In Praise of the Starflower

Blessed with a multitude of names – Starflower, Burrage, Bee Plant, Bee Bread, Bugloss, Herb of Gladness, Borak, Lisan selvi, Lesan-El-Tour, Star Flower, Cool Tankard and Euphrosinum to name but a few – Borage has long had a reputation as a highly esteemed medicinal herb.

Borage, flowering in the veg patch

The plant is a tall, graceful annual that self sows readily from the previous year’s plant – quite literally, if you sow seed or buy one plant, you can pretty much guarantee a whole load of seedlings germinating later the same year, as well as pretty much every year afterwards. Borage grows surprisingly tall and broad, and tends to sprawl happily over everything if not given sufficient support – last year I had to uproot a load in the vegetable patch because they were taking over the place, and I was hard put to it not to yell ‘TIMBER!!!’ in a loud voice as the green and blue giants toppled over. The leaves and stems are coarsely hairy, as you will discover if you try and pick them up without very sturdy garden gloves – the hairs will pierce through clothes quite easily as well, and can leave you with sore, prickly feeling skin afterwards if you aren’t careful. The leaves are a pain in the backside to dry, as, being from the same family as the rather fragrant garden compost Comfrey, as soon as the leaves begin to rot they stink to high heaven. Unfortunately they begin to rot very easily – I tried to dry some last year and gave it up after 12 hours as the smell rapidly became unbearable, and this was despite gathering the herb carefully so as not to bruise the leaves. The leaves are roughly oval, coarsely hairy and a blue green colour. The stems are even more hairy, and rise to yield beautiful blue flowers much beloved of the bees during late spring, summer and autumn. The fresh plant, bruised, smells distinctly of cucumber, and a tea of the fresh leaves tastes rather like cucumber as well. The flowers make a lovely and delicious addition to salads and drinks in the summer months, and, as the folk name suggests, bring extra coolness to drink.s Being native to North Africa, the Middle East, the Mediterranean and Europe, the plant likes a well drained soil and plenty of sun, which is probably why it thrives so readily where I live, as the soil is light and sandy and very well drained.

Starflower

We tend to use the leaves and flowers for medicine, as fresh as possible, and the seeds provide a lovely seed oil that has plenty of omega oils in and is held in high regard by many people. The plant contains pyrollizidine alkaloids (PAs) and choline, as well as mucilage, tannins and essential oils. The seeds contain fixed oils and EFAs such as gamma linolenic acid and linoleic acid, but do not contain the liver toxic alkaloids and are therefore safe. With regards to using the plant, because of the liver toxic PA content it is not recommended to use Borage over long periods of time, especially not if you have had trouble with your liver in the past. Why ask for trouble if you don’t need it? Honestly, I find Borage so cooling and moistening that I would not want to use it over long periods of time anyway.

A rather unusual four petalled Borage flower – and the characteristic slightly pinkish unopened buds.

The plant’s planetary ruler is Jupiter, which is quite interesting as it suits hot tempered people far more than it does those with a phlegmatic or melancholic temperament. I tried some Borage the other day (more about this in a little while) and I found that it sat on my chest like a heavy, wet blanket, and damped me down too much. I tend to have an overly phlegmatic temperament – very cold and phlegmy as a general rule, hence this herb does not suit me at all well. My colleague, who is far more choleric / sanguine in temperament, took to it like a duck to water (an appropriate analogy, all things considered!) and found that Borage gave him the quiet space to breathe and just be. It also damped his temper down considerably and made it much easier for him to be calm and thoughtful instead of short tempered. Long considered a warrior’s herb, Borage is ruled by Llew, Lugh and assorted Warrior Gods (probably Taranis and related Gods, as well as Aries.) The distinction here, as far as I am concerned, is that Borage is a herb for warriors – those who think before they charge in. It gives you that breathing space to consider your action carefully before you commit to it, and would perhaps balance out those who tend towards berserker rages – the sort who leap in all guns blazing and do stupid things that they perhaps would not do if they had a cooler head.

I’m inclined to think that Borage is cool and moist to the second degree at the very least – to me, the effect is very pronounced on tasting the herb. The tincture, made from dry herb in this case, I suspect, has a rather honeyish flavour, and is not cooling on first taste – it is quite sweet and neutral in flavour and character, slightly floral, with a diffusive, gently stimulating and warming taste, though how much of this is due to the herb and how much is the alcohol content remains to be seen. The cooling nature becomes apparent a moment or two after tasting the herb, as it quickly spreads outwards through the body, dispersing as it goes, like a fine spring rain instead of a steady stream following a set channel. It feels cooling in the sense that it disperses heat evenly through the body instead of allowing it to pool in one place. Five minutes after tasting the tincture, the head clears, and consciousness seems to lift slightly, sitting evenly behind the eyes and surveying the world with a dispassionate calm and far greater focus. My colleague described it as the feeling you gain from standing at an open window onto green spaces on a sunny day. To me, this herb is masculine in what I feel is the purest sense of the world – calm and level headed, with the controlled energy to do whatever needs to be done without the need to indulge in ‘pissing contests’. For ‘hot’ personality types, Borage is cooling and calming without being sedating.

Gorgeous silky petals!!

