Gamma linole(n)ic acid and borage

In Tuesday’s NYT Science Times, from “Really? The Claim: Evening Primrose Oil Soothes Eczema” by Anahad O’Connor:

It may not exactly be a household name, but evening primrose, a bright yellow plant native to North America, has a large following in the alternative medicine world.

The seeds of the plant contain essential fatty acids, which are used to make an oil that has a variety of uses as a dietary supplement and folk remedy. Its most popular use may be for eczema, the skin condition that affects as many as one in five people. Widely marketed and easy to find, primrose oil contains gamma linoleic acid, which is thought to help reduce skin inflammation without the side effects of other treatments.

(Note: WordPress tells me that this is my 3,000th posting in this blog; posting #1 was on 12/17/08. Wow.)

(On evening primroses, see here.)

O’Connor continues:

But a large new study suggests that people using evening primrose oil for eczema may want to save their money instead.

In the study, a review of evidence published in The Cochrane Library, researchers looked at data from 27 studies involving either evening primrose oil and a similar supplement, borage oil, which is also rich in gamma linoleic acid. The studies, which included about 1,600 adults and children, compared the supplements to placebo.

The researchers did not find that taking either supplement allayed eczema any more than taking dummy pills.

Now on borage (which I grew in my Columbus OH garden):

Borage (Borago officinalis), also known as a starflower, is an annual herb. It is native to the Mediterranean region and has naturalized in many other locales. It grows satisfactorily in gardens in the UK climate [and in much of the US], remaining in the garden from year to year by self-seeding. The leaves are edible and the plant is grown in gardens for that purpose in some parts of Europe. [The flowers are also edible, and the buds can be pickled and used like capers.] The plant is also commercially cultivated for borage seed oil extracted from its seeds.

… Traditionally borage was cultivated for culinary and medicinal uses, although today commercial cultivation is mainly as an oilseed. The seed oil is desired as source of gamma-linolenic acid …, for which borage is the highest known plant-based source

… Vegetable use of borage is common in Germany, in the Spanish regions of Aragón and Navarra, in the Greek island of Crete and in the Italian northern region Liguria. Although often used in soups, one of the better known German borage recipes is the Green Sauce (Grüne Soße) made in Frankfurt. In Italian Liguria, borage is commonly used as filling of the traditional pasta ravioli and pansoti. The leaves and flowers were originally used in Pimms before it was replaced by mint or cucumber peel. It is used to flavour pickled gherkins in Poland.

Borage is also traditionally used as a garnish in the Pimms Cup cocktail, but is sometimes replaced by a long sliver of cucumber peel if not available. It is also one of the key “Botanical” flavourings in Gilpin’s Westmorland Extra Dry Gin. Borage leaves have a cucumber like flavor. (link)

The plant in flower:

From OED2, the definition and a cautious etymology:

A genus of plants, giving its name to a family (Boraginaceæ). spec. The common British species ( Borago officinalis), which has bright blue flowers, and stem and leaves covered with prickly hairs; it was formerly much esteemed as a cordial, and is still largely used in making cool tankard, claret cup, etc. [clear citations from Middle English on]

< medieval Latin borrāgo, or one of the Romanic forms: compare French bourrache (also Old French bourrace), Provençal borrage, Italian borraggine, borrace, Spanish borraja, Portuguese borragom; in modern Latin borāgo; probably, according to Diez, < borra, burra ‘rough hair, short wool’ (compare late Latin burra ‘a shaggy garment’), in reference to the roughness of the foliage.

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