Vaccinium myrtillus is a species of shrub with edible fruit of blue color, commonly called "bilberry", "whortleberry" or European blueberry. It has much in common with the American blueberry (Vaccinium cyanococcus). It is more precisely called common bilberry or blue whortleberry, to distinguish it from other Vaccinium relatives. Regional names include blaeberry, hurtleberry, huckleberry, winberry and fraughan.
Vaccinium myrtillus is found natively in Europe, northern Asia, Greenland, Western Canada, and the Western United States. It occurs in the wild on heathlands and acidic soils. Its berry has been long consumed in the Old World. It is related to the widely cultivated North American blueberry.
Vaccinium myrtillus has been used for nearly 1,000 years in traditional European medicine. Vaccinium myrtillus fruits have been used in the traditional Austrian medicine internally (directly or as tea or liqueur) for treatment of disorders of the gastrointestinal tract and diabetes. Herbal supplements of V. myrtillus (bilberry) on the market are used for circulatory problems, as vision aids, and to treat diarrhea and other conditions. In cooking, the bilberry fruit is commonly used for the same purposes as the American blueberry: pies, cakes, jams, muffins, cookies, sauces, syrups, juices, candies and so on.
In traditional medicine, Bilberry leaf is used for different conditions, including diabetes. The United States' National Institutes of Health rates it as "possibly effective for problems with the retina of the eye in people with diabetes or high blood pressure".
Confusion between bilberries and American blueberries
Since many people refer to "blueberries", no matter if they mean the bilberry (European blueberry) Vaccinium myrtillus or the American blueberries, there is a lot of confusion about the two closely similar fruits. One can distinguish bilberries from their American counterpart by the following differences:
- bilberries have dark red, strongly fragrant flesh and red juice that turns blue in basic environments: blueberries have white or translucent, mildly fragrant flesh
- bilberries grow on low bushes with solitary fruits, and are found wild in heathland in the Northern Hemisphere; blueberries grow on large bushes with the fruit in bunches
- bilberries are usually harvested from wild plants, while blueberries are usually cultivated and are widely available commercially
- cultivated blueberries often come from hybrid cultivars, developed about 100 years ago by agricultural specialists, most prominently by Elizabeth Coleman White, to meet growing consumer demand; since they are bigger, the bushes grow taller, and are easier to harvest
- bilberry fruit will stain hands, teeth and tongue deep blue or purple while eating; it was used as a dye for food and clothes: blueberries have flesh of a less intense colour, thus less staining
- when cooked as a dessert, bilberries have a much stronger, more tart flavour and a rougher texture than blueberries
Adding to the confusion is the fact there are also wild American blueberry varieties, sold in stores mainly in the USA and Canada. These are uncommon outside of Northern America. Even more confusion is due to the huckleberry name, which originates from English dialectal names 'hurtleberry' and 'whortleberry' for the bilberry.
- illustration by Amédée Masclef, published in Atlas des plantes de France. 1891
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- Make Traditional Dyes - Bilberry Dye
- Mykkänen, Otto T.; Mykkänen, Hannu; Kirjavainen, Pirkka V.; Huotari, Anne; Dunlop, Thomas W.; Herzig, Karl-Heinz (12 December 2014). "Wild Blueberries (Vaccinium myrtillus) Alleviate Inflammation and Hypertension Associated with Developing Obesity in Mice Fed with a High-Fat Diet". PLOS ONE 12 (9): 1. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0114790. Retrieved 27 April 2015.
- Saponjac, Vesna Tumbas; Canadanovic-Brunet, Jasna; Cetkovic, Gordana (May 2015). "Dried bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus L.) extract fractions as antioxidants and cancer cell growth inhibitors". LWT- Food Science and Technology 61 (2): 615–621. doi:10.1016/j.lwt.2014.04.021.
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