubiquitous daffodils!

Pick them

The harder thing is stopping my 3 year old from picking them. We’ve made it a blanket rule that she can’t pick flowers beyond our garden without checking with me first. This is both out of common courtesy and for safety. Please be warned that there are many common flowers that are poisonous or have noxious chemicals. Bluebells, snowdrops, hyacinths, crocus and daffodils are flowers often seen in gardens, but they all contain toxins. When we first moved into our house my little one took a shine to the daffodils. I didn’t think anything of letting her pick and play with them – like I did as a child in my own parents’ garden. She developed a rash where she had rubbed it on her skin. After a bit of research I found that daffodils have calcium oxalate crystals in their sap which irritate the skin – something well known to daffodil pickers and florists. We grow all flowers that are safe to touch. The next challenge was to teach her which of the flowers would turn into fruit and was therefore off limits.

We pretty much continually have a glass on the kitchen table that has the kid’s latest pickings. It’s good for her to get to know the local flora and she likes the colours and smells and textures. She has also learnt to exercise caution as even edible flowers, like borage and roses, can have defence mechanisms like little prickles and thorns.

Eat them!

It took a while to ensure that she only picks the safe things to graze on. Whilst we grow mostly edibles (we have grown sweet peas on the roof out of her reach and we also grow star jasmine – both for the fragrance) it’s worth nothing that edibles like tomatoes and potatoes have poisonous leaves, passiflora caerulea does have edible fruit, but the leaves, flowers and unripe fruit are poisonous, and asparagus has poisonous berries.

She loves the flowers from borage, winter purslane, mint, dill and basil, though to be honest these last 2 barely make it to flower as she also loves eating the leaves. With nasturtiums she will pinch off the nectar containing cone to suck. She’s not keen on the cornflowers, calendula, watercress, coriander or brassica flowers when they grow. She loves the artichokes and chard flowers when cooked. This is the first year that we’re trying to grow violets, red clover, daisies, chamomile and bellflower in the lawn. I’ll have to let you know how they fare and how tasty they are (or aren’t).

In addition to education on what is edible, it’s important that they learn that flowers may sometimes be covered in pesticides so they cannot go around eating flowers outside your own home environment.

It sounds like the risk isn’t worth it but any adult who forages had to start learning it at some point. I believe it’s important for our kids (and everyone) to make the connection between what they eat and how it’s produced. With our little one sometimes she eats enough borage and winter purslane flowers (and leaves) that I don’t have to worry about her vegetable intake.

Press them

This was something we did as kids. Life is very different these days. Our kids are initiated into technology so early. I won’t lie (please don’t judge me), my one was already tapping away on my phone by her 3rd birthday. So, it’s nice to do activities with her that I did during my own childhood. You just need to arrange them between pieces of paper (something that is a little absorbent is best), enclose that in a heavy book, stack more books on top and leave for about 2 weeks.

Bathe in them

My little one has eczema that stems from allergies. This means a bath every night in plain old water with a soap substitute but sometimes to make it interesting we’ll throw in something from the garden. There are plenty of things that look and/or smell good. Here’s where you must do a bit of research and exercise caution (see details about daffodils above). Generally, we follow the rule, if you can eat it, you can probably bathe in it and don’t go overboard. If unsure put a bloom or two in for the first bath. Excess may cause issues (like a bath with half of my mint patch would certainly cause eye irritation, if not skin irritation) and besides I’d like to keep some of my flowers in the garden.

Bee Happy

So as a last thing, it’s quite nice for our little one to get to know about bees, how amazing they are and how much we rely on them for pollination. She’s learnt not to harm them or be scared of them and she’s rather fond of them.