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Bilberry is any of several species of low-growing shrubs in the genus Vaccinium (family Ericaceae), bearing edible berries. The species most often referred to is Vaccinium myrtillus L., but there are several other closely related species.

Vernacular names

Bilberry (especially Vaccinium myrtillus) is known in English by a very wide range of local names. As well as “bilberry”, these include blaeberry (play /ˈbleɪbɛri/), whortleberry (/ˈhɜrtəlbɛri/), (ground) hurts, whinberry, winberry, windberry, wimberry, myrtle blueberry and fraughan. The berries were called black-hearts in 19th century south-western England, according to Thomas Hardy’s 1878 novel The Return of the Native.[1] In several other languages its name translates as “blueberry”, and this may cause confusion with the related plants more usually known as “blueberry” in English, which are in the separate section Cyanococcus of the Vaccinium genus.

Species

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).

Diseases

Bilberry plants can suffer from Bilberry Blight,[2] caused by Phytophthora kernoviae. There have been severe outbreaks in Staffordshire, England.[3]

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 colour, and usually appear near black with a slight shade of purple. While the blueberry’s fruit pulp is light green, the bilberry’s is red or purple, heavily staining the fingers and lips of consumers eating the raw fruit. The red juice is used by European dentists to show children how to brush their teeth correctly, as any improperly brushed areas will be heavily stained.

Bilberries are extremely difficult to grow and are thus seldom cultivated. Fruits are mostly collected from wild plants growing on publicly accessible lands, notably Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, parts of England, Alpine countries, Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine, Belarus, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Poland and northern parts of Turkey and Russia. Note that in Austria, Finland, Norway, Sweden 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. 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 25 Euro per pound. 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 in different jams and dishes. The famous one is the bilberry pie (Finnish: mustikkapiirakka, Swedish blåbärspaj).

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.

The fruits can be eaten fresh or made into jams, fools, juices or pies. In France and in Italy, they are used as a base for liqueurs and are a popular flavoring 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 liquer called afinată – the name of the fruit in Romanian is afină.

Bilberry is used as a food plant by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species – see list of Lepidoptera that feed on Vaccinium

Possible medicinal uses

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. However, a recent study[4] by the U.S. Navy found no such effect and origins of the RAF story cannot be found.[5]

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.[6]

Bilberries are recognized as a good source of flavonoids, some of which have antioxidant activity.[7]

As a deep purple fruit, bilberries contain anthocyanin pigments.

Standardization of its food products

  • ISO 6664

 

Written on June 13th, 2012 , Fruits Tags:

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