Aunt Bett and the Delicate Art of Swooning: Borage
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on September 7, 2010. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Early in June some seeds I had planted began to bloom. Some of the seeds had come from friends far and near and were very special to me. I was out of town for nearly 2 weeks, and during that time the rains had washed away the markers for many of them, and I no longer knew what was what. There was one small cluster of a slightly hairy leafed plant that looked familiar, but I didn't know what it was. Suddenly about a week or so ago it bloomed. There they were, beautiful little blue flowers whose faces I had to lift to see, but whose name I had forgotten. I didn't know where to start looking in DG's Plant Files for identification. It was a mystery for about a week until I saw that same flower in a post on Dave's Garden. I immediately asked the one who was posting for the flower's identification. "Borage", she said, and I laughed out loud while visions of Aunt Bett danced in my head. It had been a long time since I had seen this lovely little blue flower, but with that one word I remember it all.
The first time I saw it happen Aunt Bett and I were in church and the congregation was cheerfully singing a happy hymn. It had been an energetic sermon that the young preacher had just finished, and I am not sure if everyone was glad it was over, or if they had simply enjoyed his message, but one of the young women fell in a swoon right in the middle of the aisle. Now Aunt Bett dug down in her wrinkled brown paper medicine bag and pulled out a little burlap pouch. Someone handed her a water glass, and she sprinkled a pinch of a dried dark blue herb into the glass, then added a little well water from her Mason fruit jar which was also in the brown paper medicine bag. A spoon appeared and she stirred the drink. Arms reached down and lifted the young woman who was still in a swoon, and Aunt Bett kept saying, "Lida Mae, open your mouth, you need to drank some of this tea now. Lida Mae, you wake up and get yourself up off this floor, 'cause we ain't able to lift you all the way up."
As I remember, Lida Mae was rather large, and the gathered skirt of the gabardine dress she was wearing must have added another ten pounds, not to mention her Sunday go to meetin' hat with flowers and feathers around a very wide brim. In her swoon, not even that hat had been dislodged, so well did she have it anchored with several long sharp hatpins. Lida Mae woke up from her swoon and it took several young men a lot of minutes to help her outside where she sat down on the church steps and fanned herself for awhile. Things settled down in the meantime and finally everybody was dismissed and I couldn't wait to get Aunt Bett outside to find out what was going on with Lida Mae.
"Well, chile, sometimes folks swoon whenever they get too happy or too sad or too excited about things. They just go into a place in their minds and don't have any more sense than a bumblebee. Happens most times with excitable folks, mostly young women who have nothin' more than wishes on their minds. It ain't the same thing as a faint. A faint happens when the body is sick. A swoon ain't nothin' to worry about."
I was wondering how folks could get that excited in church but I was afraid it would be disrespectful if I asked. Instead I asked Aunt Bett what was in the tea that she had given her, since it didn't look like anything I had helped her make. This is what she told me:
"Borage grows most everwhere, and it was used many years ago by folks who needed to be brought up out of deep sadness. Nowadays, it is mostly used just for swoons. Lida Mae, now, she's got a hankerin' for that preacher, and she'd do most anythin' to get him to notice her, even to fallin' down in the middle of church. She has no sickness in her body, just her mind, cause that preacher done got himself a wife. I'm bout to run out of my sugared borage flowers so we'll be goin' up to gather some before too long. It's for sure this ain't Lida Mae's last swoon."
And that was my introduction to borage, and to Lida Mae's attempt to tempt the preacher. It wasn't the last time I was with Aunt Bett when she used it, so I know she kept those dried, sugared flowers pretty handy, just for swooning women. I kept trying to practice a swoon, just in case I ever needed to use it. After that first sight of Lida Mae, I thought I had it mastered and I asked Aunt Bett to watch and see if I had it right. I fell straight down and landed in a pile left by the old mule that had plowed the garden some months back. I thought Aunt Bett was going to go right into a swoon herself when she laughed so hard. That was my last swoon. Well, there was the one when Billy finally asked me to the prom a few years later.
Borage (Borago officinalis) was brought to the new world in the late 15th century. It is such an adaptable plant, it had grown well in many countries. For centuries, Aunt Bett told me, the leaves and flowers were used in a tonic to bring peace to the heart, and to drive away sorrow. It would always create happiness, she told me, but she thought it was because it was mixed into wines. Aunt Bett also said that she sometimes used it to treat a fever, sore throats and rheumatism, and in a poultice it would relieve congested varicose veins. I kept asking her about Lida Mae, because I couldn't imagine what she was doing down in the middle of the church floor, and I also couldn't imagine what was in borage that would bring her out of her swoon.
"Well, I reckon it's like this," Aunt Bett said. "People like Lida Mae fall into a swoon when they can't face things, they just want attention sometimes, too. Long time ago, young women would swoon just to get the attention of a man, reckon they thought a man would feel mighty strong if he picked up a swooning woman and helped her to her feet. Course, it took about 4 young men to help poor Lida Mae, and not a one of 'em was the one she had a hankerin' for. The best thing you can do for a swoonin' woman is to give her what she thinks will help her: some o' this borage and a little attention".
That's really about all I remember about borage and the swoons, but it occurred to me that I had seen borage among the bottles of herbal medicines on the shelves of health food stores recently. Curiosity always gets the best of me, and I sat for hours one night reading some amazing things about the fuzzy plant with the little blue drooping flowers. At one time there was a saying: "Borage for Courage!" It was said that warriors carried it with them to eat before going into battle. Scientists tell us there is a chemical present that acts on the adrenal gland. Oil from Borage is high in GLA (gamma linolenic acid) which works like a hormone to reduce blood clots, inhibit cholesterol production and strengthen immunity. And ladies, it can also reduce premature aging in the skin. Some folks claim it is good for alleviating a hangover as well. You will find borage at most health food stores and also on the shelves of any store that sells vitamins and herbs. Along with fish oil, borage can be found in several herbal products.
I can tell you for sure, after having seen many swoons and several faints, there is a big difference. I have decided that a swoon happens as a result of too much emotion, but a faint happens when the body needs help, just like Aunt Bett told me. Those little blue flowers might have helped pull Lida Mae out of her swoon, but Aunt Bett sure didn't use them when she was trying to bring somebody out of a faint.
Along with all the above information, I found that if you throw dried powdered leaves of borage onto a dying fire, you can create spectacular fireworks. It sure is a good thing Aunt Bett never told me about that. My fireworks would have put her right in the middle of a swoon.
From Plant Files: thanks to Evert and htop for the use of their photos. The last photo is from my garden.
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