- Vaccinium Species, Bilberry, Blue Whortleberry, European Blueberry
- Growing Blueberries and Bilberries – How to Grow Blueberries
- How to Grow Blueberries and Bilberries – A Guide to Growing Blueberries and Bilberries
- Further Information on Blueberries
- How to Buy a Bilberry Plant
- Bilberry Plant Information: Learn About Bilberry Cultivation And Care
- Bilberry Plant Information
- Bilberry Cultivation
- Bilberry Benefits
- Plant of the Week
- Dwarf Bilberry (Vaccinium cespitosum Michaux)
- What do Bilberries look like and where do they grow?
- Are there health benefits associated with Bilberries?
- Huckleberries vs. Blueberries vs. Bilberries? Oh My….
- What’s in a name?
- Home is Where the Berry is?
- A Flower by any Other Name
- It’s what Inside that Counts
- Bilberry Benefits vs. Blueberry For Eyes & Health
- Health benefits of bilberry
- Nutrition facts
- Side effects of bilberry
- Where to buy
Vaccinium Species, Bilberry, Blue Whortleberry, European Blueberry
Edible Fruits and Nuts
Unknown – Tell us
Sun to Partial Shade
Unknown – Tell us
6-12 in. (15-30 cm)
12-18 in. (30-45 cm)
18-24 in. (45-60 cm)
Unknown – Tell us
USDA Zone 2a: to -45.5 °C (-50 °F)
USDA Zone 2b: to -42.7 °C (-45 °F)
USDA Zone 3a: to -39.9 °C (-40 °F)
USDA Zone 3b: to -37.2 °C (-35 °F)
USDA Zone 4a: to -34.4 °C (-30 °F)
USDA Zone 4b: to -31.6 °C (-25 °F)
USDA Zone 5a: to -28.8 °C (-20 °F)
USDA Zone 5b: to -26.1 °C (-15 °F)
USDA Zone 6a: to -23.3 °C (-10 °F)
USDA Zone 6b: to -20.5 °C (-5 °F)
USDA Zone 7a: to -17.7 °C (0 °F)
USDA Zone 7b: to -14.9 °C (5 °F)
Where to Grow:
Unknown – Tell us
Unknown – Tell us
This plant is attractive to bees, butterflies and/or birds
Unknown – Tell us
Late Summer/Early Fall
Unknown – Tell us
Soil pH requirements:
5.6 to 6.0 (acidic)
6.1 to 6.5 (mildly acidic)
6.6 to 7.5 (neutral)
Unknown – Tell us
Unknown – Tell us
Unknown – Tell us
This plant has been said to grow in the following regions:
Newport Center, Vermont
Plant: March, April
Harvest: July, August
The bilberry is the king of small and tasty fruits – a tiny explosion of intense flavour compared to its blander, plumper relative, the blueberry.
Recommended varieties: “Vaccinium Myrtillus is a neat little shrub and you’ll nibble its 0.22 airgun pellet-size produce with fierce pride if you’ve grown them yourself,” writes Martin Wainwright, the Guardian’s northern editor. “There’s only the one cultivar on sale and not widely either, but Poyntzfield Nurseries on the Black Isle in Scotland have them.” (poyntzfieldherbs.co.uk)
Sowing and planting: You need a grouse moor rather than a garden to grow bilberries for regular puddings, because each bush carries only a couple of handfuls of berries in season. That said, if you can locate a bilberry supplier (don’t dig any up from the wild!) you’ll need to grow several bushes together for cross-pollination. Plant bushes in early spring after the last frost. Position in damp, acidic, well-draining soil in full sun or partial shade – raised beds are ideal.
Cultivation: Bilberries need little attention. However, they will benefit from an annual prune after the last harvest, and a springtime mulch. They do like to be kept moist but they mustn’t become waterlogged.
Pests and diseases: As with most berries, birds are their mortal enemy. Keep bushes netted securely.
Harvesting: Berries are singly twig-borne, not clustered. Pick in late summer when they’re all one colour (a darker shade of purple than the blueberry) and about 1cm in diameter. Berries ripen best on the bush so pick daily a few at a time.
Storage: Bilberries will keep in the fridge for up to a week.
Extending the season: This wild bush can’t be tamed. If you develop a taste for bilberries out of season, your only hope is shop-bought bottled varieties.
Growing in a container: If you don’t live in an area with acidic soil, bilberry bushes can be grown in containers. You do need a lot of plants to get a decent yield, so perhaps best to stick to bilberry hunting in the wild.
