Bilberry by Matthew Johnson

General Information

Bilberry, a close relative of blueberry, has a long history of medicinal use. The dried fruit has been popular for the symptomatic treatment of diarrhea, for topical relief of minor mucus membrane inflammation, and for a variety of eye disorders, including poor night vision, eyestrain, and myopia ( Bilberry fruit is also commonly used to make pies and jams. From the genus Vaccinium, of the Ericaceae family, Bilberry has been used for centuries for both food and medicinal purposes. Both the plant leafs and the fruit can be either eaten or made
billberry4.jpginto extracts which are made into tea. Known as Vaccinium myrtillus, this shrubs stems grow from 6 to 24 inches high, and bear small egg shaped leaves and dark blueberries. These berries ripen in July and August and are about a half inch in diameter (Encylopaedia Britannica Inc., 2012).

The Bilberry Family

Scientific Classification
The bilberry plant comes from the Ericaceae family. This family of plants contains about 4000 species and is quite diverse. The bilberry comes from the genus Vaccinium and like others plants in this genus usually requires acidic soli to grow. Some of bilberries closely related species in the Vaccinium genus include:

Other relatives of the bilberry include the cranberry, the blueberry, and the huckleberry.
- Cranberry
  • Like the Bilberry, the Cranberry is also an member of the Ericaceae family. Similarly to the bilberry, cranberries are found in mainly acidic locations. They are low creeping vines, that grow fruit that are bigger than the plant leaves. These berries that they grow are quite sweet and serve as a commercial crop stable in the Northern Hempisphere. Cranberries are used to make juice, sauce, jam, as well as herbal medication.

Cranberry Plant

- Blueberry
  • The blueberry is probably the most similar relative to the bilberry in its family. In terms of U.S. fruit consumption, blueberries rank second only to strawberries. Like the rest of its family blueberries are known for having a very high level of antioxidants. At first look one may not be able to decipher between the two, however it is clear which is which upon a closer look. Bilberries are smaller than blueberries and are also a much darker blue color. However one major difference between the two is unmistakeable. Bilberries produce a single fruit or a pair of fruits on the bush, while blueberries produce clusters of fruits.

Blueberry Plant

Bilberry Plant

- Huckleberry
Similar to its relatives, the cranberry, blueberry, and bilberry, it grows best n damp acidic soil. Unlike its relatives however, under optimal conditions it can reach heights above 6 feet (wikipedia). Huckleberries found in the Vacciunium genus are only found in Western United States. Those huckleberries found in the east are classified in the Gaylusscia genus. Often confused with the blueberry due to its close resemblance, huckleberries are a wild blue-black berry. Although very similar in taste, the big difference is the seeds within the huckleberry that give it a crunchy texture when fresh and its thicker skin. The flavor is a little more tart than blueberries, with an intense flavor. Huckleberries are not cultivated commercially, therefore you must find them in the wild (whatscookingamerica).
Blue Huckleberry

Characteristics of the Bilberry Family
Bilberries and their relatives are part of the Ericacea family and are predominantly a family of shrubs. One key characteristic of this family is that they are mainly found in acidic locations. The acidic location of this family allows for more nutrients to be absorbed by the plant. Plants need nutrients in order to grow. In acidic soil plants have the ability to grow at a faster pace. They are able to collect the nutrients more easily and many of the bacteria that decompose soil matter are hindered in the acidic soil. Without the abundance of bacteria trying to break down the soil in which the Ericaceae plants grow in, these plants can grow at a faster, healthier rate. Another characteristic of Ericacea plants lies in their flowers. There flowers are generally a calyx of four or five sepals joined at the base. The flower has four or five petals, usually joined to form a tube. Ericaceae plants generally have twice as many stamens as petals, and are not attached to the corolla. There is one single style, and the flowers are usually in clusters, however could be solitary ( Ericaceae plants main characteristic lies in the fact that they are found in acidic soil. The rate of nutrient absorption by a root depends upon both the nutrient supply to the root and the active absorption by the root cells. This supply to the root is dependent upon among other things the power of the soil to replenish itself as the nutrients are absorbed. For an optimal growing condition soil must have the ability to fight bacteria and replenish itself (Chapin 1980). Because the bilberry and its relatives are found in acidic soil they have the ability to fight the bacteria that is trying toharm them. This gives them a distinct characteristic that allows for them to continue their growth in the wildlife, and allows them to sustain growth until they have produced the fruits that we use in our everyday lives.

Chart and Statistics from the 2001 Australian Government Agricultural Assessment

  • Acidic soils are defined as those with a pH reading less than or equal to 5.5.
  • Moderately acidic soils are those with pH values between 4.8 and 5.5.
  • Highly acidic soils have pH values between pH 4.3 and 4.8.
  • Extremely acidic soils have pH values less than 4.3.

The bilberry prefers well-drained, slightly acidic soil with a pH between 4.5 and 6. A highly acidic soil.

