Bilberry: Europe’s Blueberry

Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) is a berry native to the Americas and parts of both Europe and Asia. Bilberry belongs to the same family as blueberries. Other members of the Vaccinium family include cranberries and huckleberries.

Bilberry’s use goes back to Ancient Rome. The fruit was mentioned by both Pliny and the physician Dioscorides. The latter suggested it for treating dysentery.

Bilberries were being used as a medicine during the Middle Ages with their juice used as a fabric dye. The 16th-century herbalist John Gerard wrote of bilberries as being popular among the people of Cheshire in the UK.

Bilberries have long had a reputation for improving eyesight, especially night vision. During World War 2, bilberry was eaten by Royal Air Force pilots in the belief that it could improve their night vision. Other conditions treated with bilberry throughout history ranged from varicose veins to mouth sores. It was also used to treat infections of the urinary tract.

Bilberries are sometimes called by other names including European blueberries because of their similar appearance to North American blueberries. The bilberry name is believed to come from the Danish word for dark berry.

Bilberry is difficult to cultivate, which is why it is almost always foraged from wild plants. Countries that have large areas of wild bilberries include Scotland and Poland. Up to a fifth of Sweden’s land area is given to bilberry bushes.

Bilberry flavor profile

While bilberries do look a lot like blueberries, they have a somewhat different taste. They are very acidic — some people find them too tart to be eaten raw, which is why they are often cooked in sugary preparations. Aside from the acidity, they have a similar flavor to that of North American blueberries but it is more concentrated.

Health benefits of bilberry

Bilberry is rich in a variety of compounds essential for good health. These include:

  • Vitamins: Bilberries are excellent sources of vitamins C and K.
  • Fiber: You can get a significant amount of fiber from bilberries. A cup will give you approximately as much as a medium apple with its skin.
  • Manganese: Bilberries have a lot of the mineral manganese, which is important for bone health and blood sugar regulation.
  • Anthocyanins: Bilberry contains a high concentration of anthocyanins, which researchers believe have major health benefits. Anthocyanins are a flavonoid responsible for the berry’s blue color.
  • Tannins: The tannins in bilberry also have anti-inflammatory properties that are useful for remedying many health conditions.

As a health supplement, bilberry may be effective for treating or preventing problems like:

  • Poor eyesight: While bilberry has not yet been shown to improve night vision, there is evidence that it can improve sight in other ways. Bilberry extract has been shown to improve vision in people with glaucoma and to reduce eye dryness.
  • Inflammation: The anthocyanins in bilberry make it effective against inflammation, which means the berry might be effective for fighting many serious diseases including arthritis and heart disease.
  • Diabetes: Studies show that bilberry is effective for lowering blood sugar levels for type 2 diabetes patients. Some studies also show that it can stimulate insulin production.

Common uses

In France, bilberries are made into liquors and sorbets. Bretons use bilberries to flavor crepes. Throughout Europe, the berries are used for pies. The leaves, roots, and fruit are all consumed for medicinal benefits. Icelandic people eat the bilberries with the yogurt-like dairy product called skyr.