Growing Blueberries and Bilberries – How to Grow Blueberries
How to Grow Blueberries and Bilberries – A Guide to Growing Blueberries and Bilberries
Blueberries and bilberries are both acid-loving, moorland plants that seem identical, but in fact differ. Bilberries are a small shrub that grows in heaths and underbrush but is actually a cultivated hybrid of three native American species. Bilberry fruits grow as single, small, darker fruit than blueberries and are less juicy. Blueberries fruit in clusters, are of paler blue and usually larger size. The blueberry pulp is more of a white-green colour while bilberries have a deep purple flesh.
For the home gardener, cultivated blueberries usually fruit more successfully and are considered better value. Birds adore blueberries so netting is highly advised.
Blueberries are high among the super-foods which contain substantial levels of anti-oxidants. A few bushes tucked here and there will help you avoid having to pay high supermarket prices.
Blueberries are suitable for both ground and container growing depending on available space, and the leaves colour beautifully in autumn for an added feature.
- Most blueberries are partially self-fertile but it’s better to grow at least two different varieties that flower close to the same time for best harvest results.
- Some varieties, such as Top Hat and Sunshine Blue, are more reliably self-fertile.
- Many varieties are available, ripening at different times with varying levels of sweetness.
- Bluetta, Herbert and Cluecrop are suitable for small containers, with the variety Top Hat particularly recommended. Garden grown plants are available in many sizes to suit most situations.
Pests and Problems
- Generally trouble-free. Check the pH levels of the soil after a couple of years, especially if watering with tap water. Rain watering is preferred.
- Sulphur chips will bring the pH level down again if it has risen.
- Birds adore blueberries and crops must be netted to protect berries.
Sowing and Growing
- Plant started plants in late autumn or early winter so the shallow roots can establish easily.
- To thrive, blueberry soil must be well-aerated, consistently moist (not soggy), very high in humus, and quite acidic – between 4 and 5.5 pH. If blueberries are planned for your garden, prepare the soil the season before you intend to plant.
- If planting in containers, use ericaceous compost and water retaining pellets. A mulch of a half inch of grit will help minimize water evaporation. Pots can also be sunk into the ground to retain moisture better.
- Rain water is preferred to help maintain soil acidity. Tap water will push pH levels back to alkaline which locks nutrients and causes plants to struggle.
- Feeding is not necessary but if plants appear a bit pale or spindly, use a half-strength ericaceous feed or chicken manure pellets.
- Blueberry plants need several years to mature for maximum fruiting so those wishing early crops should plant 2-3 year old plants. Once berries begin to form, net against birds who will strip the immature crop bare.
- Light, late winter pruning is recommended. Remove only one or two older stems to encourage new growth, remove any crossed or broken stems, and tip prune new shoots to encourage more side shoots.
- Bilberries are rarely grown as cultivars but usually fruit is picked from wild plants.
Harvesting, Eating and Storing
- Blueberries ripen over a period of time so pick regularly once the fruits are a deep colour, are soft and come off the stalks easily. If you have to pull the berry, then it’s not quite ripe.
- Blueberries will keep for about a week in a cool place. They easily freeze with no added sugar needed
- Raw bilberries are rather acidic but once cooked with sugar make a delicious jam, pie filling or compote.
Further Information on Blueberries
Recipes Using Blueberries
- Blueberries from the Allotment Shop
by The Curious Scribbler
Ripe Bilberries ( Vaccinium myrtillus)
August is a rich foraging time and we recently took a break from mushrooming to make a second visit to our favoured Bilberry spot in the Cambrian uplands.
Bilberries (Vaccinium myrtillus) are the much smaller and tarter wild relative of the supermarket Blueberry (V. corymbosum) a cultivated form of the wild North American species. When I was a child, blueberries were unknown in British shops and so bilberry picking was a seasonal tradition, the whole family crouched in the heather and scrub, fingers purpling as we picked off the berries, squishing the overripe ones as we picked. It is a tedious task, as few berries are as much as a centimetre in diameter, and while the largest, ripest ones tumble far too easily through one’s fingers, the slightly less ripe ones cling firmly to the bush. Unless there is a strong breeze, a horde of buzzing flies soon circle around the picker, and horseflies converge from great distances upon a likely blood meal.
But the outcome was a cascade of small spherical fruit baked with sugar and perhaps some apple in a pie topped with shortcrust pastry. We liked to compare tongues after a bilberry pie, for the purple pigment stains the skin, and a tongue would remain blue for at least a day after the meal. Once you have had a bilberry pie, blueberries will always seem watery and insipid – a pale imitation of these mountain fruits.