Geographic Distribution

Native to England, Europe, and mountainous Asia, Bilberry is also found today in the United States and Canada. Dwarf bilberry grows from British Columbia southward east of the Cascades to central Oregon. They also grow throughout the Rocky Mountains from British Columbia and Alberta to northern New Mexico and southern Arizona. They reach their greatest abundance in the southern Rockies ( Bilberries are however native to northern Europe, and therefore should not be confused with the American blueberry. Native to northern Europe, they are predominantly found there, however over centuries they have been able to move and have found a suitable home in the Rocky Mountains.

Below is a map of the distribution of Bilberries in the Northern Hemisphere. As you can see red indicating where Bilberries are predominantly found, while to the left you can see an outline of where the Bilberry is found in the United States and Canada.

Use and Efficacy

Today Bilberry fruit is used to treat diarrhea, menstrual cramps, eye problems, varicose veins, venous insufficiency (a condition in which the veins do not efficiently return blood from the legs to the heart), and other circulatory problems ( The bilberry leaf however is used to treat different conditions, including diabetes.

Bilberry contains chemicals called tannins that can help improve diarrhea, as well as mouth and throat irritation, by reducing swelling (inflammation). There is some evidence that the chemicals found in bilberry leaves can help lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Some researchers think that chemicals called flavonoids in bilberry leaf might also improve circulation in people with diabetes.

Bilberries are also said to improve night vision. The notion that Bilberries can be used to help night vision arose from British Royal Air Force pilots who after eating bilberry jam said they had better vision while flying. Bilberry has been found to contain anthocyanosides, a class of water-soluble chemicals belonging to a larger class of substances known as bioflavonoids. These chemicals are though to have antioxidant activity. These anthocyanosides are though to have a stabilizing effect on collagen, preventing capillary fragility, and improving microcirculation Aside from improving sight, bilberry has also been used to treat glaucoma, cataracts, retinopathy, diabetes and (Muth, Laurent, Jasper. 2000). By stimulating blood circulation throughout the body it is believed the bilberries can be very effective in our bodies fight against many of todays terrible diseases.billlllberry.jpg

- How it is used
Internally- Dried bilberry fruit can be eaten fresh off the plant or through various other methods. The bilberry can be made into an extract to create a tea, or a jam or jelly, or cooked in various food products such as a pie.
Externally- Bilberry can be used externally as a cream to treat wounds, sores, and ulcers. It is known as an anti-inflammatory and is said to be effective to treat inflammation of the mouth and throat. Many believe that both the leaves and the fruit of the bilberry plant help to stimulate blood circulation throughout the body.

Several active compounds have been isolated from the berries and leaves of the plant including anthocyanoside flavonoids, or anthocyanins, vitamins, sugars, and pectins, which are found in the berries, and quercetin, catechins, tannins, iridoids, and acids which are found in the leaves. The anthocyanosides are considered the most important of the active components (Thorne 2001). From these compounds bilberry herbs are created and made into capsule form for ingestion. Men and women around the world take these herbal remedies in the hope of a enhanced or better life. It is still unclear whether they are effective.

Today there has been a wide range of studies trying to prove the effectiveness of the bilberry herb. In many studies it has been shown to be effective in the increased/improved blood circulation of with diabetes or high blood pressure. There are however contradictory results in terms of its effect on night vision, with a leaning consensus that it is ineffective in terms of increasing night vision. Through various other studies, it has been deemed that there is insufficient evidence to prove that this herb is effective in chest pain, varicose veins, cataracts, diabetes, and various other problems that it has been said to cure (



Above is one herbal supplement made from bilberry. It is said to vegetable capsules and the nutritional information of this bottle is on the picture to the right

Possible Side Effects
Bilberry fruit poses no immediate side effects for those ingesting it when eaten in typical food amounts. However bilberry leaves do pose some danger. For those who take the leaves in high dosages and over a long period of time it has been shown to lower blood sugar. Also the leaves taken in very high dosages have been known to produce symptons of poisoning and maybe become toxic over long periods of time. While long term side effects have not yet been throughly studied it remains unclear the effects of this drug on ones body. Because most bilberry herbs have yet to been studied by the FDA it is unclear whether they are safe or not. Additionally there are no regulated manufacturing standards for bilberry herbs today, which could lead one to not take this herb. If there are no regulations in the formation of this compound, you may not actually be taking bilberry, or may be taking a different form of bilberry that could pose potential life threatening risks. Bilberry is unknown in the long run. It is also predominantly unknown in the short term. It is a plant that is believed to help cure many diseases and problems with ones body, however it has yet to be medically proved. Without proper clearence from the FDA, one must be very hesitant before they decide to use any bilberry herbal medicine.

Healthy Bilberries

Through a long and through process, a small bilberry is turned into small capsules that are said to improve among many other things, eye health and vision.
However there are no medical findings that this is true. It seems we are destroying beauty in the hopes that we will be able to find something that may not be there. If more medical studies are performed and more results taken, it may become safer and more beneficial for people to take bilberry herbal medication. However until then we cannot be certain of effects of bilberry or the potential risks it may pose.


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