Thursday, December 6, 2007

Bilberry - Vaccinium Myrtillus (Medicinal Herbs)

Bilberry is a name given to several species of low-growing shrubs in the genus Vaccinium (family Ericaceae) that bear tasty fruits. The species most often referred to is Vaccinium myrtillus L., also known as European blueberry, blaeberry, whortleberry, whinberry (or winberry), myrtle blueberry, fraughan, and probably other names regionally.

The word bilberry is also sometimes used in the common names of other species of the genus, including Vaccinium uliginosum L. (bog bilberry, bog blueberry, bog whortleberry, bog huckleberry, northern bilberry), Vaccinium caespitosum Michx. (dwarf bilberry), Vaccinium deliciosum Piper (Cascade bilberry), Vaccinium membranaceum (mountain bilberry, black mountain huckleberry, black huckleberry, twin-leaved huckleberry), and Vaccinium ovalifolium (oval-leafed blueberry, oval-leaved bilberry, mountain blueberry, high-bush blueberry).

Bilberries are found in damp, acidic 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. The easiest way to distinguish the bilberry is that it produces single or pairs of berries on the bush instead of clusters like the blueberry. Another way to distinguish them is that while blueberry fruit pulp is light green, bilberry is red or purple. In this way you can also distinguish the bilberry eater from the blueberry eater by his red fingers and lips. Bilberry is used as a food plant by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species - see list of Lepidoptera which feed on Vaccinium.

Bilberries are seldom cultivated but fruits are sometimes collected from wild plants growing on publicly accessible lands, notably in Fennoscandia, Scotland, Ireland and Poland. Note that in Fennoscandia, it is an everyman's right to collect bilberries, irrespective of land ownership. 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 Lughnassadh in August, the first traditional harvest festival of the year, as celebrated by the 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, but are more usually made into jams, fools, juices or pies. In France they are used as a base for liqueurs and are a popular flavouring for sorbets and other desserts. In Brittany they are often used as a flavouring for crêpes, and in the Vosges and the Massif Central bilberry tart (tarte aux myrtilles) is the most traditional dessert.

Medicinal uses


Often associated with improvement of night vision. Laboratory studies have shown that bilberry consumption can inhibit or reverse eye disorders such as macular degeneration, but this therapeutic use remains clinically unproven.

As a deep blue fruit, bilberries contain dense levels of anthocyanin pigments that have been linked experimentally to lowered risk for several diseases, such as those of the heart and cardiovascular system, eyes and cancer.

In folk medicine, bilberry leaves were used to treat gastrointestinal ailments, applied topically or made into infusions. Such effects have not been proved scientifically.

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