Blueberry and bilberry
myrtille/airelle (French), Blaubeere (German), mirtillo (Italian), arandano (Spanish), blåbær (Danish/Norwegian), blåbär (Swedish), mustikka/pensasmustikka (Finnish), chernika (Russian), czarnica/czarna jagoda (Polish), fekete afonya (Hungarian), afina (Romanian), borovnica (Serbo-Croat), borovinki (Bulgarian)
Both are members of the Heath family of plants, which include the American laurel, rhododendron, and broom. These berries are small and round, with a silver bloom.
Blueberries are often called huckleberries, but the difference between blueberries and huckleberries is their skin and the size of their seeds. Seeds of the blueberry are smaller than the huckelberry. Another difference is the bilberry produces single or pairs of berries on the bush instead of clusters like the blueberry.
Relying on the names to tell them apart is an exercise in futility because each is frequently referred to as the other. In Scotland, bilberries are sometimes known as blaeberries. “Blae” is the north country and a Scottish word for blue. They are also called whinberries because the plant grows among “whins”, a Scottish term for gorse.
Another popular name is whortleberry. In the past, the names blueberry and bilberry were applied to any of these berries, but the former name now belongs only to the cultivated fruits. Take your pick – literally. If you find them, eat them. They are delicious no matter what they are called.
Technically, the bilberry is the fruit of a group of low scrubby plants in the genus Vaccinium, especially V. myrtillus, which typically bear dark bluish purple berries with a characteristic bloom on their smooth skins. The name comes from the Danish “bolle”, meaning ball and referring to the round, smooth appearance of the berry.
The bilberry grows all over northern Europe and is very popular in Sweden. Being fairly acidic, they are usually cooked unlike the blueberry, which can be eaten raw or cooked. Both the bilberry and the blueberry grow on shrubs, often in difficult areas to reach.
In North America, bilberries are sometimes called whortleberries or huckleberries, and are generally distributed in the far north mountainous parts of New England and the Lake Superior region.
The blueberry is the fruit of various scrubby (lowbush) and bushy (highbush) plants of the genus Vaccinium. Wild blueberries are found wherever suitable conditions exist. This means that the soil should be acidic, and enough moisture is available in all seasons. High bush berries are usually larger and more succulent, but the wild berries tend to have more flavour.
The blueberry is the most recent example of a fruit plant taken from the wild and brought into commercial cultivation, a development which began in New Jersey in 1920. The cultivars introduced by Dr. F. V. Coville served as a basis of a new agricultural industry which put to good use acid, boggy soils which had previously been thought worthless for cultivation.
The cultivated varieties of blueberry are mostly hybrids of three native American species, the highbush V. corymbosum, the “rabbit-eye” V. ashei, and the lowbush V. angustifolium. The fruits of cultivated varieties are far removed from the wild blueberries and may be four times as large. They have been bred not only for size but also to have a pleasing combination of acidity and sweetness, although this is often the ideal and not reality. Most commercially cultivated blueberries are grown in North America, but there is now some going on in Western Europe and in New Zealand.
Blueberries are a good source of Vitamin C, iron, and dietary fiber, and can be eaten raw or cooked. They also freeze very well for later use. Cooking berries does destroy some of the Vitamin C and B vitamins and cause some loss of their colour.
Their blue-black pigment is the result of anthocyanosides (powerful antioxidants), a type of flavonoid responsible for stabalizing collagen structure. These pigments turn reddish in acids (lemon juice) and a deeper blue in bases (baking soda). The yellow pigments (not visibly seen) are called anthoxanthins, which will combine with the blue pigments, causing the berries to turn a greenish-blue in some recipes if too much baking soda is used.
Blueberries contain carbohydrates that tend to prevent coliform bacteria from adhering to the walls of the bladder and urethra, much in the same way that cranberries perform. The attachment of harmful bacteria to organ walls is the first step toward infection.
European bilberries are used in botanical medicine because their flavonoids have many important effects on the body, including decreasing blood platelet aggregation which can lead to strokes and heart attacks.
Bilberry flavonoids may also benefit varicose veins by strengthening capillaries and vein structure, as well as strengthening the blood-brain barrier, thereby limiting the uptake of harmful substances.
They have also proven to help relieve day and night blindness and retinal degeneration. Bilberry leaf tea is used to help normalize high blood sugar in diabetics.
Other closely related berries to the blueberry include the following:
Blue Ridge blueberry (V. corymbosum var pallidum) is reputed to be superior to all other blueberries.
Bog blueberry, bog bilberry, bog huckleberry, whortleberry (V. uliginosum) is a fruit from a low deciduous shrub that can grow to about two feet in height in muskegs and peat bogs and is associated with sphagnum moss. The large, sweet berries are a dark blue with a waxy coating.
Canada blueberry, velvet-leaf blueberry, sour-top blueberry (V. myrtilloides and V. canadense) grows on a low deciduous shrub that grows to only about a foot in height. The medium-sized sweet berries grow in clusters and, although blue, have a whitish, waxy film. Native to the Kootenays and central interior of British Columbia, Canada, they are common elsewhere. They were eventually developed into a commercial crop.
Columbian blueberry, mortiño (Spanish) (V. floribundum) is an example of an excellent blueberry grown in an areas other than Europe or America.
Dwarf blueberry, mountain blueberry, dwarf mountain blueberry, low-bush blueberry (V. caespitosum) comes from shrubs that reach only about a foot high. The small plant grows in wet meadows and rocky ridges, usually at higher elevations, and is common above the timberline of the Rocky Mountains. The First Nations consider them the best tasting and sweetest of all the blueberries. They are harvested with a wooden comb or the backbone of a salmon because they grow too close to the ground to be picked like other berries.
Grouseberry, red alpine huckleberry, dwarf red whortleberry, dwarf red huckleberry, small-leaved huckleberry (V. scoparium) is a fruit from a low, densely branching shrub less than a foot in height. As one of its names suggests, the leaves are tiny. The bush is common in open woods and on slopes at subalpine, as well as alpine, elevations. The berries are tiny, so are harvested in the same manner as other dwarf berries, which is with combs of wood or bone. The native Ktunaxa word for grouseberry means “comb”.
Mountain bilberry, black mountain huckleberry, black huckleberry, twin-leaved huckleberry (V. membranaceum) is also a low-growing shrubby plant, but capable of reaching eighty inches in height. The large berries are sweet and a dark purple or black. Although they appear shiny, they do not have a waxy coat. They are found on mountain slopes and clearings and growing on coniferous woods.
Oval-leafed blueberry, oval-leaved bilberry, mountain blueberry, high-bush blueberry (V. ovalifolium) is a fruit from a tall slender shrub whose leaves are, as the name suggests, more oval than elliptical. They grow in moist coniferous forests, along shaded bank streams, and in dry, open woods, but are generally confined below the 56°N latitude. Although sweet and juicy, their main drawback is the coarser seeds and a tendency to rot quickly.
Whortleberry, hurtleberry, dwarf bilberry, airelle/myrtille (French), Trunkelbeere (German), mortella/mora (Italian), mosebølle (Danish), skinntryte (Norwegian), odon (Swedish), juolukka (Finnish), chernika (Russian), cherveni borovinki (Bulgarian)
(Vaccinium myrtillus and possibly V. uliginosum)
Whortleberry is a puzzling name which pops up from time to time for various berries in this group. Although a stretch, the name likely derived from “hurtleberry” because its purplish colour is like that of bruises which “hurts”. The berries are quite large and vary from a dark red to a blue-black and do not have a waxy coating. They are also very juicy and sweet.
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