Finding a good Bilberry spot is a matter of luck and close observation. At best the shrubs grow as loose bushes about 18 inches tall, but often their growth has been accompanied by regrown oak woodland, and they do not fruit freely in the shade. On sunny hillsides they grow densely with heather (Calluna vulgaris) and form a low growing carpet of green and purple. Grazing and hill fires both hold back the size of the bushes and the fruit may be smaller and sparser. Most of the best spots are probably on forestry land where there has been little or no recent grazing but the trees are few.
A sunny hillside of bilberry and heather
Our two man-hours of picking yielded two and a half pounds of fruit which will freeze from fresh into perfect little black spheres of shot. Neither flavour nor texture is diminished by the freezing process and I will later layer them with bramley apple and sugar in a generous pie. If half the health benefits attributed to the milder blueberries apply to these wild fruit then we are also protecting ourselves from the ravages of senility, stroke, heart attack and macular degeneration of the eyes. And of course the physical exertion of climbing the hill will have also been very good for us!
Bilberries ready for the kitchen
How to Buy a Bilberry Plant
bilberry image by ril from Fotolia.com
Given the fact that they are quite useful, bilberry plants are surprising not well-known by many. You not only can enjoy the fruits fresh and use them in jams and pies, you can consume them for medicinal purposes. Bilberries contain chemicals called anthocyanosides, which according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, have excellent antioxidant properties. These antioxidant properties help prevent many illnesses, such as cancer, macular degeneration of the eye and heart disease and help treat other illnesses, such as diabetes and diarrhea. Bilberry plants are relatives of the blueberry, huckleberry and cranberry plants, but are much more difficult to find.
Wait until spring. That is when bilberry plants are usually available from those nurseries that sell them. It is also when bilberry plants are best planted.
Call around to your local nurseries. Bilberry plants are not widely sold, so save time and call before visiting in person. If they do not have any, ask them who may carry this rare small fruit. They may be able to point you in the right direction.
Decide how many bilberry plants to buy. For example, the eagle bilberry plant yields up to 4 pounds of fruit, so if you want to harvest about 20 pounds of bilberries, buy at least five plants.
Buy a bilberry plant that appears to be in good health. Depending on the variety of bilberry, they will all look slightly different, but choose one that is green and does not have damaged or diseased limbs. Also, look for any signs of insect damage such as holes or spots on the leaves. Avoid these plants.
Purchase your bilberry plant online if you can’t find one in person. Most online nurseries do not sell bilberry plants, but a few, such as One Green World and Hartmann’s Plant Company, do. If they are not available at the time you are searching, send them an email and ask when they will be available. In addition, look into whether they have a guarantee that comes with their plants. This may help you choose which nursery to do business with.
Bilberry Plant Information: Learn About Bilberry Cultivation And Care
No, bilberry is not a character in Lord of the Rings. So what is a bilberry? It’s a native shrub that produces round blue berries that look like blueberries. However, wild bilberries have far more nutrients than cultivated blueberries. Read on for bilberry plant information as well as data on bilberry benefits.
Bilberry Plant Information
Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) is also called whortleberry, European blueberry and huckleberry. It’s a small shrub. Bilberry grows wild in the arctic and subarctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere. The bulberry shrub produces round blue berries also known as bilberries.
If you are wondering about the difference between blueberry and bilberry, you aren’t alone. Bilberry plant information tells us that both are berry shrubs in the Vaccinium genus. The fruit of the two species look alike and both taste good. However, blueberries you purchase are usually from cultivated shrubs while bilberry usually grows wild.
Although bilberries are wild shrubs, they can be cultivated. Bilberry cultivation works best in cool climates in USDA plant hardiness zones 3 through 8. If you are going to try bilberry growing in warm climates, protect the shrubs from too much heat.
You’ll do best to buy container raised bilberry seedlings. Generally, once these shrubs get their roots in the ground, they prefer not to be disturbed. Like blueberries, bilberries thrive in acidic soil. Pick a location with full sun in cooler areas, but opt for partial shade in warmer climes. Bilberries are very tolerant of wind, so shelter is not needed.
When you read information on bilberry care, you’ll learn that it is an easy shrub to cultivate. The plants require no fertilizer and little irrigation. Plant them in spring and pick the berries in fall.
With bilberry cultivation so easy and bilberry benefits so great, there’s no reason not to include these shrubs in your garden. Bilberries have been used for many years as an herbal medicine in Europe. The berries and foliage are used to treat assorted ailments from diarrhea to kidney stones to typhoid fever.
The anthocyanosides in bilberries are potent antioxidants. These build strong blood vessels and capillary walls. They also benefit red blood cells, stabilize tendons, ligaments and cartilage, and lower cholesterol. Bilberries have been used to increase night vision, since they increase retinal pigments.
