Bilberry is any of several primarily Eurasian species of low-growing shrubs in the genus Vaccinium (family Ericaceae), bearing edible, nearly black berries. The species most often referred to is Vaccinium myrtillus L., but there are several other closely related species. Bilberries are distinct from blueberries but closely related to them.
Other vernacular or local names
Bilberry (especially Vaccinium myrtillus) is also known in English by other names including blaeberry //, whortleberry //, (ground) hurts, whinberry, winberry, windberry, wimberry, myrtle blueberry and fraughan. In several other European languages its name translates as "blueberry", and this may cause confusion with the related plants more usually known as "blueberry" in American English, which are in the separate section Cyanococcus of the genus Vaccinium. The bilberry is native to Europe including the British Isles, while the blueberry is native to North America.
Bilberries include several closely related species of the Vaccinium genus, including:
- Vaccinium myrtillus L. (bilberry)
- Vaccinium uliginosum L. (bog bilberry, bog blueberry, bog whortleberry, bog huckleberry, northern bilberry, ground hurts)
- Vaccinium caespitosum Michx. (dwarf bilberry)
- Vaccinium deliciosum Piper (cascade bilberry)
- Vaccinium membranaceum (mountain bilberry, black mountain huckleberry, black huckleberry, twin-leaved huckleberry)
- Vaccinium ovalifolium (oval-leafed blueberry, oval-leaved bilberry, mountain blueberry, high-bush blueberry).
Wild and cultivated harvesting
Bilberries are found in very acidic, nutrient-poor soils throughout the temperate and subarctic regions of the world. They are closely related to North American wild and cultivated blueberries and huckleberries in the genus Vaccinium. One characteristic of bilberries is that they produce single or paired berries on the bush instead of clusters, as the blueberry does. Blueberries have more evergreen leaves.
The fruit is smaller than that of the blueberry but with a fuller taste. Bilberries are darker in color, and usually appear near black with a slight shade of purple. While blueberry fruit pulp is light green in color, bilberry is red or purple, heavily staining the fingers, lips, and tongue of consumers eating the raw fruit. The color comes from diverse anthocyanins which are a natural acid-base indicator, dark blue in basic solutions and red in acidic solutions. Bilberry extract is used as an edible ink for stamping meat.
Bilberries are extremely difficult to grow and have small fruits, and are thus seldom cultivated. Fruits are mostly collected from wild plants growing on publicly accessible lands throughout northern and central Europe, where they are plentiful – for example, up to a fifth (17-21%) of the land area of Sweden is covered in bilberry bushes. Note that in Austria, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Estonia, Latvia and Switzerland, it is an everyman's right to collect bilberries, irrespective of land ownership, with the exception of private gardens and nature reserves. Bilberries can be picked by a berry-picking rake like lingonberries, but are more susceptible to damage. The best way to harvest bilberries is to carefully pick the fruit one by one by hand using fingers only to avoid damage and uprooting of the plant and squashing the fruit. Bilberries are softer and juicier than blueberries, making them difficult to transport. Because of these factors, the bilberry is only available fresh on markets and in gourmet stores, where in the latter they can cost up to 11 Euros per kilogram. Frozen bilberries however are available all year round in most of Europe.
In Finland, bilberries are collected from forests. They are eaten fresh or can be made into different jams and dishes. The most famous one is bilberry pie (Finnish: mustikkapiirakka, Swedish blåbärspaj).
In Iceland, bilberries (known as aðalbláber, or "prime blueberry") grow predominantly in Westfjords and the surrounding area. In most of the country, the closely related bláber occupy the same habitat. Both species are commonly found growing with dwarf birch and crowberries. Wild growth is vast compared to the population of Iceland and wildharvesting is legal. As a consequence, it is a popular activity in August when the berry season peaks. A popular use for bilberries is to eat them with skyr.
In Ireland, the fruit is known as fraughan, from the Irish fraochán, and is traditionally gathered on the last Sunday in July, known as "Fraughan Sunday".
Bilberries were also collected at Lughnasadh in August, the first traditional harvest festival of the year, as celebrated by Gaelic people. The crop of bilberries was said to indicate how well the rest of the crops would fare in their harvests later in the year.
In Poland, the fruit are known as jagody. They are gathered in forests. They are hugely popular in Poland, either eaten fresh (mixed with sugar), put into sweet buns as a filling (such a bun is called a jagodzianka and is one of the most popular bakery products during summer in Poland), or used to make jams (known for their health benefits in the treatment of diarrhoea). They are sometimes served with śmietana.
The fruits can be eaten fresh or made into jams, fools, juices or pies. In France and Italy they are used as a base for liqueurs and are a popular flavouring for sorbets and other desserts. In Brittany they are often used as a flavoring for crêpes, and in the Vosges and the Massif Central bilberry tart (tarte aux myrtilles) is a traditional dessert. In Romania they are used as a base for a liqueur called afinată – the name of the fruit in Romanian is afină. There is a North Korean Bog Bilberry Brandy (Paektusan Tuljjuksul) reportedly available at the DMZ.
Possible dietary effects
Often associated with improvement of night vision, bilberries are mentioned in a popular story of World War II RAF pilots consuming bilberry jam to sharpen vision for night missions. A study in 2000 by the U.S. Navy found no such effect and origins of the RAF story cannot be found. After the introduction of radar, RAF bombing became more accurately targeted, but to confuse the enemy, the story was leaked that it "was something in the pilots' diet" that improved their targeting - that something was carrots, not bilberries, and the story was concocted merely to keep the Germans from knowing the real reason for improved accuracy.
Although the effect of bilberry on night vision is unfounded, laboratory studies in rats have provided preliminary evidence that bilberry consumption may inhibit or reverse eye disorders such as macular degeneration.
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