Forget-me-not, for I am the borage family Boraginaceae :)

The boraginaceae family is commonly known as the borage family or the forget me not family.  Both are members of this plant family and both grow wild around Grimsby and can be seen on the regular herb walks I give around Bradley Woods.  This family are mainly herbaceous plants (which die back to the ground after each growing season).  There are roughly 100 genera within this family and 2000 species.

boragiaceae flower

Boraginaceae was initially classified as Lamiales because they shared (with Lamiaceae and Verbenaceae) ovaries with four deeply divided partitions, a style attached to the base of the ovary, and fruits that break apart into four nutlets. These similarities appear to have evolved independently, however, and borages differ in having alternate leaves, round stems, different secondary metabolites (no iridoid alkaloids), regular flowers, the same number of stamens and petals, and flower clusters.

The virginia bluebell is no relative to our British bluebells which are currently carpeting woodlands :)

The virginia bluebell is no relative to our British bluebells which are currently carpeting woodlands 🙂

The family includes a number of garden ornamentals, such as heliotrope and Virginia bluebell.  There are also several toxic members of this family due to the secondary metabolites that they possess. Medicinally members of this family include Pulmonaria (lungwort), Myosotis (forget-me-not), Borago officinalis (borage) and Symphytum officinale (comfrey).  There is also Echium vulgare (Viper’s Bugloss), Lithospermum officinale (Gromwell) and Cynoglossum officinale (Hound’s-tongue).

Symphytum officinale - comfrey in flower (the bees love it!)

Symphytum officinale – comfrey in flower (the bees love it!)

Pyrrolizidine alkaloids are found in most, if not all, of the plants of the Boraginaceae family. Some of these alkaloids are hepatotoxic (toxic to the liver), causing veno-occlusive disease of the liver, which can progress to fibrosis and cirrhosis of the liver. There is also some suspicion of carcinogenicity. The development of veno-occlusive disease in adults has only so far been observed after long-term intake of high doses. However, infants and children seem to be more susceptible, with some case reports of hepatotoxic responses after minimal exposure – therefore herbs in this family should only be used under the guidance and supervision of professionals such as herbalists and doctors.

borage (4)

Members of the Boraginaceae family are often covered with bristly hairs. The flowers have a radial symmetry, often borne along one side of branches or at the tip of the stem, in a spirally coiled inflorescence that unwinds as the flowers mature (some are similar to a scorpions tail uncurling).  There are 5 sepals, united at the base into a calyx, 5 petals, united into a corolla.  The flowers have 5 stamens and 1 style.  There are often small appendages (fornices) on the insides of the petals near the point where the tube and limb join.  All these parts are attached near the base of the ovary.  The leaves are simple, usually alternate and bristly-hairy.  The fruit is usually a dry capsule that separates into 4 hard, seed-like sections (nutlets). In a few species the fruit is a berry.

In discussion of the Doctrine of Signatures, “Large leaves stand for surface area and gas exchanges or breathing, hence the lungs and skin……..Hairy or hirsute leaves and stems are a signature for ..hairs of the mucosa” (Wood, 1997)

It is hard to draw clear themes for this family. Demulcent properties are widespread, but usually just form a minor part of the indications for any one herb in this family.   Medicinally, these plants are astringent, good internally as tea or externally as poultices for pretty much any wounds or excretions that need an astringent to tighten up the tissues. A few members of the family are mucilaginous, useful for their emollient properties. Some contain volatile oils and may serve as an antidote to poisons by functioning as diaphoretics. Many members of this family have irritating hairs that may cause dermatitis on some individuals. Also, several plants contain minute amounts of poisonous alkaloids (as mentioned above), making them toxic when used long term or in high doses.

Lungwort has gorgeous flowers and white spotted leaves

Lungwort has gorgeous flowers and white spotted leaves

Symphytum officinale and Borago officinalis are undoubtedly the two most commonly used in the UK – I know I use both regularly in my clinic.  Symphytum has a very strong tradition for promoting healing in damaged tissue, particularly after sprains, fractures and wounds, but also for internal treatment of ulcerated tissue.  Its common name is knitbone as it is an excellent herb for speeding the rate of mitosis (cell division) increasing the speed of healing.  Here is a youtube video of an American herbalist David Hoffman discussing the properties of Comfrey: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=szRvmxzEwbI

comfrey (9)

There has been controversy regarding the use of comfrey internally.  The use of the root internally has stopped in mainstream herbalism although the leaf is still used internally.  The controversy is regarding the relatively high levels of hepatotoxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids – there was a case where a man developed liver failure after using comfrey, but.. when you look at the case he was drinking excessive amounts of comfrey root tea internally over an extended period.  This said, even as a herbalist I allow the people who I prescribe comfrey leaf to internally a break to allow the liver to recuperate prior to re-prescribing again.  I have cooked and eaten the young comfrey shoots. They are great to harvest at this time of the year and they can be treated and eaten like asparagus or mixed in salads. Young leaves make an excellent vegetable or can be added to soups and stews.

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Borago officinalis is most often used by herbalists as an adrenal tonic, it is a great herb to increase a person’s courage, lift their mood and reduce mild depression.  An infusion (2 tsp per cup, allow to stand for 10 mins) can be taken 2 times a day for rheumatic conditions, pleurisy and affections of the mucous membranes.  Old recipes recommend a concoction of flowers soaked in wine and drunk for melancholy and depression.  Young leaves make a fine addition to salads and lend them a pleasant cucumber like flavour. They can also be treated like spinach. The flower corolla can be used to colour vinegar blue.

Lithospermum officinale was traditionally used for treatment of kidney stones. Other members of the Lithospermum genus have traditionally been used as contraceptives. Laboratory experiments have confirmed that Lithospermum ruderale has a marked contraceptive effect.  Pulmonaria officinalis, as the name suggests, was traditionally used for lung complaints, particularly tuberculosis.  Fruits of the southern African Boraginaceae species are edible, but not very tasty. Some species are browsed by game. A tea is made from the dried leaves, stalks and berries of Ehretia rigida subsp. nervifolia. Dried, ground root powder mixed with cold water is used for diarrhoea (Trichodesma angustifolia subsp. angustifolia). Leaves of Lobostemon, (with pretty bell-shaped flowers) fried in sweet oil and leaf decoctions are old Cape remedies for ringworm, sores, ulcers, burns and wounds.

Oh… and forget-me-not 🙂

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This plant is not used in current herbal medicine practice but had a strong affinity for respiratory organs, especially the left lower lung. On the continent it is sometimes made into a syrup and given for pulmonary affections. There is a tradition that a decoction or juice of the plant hardens steel. The plant has astringent properties; it has been used in lotions. In traditional herbal medicine, forget-me-nots have been used to treat eye diseases.

Five petals, flat face, a yellow eye, usually blue but can be pink to white. The blossoms are added to salads as a garnish and make excellent candied blossoms. However, the plant does contain some pyrrolizidine, a chemical not to eat a lot of so use only occasionally and not to excess.

It is said that whomever wore this flower would not be forgotten by his or her lover. There are two stories that illustrate the flower’s significance among lovers and explain the common name, although both have tragic endings. In the first story, a suitor was picking this flower for his love and saw the perfect specimen. It was close to the cliff’s edge but he reached for it anyway. Losing his balance, the man plummeted over the cliff, shouting, “Forget me not!” as he fell. The second story originates in Germany. A knight and his lovely lady were walking along a riverbank. He was picking this flower for her when he tripped and fell into the river. Before he went under he threw the small bouquet to her and shouted “verges mein nicht”, the German name of the flower.

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