Plant of the Week
Vaccinium cespitosum range map. USDA PLANTS Database.
Dwarf Bilberry (Vaccinium cespitosum Michaux)
By Sue Trull, Botanist Ottawa National Forest
Dwarf bilberry is a small shrub of mainly northern distribution. A member of the heath family (Ericaceae), bilberry is many-branched, 2 to 20 inches tall, and forms low mats as it spreads by runners or stolons. Bilberry has alternate, small, oval leaves, widest above the middle, with a pointed tip. Leaves grow up to 2 inches long, and are green on both top and bottom, with the bottom paler in color. The leaf edges have tiny teeth. The leaves are sessile or have very short stems. The leaves turn reddish-brown and drop off in the fall, leaving the plant to overwinter as twigs and underground rhizomes. Dwarf bilberry’s branches are somewhat angled or ridged. They are thin, green to tan or reddish when young, and gray-brown when older. Bilberry roots are fibrous and spreading.
The bilberry flowers are waxy, white to pinkish-red, and bell-shaped, with five united petals. The flowers occur singly, hanging from the axils of lower leaves, unlike true blueberries that have flowers in clusters. The flowers bloom in May to June, and are pollinated by bees and flies. Dark blue berries develop from the flowers by mid-summer. The berries have a whitish “bloom”. They are similar to a commercial blueberry, but smaller, and without the little crown of sepals present on a blueberry. Bilberries are sweet, tasting much like a blueberry. Grizzly and black bears, some small mammals, and many birds eat the fruit, as do people. Seeds are tiny, with many in each berry.
Dwarf bilberry has threatened status in Michigan, and is considered endangered in Wisconsin and New York, all states at the south end of the bilberry’s range. In the Great Lakes area, bilberry is usually found in savannas or openings within conifer forest, on sandy soils or thin soils over rock. Farther into its range, bilberry is common, an understory dominant in higher elevation spruce-fir forest, for example. It can also occur in alpine heath and in shrublands formed in areas of persistent snow cover. It often grows with other Vaccinium species, such as lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) and other heaths, such as wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), Labrador tea (Ledum groenlandicum), and bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi).
Dwarf bilberry is the host plant for the northern blue butterfly, Lycaeides idas nabokovi. The subspecies was named for the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who was also an entomologist specializing the the tribe of butterflies to which the blues belong. The northern blue is listed as endandered in Wisconsin, threatened in Michigan, and special concern in Minnesota. In the Great Lakes area, northern blue caterpillars only consume dwarf bilberry although adult butterflies also use other plants. Some surveyors key in on the presence of the butterfly to find the easily overlooked bilberry mats.
The Ottawa National Forest, in the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan, has initiated an active recovery program for both the bilberry and butterfly. Bilberry plants are raised from seed at the Forest Service’s J.W. Toumey Nursery, and then planted in suitable openings on the Forest. Longer-term plans call for adding northern blue caterpillars once bilberry populations are established.
For More Information
- PLANTS Profile – Vaccinium cespitosum, dwarf bilberry
Blueberry and Bilberry: they look almost alike. Both of them are blue, round and taste great. But what are the differences between these two berries? If any? Lets get started…
“Blueberry” has become a universal name for blue-coloured berries of the Vaccinium family. Though the term blueberry is widely used, it is still good to know the difference between blueberries (often American Blueberries) and bilberries (European Blueberries) both in naming and characteristics.
Bilberry, Vaccinium myrtillus
– Also known as (Wild) European Blueberry and Whortleberry
Blueberry, various plants in the Vaccinium family
– Also known often as American Blueberry
What do Bilberries look like and where do they grow?
First of all, while blueberries are cultivated in bushes in various places around the world, wild bilberries grow on small shrubs and mainly at the northern parts of the Northern Hemisphere (known as the taiga zone and the subarctic zone). In Europe, this area is located in Scandinavia or the Nordic countries.
Are there health benefits associated with Bilberries?
The top trumps of wild Nordic bilberry include:
– higher vitamin C content than in cultivated blueberry
– higher vitamin E content than in cultivated blueberry
– very high content of anthocyanin, multiple times higher than in cultivated blueberry
The anthocyanins in wild bilberry are visible to the eye as blue and red pigments. While blueberry is white and slightly powdery from the inside, bilberry‘s contents are juicy bluish purple. Anthocyanins are a form of flavonoids, and they have been scientifically proven to be linked with positive health benefits.
