Jane McLeod: A little Borage for the cowardly lion

Gardening

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Instead of a pretty flowering herb tucked into your garden, why not choose one that is hairy and strange looking? Why not choose one that has some character?

Borage (Borago officinalis) fits that description - a tall, hairy-leaved annual with striking, black-centered, deep blue flowers. And truthfully, it is the flowers that will grab your attention, although the leaves don't exactly disappear into the background.

Borage is a native of the Mediterranean area and was taken by the Romans to many parts of Europe and Britain, where it quickly became naturalized. It arrived on our shores in the hands of early settlers. True to its heritage, borage prefers a sunny setting but is not fussy about the soil as long as the drainage is good. The plants, 12 to 18 inches tall, get top heavy and will droop. Borage will grow anywhere and everywhere, and once you have sown borage, you don't ever have to be without it because it readily seeds itself and comes up in the most unexpected places. I wouldn't consider it invasive - just undisciplined.

The seeds are largish, dark brown, tri-sided and lozenge-shaped and can be viable for up to eight years. The leaves are dark gray-green, oval-pointed and covered with prickly white hairs, as are the stems. If you grow more than one plant, thin them out so you remove any plants that will mask others from the light. Cut the plants back after flowering and remove any dead leaves. As you easily pull up a plant after the first autumn frosts, know that a borage baby will lift its furry head somewhere in your garden next spring.

The herb has a very old reputation as a bringer of courage. Some say its name comes from the old Celtic name "borrach," which means courage, or from the Latin "cor ago," meaning "I stimulate the heart." Consequently, there is a tremendous amount of lore attached to the plant and especially its flowers.

This plant is truly all about the flowers - small, brilliant blue, five-petalled stars with black stamen tips that nod downward in delicate drooping clusters at the tip of the stem. Lore denotes these flowers were chosen for their color by the Old Masters to paint the Madonna's robe. The strange but attractive flowers also were a very popular motif embroidered on fine medieval tapestries, on scarves for tournament jousters, strung as a necklace, infused as a drink before jousting tournaments and even floated in cups given to departing Crusaders. Borage flowers are loved by bees, and pollen from them produces excellent honey - maybe even with a hint of courage. But enough about the flowers!

A borage plant can be a conversation piece in your garden. It's a strong-growing beauty that, regardless of the weather, will continue to bloom for many months, reminding you of its ancient heritage and donating an aura of courage from its beautiful blue blooms to get you through your day.

Jane McLeod is a Master Gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office in Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825 or e-mail gardeners@co.routt.co.us.

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