The tea, both of the fresh and dry plant matter, behaves in a very similar fashion. After the first couple of sips the facial muscles begin to relax, most especially around the eyes, and the focus narrows a little. For my colleague, the effects stopped there, with a sense of physical and mental readiness. For me, as a phlegmatic type, I found it a little hard to breathe, and became particularly cold in my lungs, causing tightness of the chest and a tendency to hold my breath.

Personally speaking, I primarily use borage for nervous exhaustion and varying stages of adrenal depletion, with all its accompanying symptoms of depression, anxiety, inability to handle stress and general malaise. As the herb is cooling, it is particularly good for those with a generally hot constitution – those who tend to get head rushes when they stand up too fast, who generally do not allow themselves to express anger or frustration but for whom it tends to manifest quite strongly as a flushed face and high blood pressure. Borage is cooling and soothing but not trapping. Interestingly, it is generally used for those with a melancholic constitution although personally speaking I would not be inclined to use it for this particular constitution – the herb is cooling and moistening, and I really think it would need balancing by something temperate or even slightly warm and moist.

Borage has the old reputation as being able to strengthen the heart, although whether or not this is by physical or emotional means is a different matter entirely – not a great deal of research has been done concerning Borage’s actions.

Borage can also be used for lung complaints, in particular hot, dry, inflamed complaints such as bronchitis, chronic catarrh and related problems. This is another interesting one because I’ve noticed a connection between an inability to express anger and negative emotions and repeated, deep seated chest infections. I think Borage helps a person lift out of emotional quagmires and view them from a more dispassionate vantage point, allowing them to see their way out of issues and devise better plans of attack.

Borage can also be used to treat a few women’s issues, ranging from postpartum exhaustion to menopausal hot flushes. It can also be used as a galactagogue, to increase milk production in nursing mothers, though honestly there are quite a few other herbs that do this that do not have the rather dodgy PA content in!

As a mild diuretic, the plant is also sometimes used in the treatment of inflamed, hot urinary tract infections such as cystitis and nephritis.

The cooling, soothing properties of borage can also be of benefit in inflamed gastric conditions such as colitis, gastritis and gastric ulceration – I’m willing to bet especially where this is due to stress and anxiety. It is also a mild laxative and can be used to treat mild constipation – again, probably where this is in part due to anxiety and tension. Use with caution in conditions where the system is hyper relaxed and overly soggy.

Both Culpeper and Gerard used it as a convalescent’s medicine, for those who have suffered or are still suffering chronic long term illness.

A young Borage plant

Moving on to the more esoteric properties of the herb – much in the same way as mentioned in the spiritual and energetic uses of the plant, Borage is used in spells and incenses to bring courage and strength of character, and to bring hope and lift the spirits in dark and difficult times. The herb is associated with the hierophant card in the tarot. I’d probably be inclined to use it in spells for strength of purpose, as well as in any tight spot where clarity and focus is required to see a way out. A tea of the herb can encourage psychic powers.

The herb can be used in rituals to explore the warrior’s path, the masculine, linear side of the personality, and to make a tea or oil used to consecrate weapons. The incense can be used to invoke various warrior Gods, though as mentioned earlier, it is for the warrior side of this equation, not the berserker kind who throws themselves in without thought.

On an energetic level, this herb is great for those who set themselves impossible standards and cause themselves exhaustion as a result, and probably also by extension for those who are extremely self critical and never give themselves a break. The old saying states that ‘I, Borage, bring always courage’ and it certainly does just that – I’ve used it for patients who are facing big decisions and major life changes, as well as for those who are just about scraping the bottom of the energy barrel, and have taken it myself for similar things. It always has a great effect and somehow manages to take the edge off panic, making for a cool head and rational decisions. For this sort of use, I’d suggest drop doses only – and this is certainly the dose I would use, myself.

In folklore, the name Borago quite possibly derives from the Latin ‘corago’, meaning ‘to give heart’ or courage. Apparently the herb may be the famed herbal wine mentioned by Homer, used to bring complete forgetfulness (though enough of any alcohol will probably do just that!) The herb was held as sacred by the druids, and an alternate possibility concerning the name mentions that it may be derived from the celtic word ‘borrach’ meaning ‘brave person’. The celts would steep the leaves of the plant in wine and drink it before going into battle or any other daring escapade (cattle raids spring to mind…) The herb has retained its popularity right up to the present time, and was very popular in the medieval era as a garden plant.

All in all – Borage, the founding plant that the entire Boraginaceae plant family is named for, is a worthy and useful plant ally, giving courage and clarity in tight spaces. Get to know him and he will assist well with many different problems!

4 thoughts on “In Praise of the Starflower

  1. I do love a bit of Borage! This year I have hundreds of plants growing up but needless to say, none in the places I actually sowed them. Oh well these plants know their own minds and you have to respect them for it. 🙂
    It was really interesting reading the difference between you and your colleagues responses. I have always found it moistening and nourishing but not to such an extent as you. So good to remember how different our experiences of herbs can be.
    Interestingly I have always thought of borage as quite feminine in a way, so soothing and ‘yin’, but you have made me appreciate a different side of it and I can see your reasoning for it as being more masculine.
    A very interesting post which has given me lots to think about. xx

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