Finnish researchers have also found that the further north wild bilberries grow the more anthocyanins they contain. In 2007, laboratory-based evidence was provided to demonstrate potential health effects of berry anthocyanins against:
– aging and neurological diseases
– bacterial infections
– fibrocystic disease
Further research into these possible health benefits is on-going. It is important to keep in mind that these health benefits are based on initial research and does not mean that consumption of bilberries will help avoid said conditions like cancer.
Additionally, there has been some scientific debate about whether large daily consumption of bilberries helps to produce new brain cells. While the connection between anthocyanins and new brain cells has not yet been proven, nevertheless Finnish nutrition experts recommend consuming lots of bilberries to elderly people, especially those showing early Alzheimer symptoms.
There are also other health benefits advocated by various sources, such as improvement of vision, but these claims lack clinical evidence. However, it is clear that bilberries are beneficial to ones health and has much higher concentration of vitamins and antioxidants compared to cultivated blueberries.
The healthy and nutrient-rich wild bilberries grow naturally in the wild and are generally picked by hand. They are often considered as superfood, or superberries, of Northern Europe and are an integral part of Scandinavian and Nordic diet. The wild bilberry products sold in Hiisi Shop are made of Finnish bilberries, which is as far north as it gets. Our primary supplier is located in the Kainuu region, which is located on the southern edge of the Finnish Lapland.
Dried Bilberries (50 g)
Bilberry Powder (30 g)
Chocolate Bilberry (100 g)
Huckleberries vs. Blueberries vs. Bilberries? Oh My….
On a stroll through the forest, you and your friends see a shrub full of deep blue little berries. It’s a huckleberry bush one friend claims. Another claims it’s a bilberry bush. While you are pretty sure its a blueberry bush. How do you know what kind of bush it is? Is there even a difference between blueberries, bilberries, and huckleberries? I mean, they have a suspiciously large amount in common, some even have interchangeable common names. Read on to find out the difference between these tasty treats, if there even is one.
What’s in a name?
My first instinct is always to look at scientific names. People much smarter than me have dedicated their lives to the study and classification of living organisms, who am I to ignore their collective knowledge? The most commonly found wild blueberry is the lowbush blueberry, it’s scientific name is Vaccinium angustifolium. Like all blueberries, it falls into the family Ericaceae and the genus Vaccinium. So, scientifically, all blueberries are called vaccinium followed by its species. Okay, what about bilberries? Bilberries by definition are “any primarily Eurasian species of low-growing shrubs belonging to the genus Vaccinium” Wait… Vaccinium? That’s right, blueberries and bilberries fall into the same genus. The most common bilberry is simply called the bilberry and has the scientific name of Vaccinium myrtillus L. Looking at just the scientific classification, is there a difference between blueberries and bilberries?
So what if bilberries and blueberries are the same? You came here to learn about Montana huckleberries. Alright well, a huckleberry is a small edible berry that is a member of the Ericaceae family. However, unlike bilberries and blueberries, huckleberries can fall into two separate genera either the Gaylussacia and Vaccinium. That’s right, the genus known for its blueberries is also the genus for huckleberries. So now what?
Home is Where the Berry is?
Different plants can grow in different soils and climates, so region plays a big part in the identification process. Blueberries, whether the commonly wild lowbush blueberries (V.angustifolium) or the garden highbush blueberries (V. corymbosum), are native nearly everywhere. They stretch from Canada all the way down to Chili and they can be grown commercially or found wild. In North America, they stretch from the Atlantic Coast all the way to the Pacific Coast. While blueberries can be found in Europe they are the highbush variety and were introduced in the 1930’s. Bilberries, on the other hand, are found naturally in Europe and other places where blueberries can be found. Huckleberries also have a wide native range. The Gaylussacia genus can be found on the eastern half of North America as well as in the Andes Mountains and the mountain ranges in southeastern Brazil. Which means that any huckleberries that are found in Montana are not members of the huckleberries-only-club. Montana huckleberries fall into the sticky category of Vaccinium.
A Flower by any Other Name
If you were lucky enough to find the mysterious bush on the East Coast there would be a relatively easy way to determine the plant’s genus. Gaylussacia leaves have a resin, it can be found on both side of the leaf or just the underside, but all Gaylussacia huckleberries have it. Another major distinction between Vaccinium and Gaylussacia are their flowers. The Vaccinium flower’s ovary is divided into five chambers, while the flower’s of Gaylussacia have ten chambers in their ovary. However, once the berries have grown and ripened the flowers are impossible to study.
Photos courtesy of Google images
Within the genus Vaccinium, there are separate taxonomic sections. The taxonomic section, Cyanococcus, refers to blueberries. Why? Because in order to fall into that section the berries must grow in large clusters. So huckleberries grow differently than blueberries. While some huckleberries can be seen growing in minor clusters, finding them in a cluster the size blueberries grow in will be difficult.
