Borage – A Star of Nature

In today’s Story from the Museum Floor, Fang from the Visitor Team takes a closer look at borage, also known as starflower.  Although Fang is not an expert on herbs, various borage-related specimens and themes in the Museum’s collection have inspired her to research and write this post.

For more about botany, have a look at the Curator’s blog, Herbology Manchester.

Please note: This blog is intended to be read only as interesting information, and is not to be considered as a replacement for professional medical consultancy. The author and others associated with this blog accept no responsibility for any claims arising from the use of any treatment mentioned here.***

Borage: A beneficial herb for both humanity and nature

Borage (Borago officinalis), is an annual herb in the Boraginaceae plant family. It is native to the Mediterranean region, but now cultivated around the world for its edible uses and herbal properties. Since ancient times it has been one of the most famous and valuable herbs, and has been used in medicine for more than 700 years. It should be noted that the fresh herb contains trace toxins which are hepatotoxic, mutagenic and carcinogenic.

Left: Borage Botanical Illustration, Leo Grindon Collection, Herbarium, Manchester, Museum. Right: Borage. Whitby, England.

Borage is also known as starflower as it bears vibrant bright-blue, five-petaled, star-shaped flowers.  Other common names include bee plant, bee bread, bugloss and burrage. The Celtic name ‘burrachmeantglad courage’ and the 17 century botanist, John Gerard translated the old Latin verse, “Ego Borago, Gaudia semper ago” as “I, Borage, bring always courage”.  However it has been stated recently that ‘gaudia’ is closer to ‘delight’ than ‘courage’

Specimens of borage from the Charles Bailey collection. Left: Jersey, 1871. Centre: Guernsey, 1862. Right: Cornwall, England, 1886.  (Image from the Herbarium Collection at Manchester Museum © The University of Manchester)

Homer’s ‘Nepenthe’ and a modern antidepressant

Borage is sometimes referred to as the ‘Herb of Gladness’. The Roman scholar Pliny the Elder believed that borage was the ‘Nepenthe’ in Homer’s Odyssey, which induced absolute forgetfulness when infused in wine. He called it Euphrosynum after one of the Three Graces (Euphrosyne, the Greek goddess of joy).

The Greek physician Dioscorides, in his De Materia Medica, suggested to take borage to ‘cheer the heart and to lift the depressed spirits’. Gerard, in his 1597 publication, ‘Herbal’, extolled the virtues of borage ‘for the comfort of heart, to drive away sorrow, and increase the joy of the minde’.

Left: Poster for World Health Day 2017 © WHO 2017. Right: Euphrosyne, the Greek goddess of joy. Image from

Modern research indicates that borage can stimulate adrenaline production, which helps to lift you up. People who suffer from depression have been found to experience a dramatic drop in adrenaline. The theme of World Health Day 2017 was ‘Depression’. Borage is a natural and effective antidepressant, to alleviate pensiveness, sadness and melancholy. Like a twinkling star at night, the bright blue starflower can help to overcome the “blue” feeling.

Hope for fighting against cancer

Borage has also been shown to be the richest known plant source of gamma linoleic acid (GLA), an omega-6 polyunsaturated, essential fatty acid. Borage oil is available in capsule form and often marketed as a GLA supplement. Recent research has shown that GLA is active against various cancers, including brain, prostate and breast. GLA inhibits the spread of malignant tumours by restricting blood vessel growth.

Left: Borage oil in capsule form (image from: Centre: Starflower, the symbol of National Cancer Day (Image from: Model Tara King promoting the Cancer Research Starflower Appeal  (image from:

A British study published in 2000 observed that GLA can boost the effect of the breast cancer drug Tamoxifen. Patients receiving oral capsules of GLA plus Tamoxifen responded to the chemotherapy significantly faster than the control group who just took Tamoxifen. The Director of the UK Cancer Research Campaign said, “this humble herb holds great potential as we strive to find new treatments for cancer.”

For these reasons, borage flower was chosen as the symbol of National Cancer Day, as promoted by Cancer Research UK.

Pest repellant and bee friend

Borage is an excellent companion plant. It deters cabbage and tomato caterpillars and can help plants increase their disease resistance. In contrast, its flowers attract beneficial pollinators such as bees and wasps. Its stems and leaves are rich in calcium and potassium, so borage is also useful as a mulch and in a compost heap, adding trace minerals to the soil. In Organic Farming, it is mainly used for soil fertilisation. Probably due to these reasons, planting borage close to tomatoes and strawberries will improve their growth and fruit production.

Left: Bee bread. Photo © 2017 iStockphoto LP.
Top right: Manchester Museum’s bee hive (Photo: Sam Beath)
Bottom right: Manchester Museum Allotment and Garden

Borage is useful in a wildlife garden, by providing an abundance of nectar for bees to enjoy. Bees love it, and it has become known by many as ‘Bee Plant’ and ‘Bee Bread’. Here, at the Manchester Museum, there is a bee hive on the roof and a Museum Allotment & Garden at the entrance, where many plants and herbs grow, including borage. These are examples of how our museum endeavours to achieve its ‘Sustainable Environment’ objectives.

Bioremediation potential

In The Study, on the third floor at Manchester Museum, in the ‘Discover’ section, there is a display exploring the connections between nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford and botanist Charles Bailey.

Borage flowers, The Study, Manchester Museum

The Q&A statement and the dish of blue flowers urged me to think: what’s the role of the starflower in remediation, and why Rutherford’s Garden?  

In 2015, a model remediation garden was created in front of the main entrance of the Museum.

Rutherford’s Garden is a collaborative, ecological, art and science project […] It aims to artfully explore the tangible interrelationships between […] the bitter-sweet legacy of nuclear physics, the Manchester Museum’s botany collection, and the applied science of bioremediation.’ – The Study, Manchester Museum

Borage flower and plant, from the Rutherford’s Garden, Manchester Museum.

Borage was planted in the garden due to its bioremediation potential, discovered in 2011. Borage is a salt-accumulating species and can take up high levels of sodium and chlorine ions that are toxic to other plants. Borage can thus be cultivated as an inter-crop to help remediate saline soils.

‘In the coming decades, this might become a useful plant to introduce into coastal agricultural land which is being affected by increased salt water due to sea-level rise.’ – The Study, Manchester Museum

shop 8Boraginaceae anatomy poster, donated by Charles Bailey in 1917 (Herbarium, Manchester Museum)

Finally, a Botanical Teaching Poster of Boraginaceae is currently on display in the temporary exhibition Object Lessons. It is one from an educational set (called Botanische Wandtafeln, meaning ‘Botanical Wall Charts’) produced in 1901 by the German botanist Gustav Albert Peter. Prints of the Victorian Poster are available in the Museum Shop.

Fang Zong

Acknowledgement: special thanks to Dr Rachel Webster (Curator of Botany) and Lindsey Loughtman (Curatorial Assistant, Botany) for their advice and help.

***Disclaimer: This blog is intended to be read only as interesting information, and is not to be considered as a replacement for professional medical consultancy. The author and others associated with this blog accept no responsibility for any claims arising from the use of any treatment mentioned here. 

All photographs unless indicated are taken by Fang Zong

Feature image, photograph: Trevor Sims

Rodal’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, 1999, Claire Kowalchik
Breverton’s Complete Herbal, 2011, Quercus Publishing Plc Cancer Prevention and Health Benefices of Traditionally Consumed Borago officinalis Plants Evaluating potential of borage (Borago officinalis L.) in bioremediation of saline soil, African Journal of Biotechnology, Vol 10, No 2 (2011)

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