Bilberry - Vaccinium myrtillus


Foraging and identification of Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus)

Edible plant - novice Season - summer Common names Bilberry, whortleberry, winnberry, whinberry, European blueberry, huckleberry, blaeberry, myrtille, windberry


Scientific name meaning: The origin of the Latin word Vaccinium is obscured, and may possibly be derived from bacca, meaning berry. Myrtillus is of Greek origin from Myrtilos, meaning son of Mercury

Habitat

Bilberry likes acidic soil and is found on mountains, moorland and heathland, and in woodland.

It is native to the UK.

Overall structure

A low-growing shrub reaching 10-50cm. It is highly branched with old wood covered in wispy new growth. It appear in dense clumps.

Leaves

The leaves are oval shaped with a pointed tip. They are bright green, slightly shiny, short stalked and are mildly serrated. They turn deep red before falling in winter.

Stem

The highly branched stem is very angular and looks crooked. The old growth is woody and pale brown, while the new growth is light green.

Flower

The flowers appear in spring and are pink to muted red. They are shaped like an upside-down urn, with the reproductive parts hanging towards the floor.

Fruit

Appearing from mid-summer are dark purple/blue almost black fruits, that contain deep red flesh. The base of the spherical fruit has a raised crown-like or cogwheel-like circle on it.

There is one berry per fruit stalk.

Possible lookalikes

May be confused with privet (Ligustrum spp), which has mildly toxic berries. But, these are in clusters, or panicles, rather than one fruit per stalk. Bog Billbery (Vaccinium uliginosum) may also be confused with bilberry, but this prefers boggy soils, and has darker leaves that are not serrated. The fruit is also edible, like that of escaped cultivated blueberries, which resemble bilberries.


Use as a food The fruit can be eaten raw when fully ripe, and is sweet but slightly acidic. It can be used to make liqueurs. Cooked, the fruit is used to make jams, jellies, syrups, ketchups and chutneys. ​ Hazards The berries are high in tannins so should not be consumed in excess, particularly raw. There are conflicting views of bilberry's safety for consumption during pregnancy in medicinal doses. Because of its blood thinning quality, those on blood thinning medication or with a blood thinning disorder are advised to take caution when consuming bilberries.


Use in herbal medicine and medicine Bilberries have been used to combat many disorders, including eyesight problems, diabetes, diarrhoea, kidney disorders, atherosclerosis, and treating wounds. It has also been used as an astringent and antiseptic. Research is currently being undertaken to discover Bilberry's use in treating/preventing Alzheimer's Disease and certain cancers. If you are suffering from any ailment or need medical advice, please see your General Practitioner Other uses Purple dyes can be made from the fruit. ​ Importance to other species Provides a valuable nectar source for pollinators, and abundant food source for birds.


Always stay safe when foraging. You need to be 100% sure of your identification, 100% sure that your foraged item is edible, and 100% sure that you are not allergic to it (it is good practice to always try a small amount of any new food you are consuming). If in doubt, leave it out!