It’s what Inside that Counts
Photo courtesy of Udayana University
Another quick way to find out if they are blueberries instead of bilberries and huckleberries is to smash a berry in your fingers. Blueberries have a soft inside and are full of soft seeds. The flesh of a blueberry once ripe is also distinct. When you cut a fresh blueberry in half the color will range from a white to a light-green. Bilberries and huckleberries can both range from a deep blue to a vibrant reddish purple on the inside. Not only are these berries prone to stain your fingers, but huckleberries are known for the slight crunch. Huckleberries don’t have the same soft seeds that are common in blueberries. Instead, they have ten hard seeds inside that set them apart from the rest!
Ultimately, even if huckleberries were declared blueberries, Montana would still be steadfast in their huckleberry loyalty. Even if most species of huckleberry have multiple names, like the Vaccinium membranaceum is called the Mountain Huckleberry as well as the square-twig blueberry, we know the truth. Besides, just because some people call it one thing doesn’t mean that’s what it is! Montanans will always be able to recognize that tell-tale crunch of a huckleberry. And we will always be proud of our juice-stained fingers as we hunt for huckleberries the way they were meant to be, wild and free.
By: Issa Rabideaux
Photos not credited are courtesy of Issa Rabideaux
Bilberry Benefits vs. Blueberry For Eyes & Health
Are blueberries and bilberries the same thing?
No. The bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) is a close relative of the blueberry (Vaccinium cyanococcus). Both are of the same plant genus and produce fruit which look and taste similar. The main difference is that bilberries come from Europe, while blueberries are native to North America.
To the novice, they look almost the same on the outside.
Bilberries have a slightly darker skin and they don’t grow in clusters on the bush. On average, they’re smaller than blueberries.
Both of these traits make them harder to harvest.
The inside of their flesh is a reddish purple, unlike blueberries whose pulp is white with a hint of green.
How to tell the difference between a bilberry and a blueberry is that the latter has what looks like a crown on the end. With bilberries, their crown is less pronounced, as they tend to be smooth all around. If in doubt, break one open to see the color inside; blueberries will always be whitish.
The European berry produces a more intense flavor and juicier flesh than the American. They’re more fragile and are notorious for staining what’s around them. That’s why you never see imported fresh bilberries for sale in the US or Canada. However on Amazon, you can order them frozen.
While both contain high amounts of anthocyanins, which are a broad class of pigments with potent antioxidant activity, the concentrations found in each differ. For this reason, the nutritional and medical benefits of each are not directly interchangeable.
Here are the reasons you may want to choose the one from across the pond…
Health benefits of bilberry
1. More antioxidants than blueberries
When you compare the ORAC values of wild bilberries vs. blueberries, they are 7,570 and 4,669, respectively. This means that bilberry has around 60% higher antioxidant activity when comparing equal weights of each.
Even though the conventionally cultivated blueberries you get the grocery store have lower antioxidant activity overall, wild blueberries actually test higher than the average for bilberries, coming in with an ORAC value of 9,621 vs. 7,570 (about 25% higher).
Cyanidin is most prevalent type of antioxidant found in bilberries. Delphinidin and petunidin are next, but at concentrations that are about 2.5 fold lower than cyandin.
Blueberries are similar, with cyanidin being the most concentrated, followed by delphinidin, malvidin, and then petunidin. (1) (2)
2. Better night vision
The belief that bilberries are good for eyes dates back to WWII. Stories were circulated that pilots in the UK’s Royal Air Force (RAF) supplemented with them to improve their night vision. Whether this is true or not is disputed.
The evidence suggests that these berries, along with carrots, were used as part of a propaganda campaign by the Allies to explain why suddenly, Nazi planes were being shot out of the sky with pinpoint accuracy at night.
It wasn’t improved night vision of the pilots, but rather the invention of radar which was responsible for this advantage. To keep it secret, false stories about superfoods for eyesight were disseminated by the military. (3)
Nonetheless, the hype did lead to legitimate research on the topic after the war. Based on studies done during the 1960’s it was reported that:
“The extracts, when administered alone or in association with beta-carotene and vitamin E to healthy patients, induced a significant improvement in night vision, a quicker adaption to darkness, and a faster restoration of visual acuity following exposure to a flash light.”
