Borage and kin

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Borago officinalis

Last week I received a borage plant (Borago officinalis, ht 60-90 cm) from a delightful country garden I visited on the south coast of NSW. I have long wanted to grow this herbal plant again, as it is a reminder of the garden of my childhood, where it popped up all over the place and beguiled me with its stunningly blue, star-shaped flowers. I also seem to recall that borage flowers were used in a punch made with Pimm's No. 1 Cup at garden parties in my long-ago youth. Sometimes the flowers were frozen in ice cubes to be added to the bowl - a pretty touch.

Cynoglossum amabile

Borage does self-seed very readily, but so do many plants that I would never want to be without - especially those with blue flowers, for which I have a weakness. I have only just realised that borage is related to several of these: forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica, ht 30 cm) and Chinese forget-me-nots (Cynoglossum amabile, ht 50 cm), which are both starting to flower in my garden now, happily filling empty gaps. I pull out large numbers of seedlings of these rogues every year, but always leave enough to give me my annual fix of celestial blue each spring. Both belong to the family Boraginaceae, which includes borage and some other plants that grow well in Sydney's climate. Members of this plant family generally have foliage that is hairy or velvety (which may be an irritant to some people), and the clusters of flowers are simple and upward-facing or in the form of nodding bells. The blooms are usually very attractive to bees. Some of them have traditional uses in herbal medicine, though I can't vouch for any of these. Borage and forget-me-nots are best treated as annuals, but I have found that the Chinese forget-me-not can last for several years in the garden.

Echium plantagineum

One of the most spectacular members of the family Boraginaceae - which is just coming into bloom now in Sydney - is the pride of Madeira: Echium candicans. This shrubby perennial, which does indeed hail from Madeira, has tall spires (up to 80 cm in length) smothered in tiny, star-shaped blue-purple flowers that seem to have an iridescent tinge. I have seen it looking fabulous growing alongside the lime-green heads of Euphorbia characias subspecies wulfenii. Pride of Madeira grows best in a dry, sunny position, and in Sydney, it (like many plants from similar provenances) can become woody and unproductive after a few years and require replacement. Note that in some dry inland areas, it is regarded as much of a noxious weed as its cousin, Paterson's curse (Echium plantaginuem, pictured, ht 60 cm), a small, self-seeding annual (which can be toxic to livestock) with the same shimmering colouration in its flowers.

Heliotropium arborescens Lord Roberts

More garden-friendly is the deliciously scented heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens, ht 75 cm) - its tiny clustered blooms are very similar to those of forget-me-nots upon close inspection. This is a useful shrubby perennial for Sydney gardens, and flowers for much of the year if deadheaded regularly. I do find that it too gets a bit woody after a while, and it is best replaced with a new plant every few years. There are several cultivars, including a pretty golden-leaved one. Unlike most of its relatives, it shows no tendency to self-seed!

Comfrey (Symphytum species, ht 60 cm or more) is another member of the family Boraginaceae, and it can be a useful groundcover in dry shade. It will grow much bigger in a moist position and take up a lot of space - I certainly wouldn't recommend giving it a prime position in the garden. It is a clump-forming plant, the leaves of which can be added to the compost heap to accelerate decomposition. The most common form has rather unspectacular white, bell-shaped flowers, but there is a lovely compact version with blue flowers ('Hidcote Blue', ht 45 cm). Several years ago, I acquired a cultivar ('Belsay Gold', ht 50 cm) that has amazing lime-gold foliage in spring and early summer. There are also yellow-variegated forms, such as 'Goldsmith', though I did not find it long lived in my garden when I tried it, and I think it demands moister soil than most of the others.

Cerinthe major Purpurascens in the garden of Dominic Wong, Mittagong, NSW

The flowers of the purple honeywort (Cerinthe major 'Purpurascens', ht 45 cm) have the same nodding bell shape as comfrey - and this self-seeding annual from the family Boraginaceae was a popular plant amongst enthusiastic Sydney gardeners in the 1990s. It has stunning blue bracts and purple-blue flowers, with almost a metallic quality. The leaves are grey-blue (and sometimes spotted with white), with a succulent texture. I grew it for a few years and loved it, but it seems to me it grows better in climates with less humidity than Sydney has.

Pulmonaria Diana Clare in the garden of Pamela and Harry Fowell in Sydney

Some of the woodland members of the family Boraginaceae can grow well in the more elevated suburbs in Sydney with rich, deep soil - for example, Brunnera macrophylla (ht 45 cm), with its heart-shaped leaves (beautifully variegated in the cultivar 'Jack Frost') and sprays of dainty forget-me-not flowers, and lungworts (Pulmonaria species, ht 15-25 cm), which have gorgeous silver-spotted or streaked leaves and nodding bell-shaped flowers of purple, pink or blue. I find them a bit marginal in my garden - but I have seen them growing magnificently in a garden not 2 km away! Anchusa, Mertensia and Omphalodes species are other lovely Boraginaceae plants that I tried and failed with in my Sydney garden in my younger days - sadly, they are better suited to colder climates than ours.