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Bilberries are 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.
Etymology and common names
The name bilberry appears to have a Scandinavian origin, possibly from as early as 1577, being similar to the Danish word "bølle" for whortleberry with the addition of "berry". The bilberry (especially Vaccinium myrtillus) is also known by a number of other English names including blaeberry // in Scotland, whortleberry // in southern England, and w(h)imberry or w(h)inberry in south Wales and along the Anglo-Welsh border amongst other places.
Description and species
Bilberries – which are native to Europe and the British Isles – are to be distinguished from North American blueberries, although the species are closely related, being of the same genus, Vaccinium. Bilberry fruits have a smooth, circular outline at the end opposite their point of attachment, whereas blueberries retain persistent sepals there, leaving a rough, star-shaped pattern of five flaps. Bilberries are dark in color, and usually appear near black with a slight shade of purple.
Bilberries and blueberries contain diverse anthocyanins, including delphinidin and cyanidin glycosides. While blueberry fruit pulp is light green in color, bilberry is red or purple. The high anthocyanin content may cause staining of the fingers, lips, and tongue of consumers.
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 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.
Bilberries are 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 contains bilberry bushes. Bilberries can be picked by a berry-picking rake like lingonberries, but are more susceptible to damage.
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. Frozen bilberries however are available all year round in most of Europe.
In Scandinavia, bilberries are collected in forests. They are eaten fresh or made into 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.
Bilberries are 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 sweet smetana.
The fruits are 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.
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. One review found no such effect and origins of the RAF story cannot be found. Bilberries have been used in a variety of folklore and traditional medicine, but there are no proven health benefits or anti-disease effects from consuming them.
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