Today, the brand Mirtoselect bilberry extract and pycnogenol are being studied for these purported benefits. (4) (5)
3. Adjunctive supplement for macular degeneration
The Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) was a major series of clinical trials sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). These are the only nutritional studies large and extensive enough to conclude with reasonable certainty that certain antioxidants and minerals may reduce the risk of getting age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
Specifically, it was beta-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin, and zinc found to be helpful. (6)
Other antioxidants, such as the anthocyanins and polyphenols found in bilberries, have limited research on them when it comes to eye disease.
That said, there is preliminary evidence that’s encouraging and “they pose a viable complement in the venue of treating ocular disease and conditions.” (7)
In 2005, Russian scientists published the results of a study using OXYS rats. Those are an inbred strain of rats that have been used since the 1970’s in eye health research. Due to their genetics, they are prone to develop age-related vision problems.
For the group of rats whose diet consisted of 25% bilberry extract, it “completely prevented impairments in the lenses and retina.” Compare that to the control group, of whom 70% had macular degeneration and cataracts after 3 months. (8)
Studies using rabbits and mice have also reported that the berry extract reduces pro-inflammatory cytokines in the eyes and decreases retinal cell damage. (9) (10)
4. Eye floaters
Some have proposed bilberry for eye floaters. While not studied and a different condition than AMD and cataracts, most floaters are the result of age-related changes in the vitreous (a jelly-like substance) inside the eyeball. In theory, anything to reduce damage to this tissue and slow its aging might help in preventing eye floaters.
Given the evidence that extracts of bilberry help reduce certain types of inflammation and damage in the eye, it’s reasonable to theorize the plant could be useful for this condition. However, it has not been clinical studied.
5. May reduce LED blue light eye damage
Many LED manufacturers use blue LED diodes as the primary and then “down convert” their appearance to white light using phosphor. This means that the LEDs that backlight your cell phone, tablet, and monitor are probably exposing you to high amounts of blue wavelengths… even though you don’t really notice it.
While still debated, the body of evidence that this blue LED light is bad for you keeps piling up.
Even the American Medical Association (AMA) put out an official warning for municipalities in 2016 to use caution when switching over their street lights to energy efficient LED bulbs because:
“Discomfort and disability from intense, blue-rich LED lighting can decrease visual acuity and safety…”
…and they suppress your natural melatonin production at night, which can contribute to difficulty falling asleep and insomnia. (11)
In a study where cultured eye cells were exposed to blue LED light, scientists at a Japanese university report that bilberry extract appears to help protect against the damage from them:
The reduction in caspase-3/7 activation wasn’t as good as lingonberry, but it was nearly a third better than the untreated cells. They said this may also benefit macular degeneration and red cone dystrophy (retinitis pigmentosa). (12)
6. Lowering eye pressure may slow glaucoma
Glaucoma is the leading cause of blindness among those of black or Hispanic origin. Between the ages of 45 and 65, if you’re black you are 15x more likely than whites to experience blindness from this eye disease. While other ethnicities are lower risk, glaucoma is relatively common eye disease regardless. (13)
While dependable preventive measures are not yet known, in general the research has concluded that lowering the intraocular pressure (IOP) in the eyeball slows progression. This is because it takes pressure off the optic nerve, and hence, slows the damage/deterioration.
A rigorous stand-alone bilberry glaucoma study has not yet been done, but there has been with the Mirtogenol supplement. That’s a branded bilberry extract (Mirtoselect) combined with a French maritime pine bark extract (Pycnogenol).
With the bilberry and pine bark extract supplement, intraocular pressure was lowered in 19 out of 20 patients taking it. In the control group of 18 patients, only one experienced this benefit. These results suggest the berry may be good for glaucoma, by lowering IOP.
The catch is that none of these patients had glaucoma, but they did have ocular hypertension which is the early warning sign for the disease.
This and other studies involving Mitrogenol have reported exciting results for IOP improvement, with the most recent being published in 2017.
However, there are not FDA clinical trials to prove this benefit and therefore, it’s intended use is as a dietary supplement only and not for the diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of any disease. (14) (15) (16)
Mitrogenol is made and distributed by the Swiss company Horphag Research and the Italian company Indena. In the US, Canada, and UK, Mirtogenol extract is sold through the brand Life Extension as their Eye Pressure Support supplement which is available on Amazon.
7. Dry eyes relief
Is bilberry good for dry eyes?
In 2017, the results of a randomized and double-blinded clinical trial were published which pitted Mirtoselect bilberry extract against placebo. 22 people with dry eyes who were otherwise healthy participated.
For the 11 patients who took the berry extract, they experienced a significant improvement according to Schirmer’s test, which is a widely used metric for measuring tear production and eye moisture. The 10 people taking placebo didn’t experience any significant change.
