Blooming, blue borage positively buzzes with bees, though not all folks seek out this annual herb as happily as do the bees. Those gardeners who cannot get enough blue blossoms in the garden are among borage’s most faithful advocates.
Besides the brilliant, jewel-toned blue, a big reason for including borage in the garden is its early bloom, just after rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), a welcome sight when the drab browns of winter become tiresome. Although there are few other flowering plants to be pollinated early in the year, on a warm and sunny afternoon the bees are diligently working over both borage and rosemary, both critical in the landscape to support the bee population amid the widespread die-off of our native bee population.
Borage’s deepest blues show up as its flowers age. When first opening, star-shaped blossoms are pale pink, slowly turn blue, then deepen to purple, a color progression thought to follow pollination. The result decorates plants with multiple hues at any one time. Fully branched plants on multiple, hollow stems that reach 2-3 ft. in height and width endow borage with its optimum ornamental value. Flowers appear in groups dangling at tips of branchlets.
Despite the attractive flowers, some gardeners shy away from including borage in the garden because of the stiff, prickly hairs that cover leaves, stems, and flower buds. Sap is another nuisance, known to cause skin irritation in some people, but nuisance hairs and dermatitis can be avoided by wearing gloves. Youngest leaves tend to have fewest hairs and are favored for harvest. Both flowers and leaves are edible, adding color and cucumber-like taste to salads and garnish on dinner and dessert plates or on appetizer cheese trays.
Borage officinalis (”officinalis” indicates that the plant can be used in medicine) is not a California native but originally hails from the Mediterranean area. Centuries ago many non-native plants (herbs, grasses, flowers, grains) were brought here by immigrants as seed to grow, or inadvertently in the feed for their cattle or actually imbedded in the coats of the animals themselves.
Cultural requirements are minimal. Borage thrives in sun or shade with little water, in rich or poor soil, ideally with compost-enriched soil covered with mulch. Because borage re-seeds freely, it’s common to find it popping up in and around cultivated areas of the garden and filling bare spots between other flowers. Instead of dutifully planting borage seeds, some gardeners prefer to take a whole stem with spent, gone-to-seed flowers and lay it down wherever they would like it to grow. Unwanted seedlings are easily pulled out.