Plasma biological antioxidant potential (BAP) was also measured. In the bilberry group, the BAP measurement increased after 4 weeks in a statistically significant manner. This was not seen in the placebo group. The results suggest that oxidative damage was probably lower in the group using the Mirtoselect berry extract. (17)
8. Weight loss
As published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a Finnish university conducted a clinical trial involving 110 obese women. In a randomized order, each were placed on 1 of 4 berry diets for 33-35 days:
- bilberries (BBs)
- sea buckthorn (SB)
- sea buckthorn phenolic extract (SBe)
- sea buckthorn oil (SBo)
After a 30-39 day washout period, each participant repeated the process with another berry diet. They continued this until all 4 diets were tried.
The daily dosage was equivalent to the amount found in 100g (3.5oz). For example, either 100g of fresh bilberries or the amount of sea buckthorn oil derived from 100g of fresh sea buckthorn.
The results of the study found a small but significant decrease in body weight and fat percentage when the 110 women were consuming the berries and their extracts. However, bilberry was the one that was best for waist circumference, suggesting it may be particularly good for belly fat. (18)
While all this may seem unrelated to eye health, type 2 diabetes correlates with obesity. A side effect of that disease, diabetic retinopathy, is the number one cause of blindness among the diabetic population.
9. Diabetic blood sugar control
In 2017, a medical university in Bulgaria found that extracts of bilberry fruit inhibit the activity of enzymes in our digestive tract that are used to breakdown carbs.
By reducing the effect of a-glucosidase enzymes, carbs (sugars) are digested slower. Some type 2 diabetic medicines work through this same mechanism. (19)
The nutrition facts for fresh bilberries are comparable to wild blueberries, which are 80 calories per serving of 1 cup (140g). With that there’s 6g of fiber, low sugar content of around 7g, some essential minerals like manganese and zinc, and moderate amounts of vitamins C and E.
Freeze-dried bilberry powder has the water removed so the calorie count will be higher by weight. It still offers the same ratios of macronutrients. The antioxidants cyanidin, delphinidin and petunidin are well preserved and highly concentrated.
Whether you eat fresh, freeze-dried, or frozen bilberry, all forms are nutrient dense and can be part of low calorie and low glycemic diets. (20)
Side effects of bilberry
As with their relative the blueberry, bilberry is a well tolerated food. It is of very low allergy risk and is not known for causing digestive problems like abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, or gas and bloating. The most likely adverse reaction from eating fresh bilberry or taking bilberry supplements is lower blood pressure and/or lower blood sugar.
While normally those would be considered benefits, in some people they could be dangerous. Particularly for those who are on medications to carefully control those parameters, as the bilberry may be a contraindication due to drug interactions with blood pressure and diabetic treatments.
Whether it is safe to take bilberry during pregnancy is unknown. While there is no evidence to suggest it’s dangerous, the fact is that bilberry supplements or even the fresh berries as a food have not been studied in pregnant women or those who are breastfeeding. Nor have animal studies taken place.
Where to buy
Even though it’s an indigenous fruit to the United Kingdom, it’s easier there to buy fresh blueberries versus bilberries. This is because their berries are often imported from Chile and other regions which don’t grow the Vaccinium myrtillus species commercially.
With the exception of Finland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Poland and other countries in Northern Europe and the North Atlantic, finding where to buy bilberries is nearly impossible. Because of how perishable they are, the importing and exporting of blueberries is the de facto alternative.
In the US and Canada, no major grocery store chains sell fresh or frozen bilberry. You may find jarred preserves and jam, but that’s about it.
In the countries that do sell them fresh, it’s unusual to see certified organic bilberries. This is because many crops are wild harvest and don’t use pesticides, irradiation, or fumigation regardless.
The best substitute for bilberries in recipes will be wild blueberries. You can buy these frozen in bags at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and Sprouts. While not identical, they are higher in antioxidants than conventionally grown blueberries and have a phenolic profile that’s closer to their European cousin.
If you’re after the health benefits and taste but don’t necessarily need the texture of fresh whole fruit, then the best alternative is to buy bilberry powder. As with acai, you can add it to smoothies, oatmeal, or even stir it up in a glass of water. On Amazon, check out Nordic Nordic powder.
For capsule supplements, a good brand is Solaray bilberry extract. It’s sold in vegetarian/vegan capsules and the powder inside is standardized to 36% anthocyanosides. You can also get it on Amazon.
If you want the bilberry extract and pine bark extract that has been clinically researched, Mirtogenol, you can find it at retailers who carry the brand Life Extension, as it’s used in their Eye Pressure Support supplement. It’s available on Amazon.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.