Botanical and Common Names
- Family Ericaceae
- Vaccinium myrtillus (Bilberry, Whortleberry, Blueberry, Burren myrtle, Dyeberry, Huckleberry, Hurtleberry, Wineberry, Black Whortles, Hurts, Bleaberry, Airelle, Trackleberry)
- Vaccinium uliginosum (Bog Bilberry)
- Vaccinium vitis-idaea (Alpine Cranberry, Cowberry, Red Bilberry, Whortleberry)
- Since the leaves are known to lower blood sugar levels, insulin-dependent diabetics should not take this herb without professional guidance.
- Do not use the leaves for longer than three weeks at a time.
- High doses should not be taken as some European animal studies have shown that prolonged high dosages may have caused animal wasting, anemia, and even death.
Native to Europe and North America, the Bilberry cannot be found in Greece or in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. This relative of the blueberry thrives in damp, boggy soil with a strong acid bias, as well as in woods, forests, heathland and moors, and in moist hedgerows. It is a deciduous, perennial shrub, growing to about sixteen inches producing erect, multi-branched stems, pointed oval leaves, small white or pink flowers, and spherical berries that ripen to purple-black. The berries are harvested when ripe in the late summer and early fall. The leaves are picked just before the berries ripen.
Once highly regarded as medicinal herbs, the bilberry and cowberry plants are close relatives of the bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), also an important urinary antiseptic. Their leaves have long been used in similar ways.
The Elizabethan apothecaries made a syrup of the berries with honey called “rob” as a remedy for diarrhea.
During WWII, British Royal Air Force pilots reported that they had better night vision during bombing raids when they ate bilberry jam beforehand. Medical scientists have given credence to the claim that it has visual benefits.
The berries have long been used to treat diarrhea, respiratory problems, and gastrointestinal upsets as well as fevers. Native Americans also used them in a gargle for sore throats and as a wash for sores, ulcers, and wounds.
- antibacterial (fruits)
- laxative (fruits)
- lowers blood sugar levels
- prevents vomiting
- fruit acids
- arbutin (leaves – up to 7%)
- vitamins and minerals (especially iron, manganese, phosphorus, zinc, magnesium, potassium, selenium, thiamin, and vitamins A and C)
- Berries, fresh aerial parts, leaves.
- The primary active ingredients in bilberries are anthocyanosides, a bioflavonoid complex with potent antioxidant effects. These are believed to strengthen capillaries and improve blood circulation which may account for their wide usage in Europe in treating diabetic retinopathy. Anthocyanosides also appear to have a positive effect on certain enzymes important in vision, especially the eyes ability to adapt to the dark.
- fresh berries the preferred treatment for constipation
- juice effective for diarrhea
- decoction taken for chronic diarrhea
- mouthwash from the diluted juice for ulcers and gum inflammations
- lotion from diluted juice combined with equal amounts of witch hazel to soothe a sunburn or for skin inflammations
- powdered berries mixed with their formula and given to infants to treat diarrhea
- infusion taken as an adjunct to help treat late-onset, non-insulin dependent diabetes; a strong infusion used for urinary tract infections or diarrhea
- mouthwash or gargle used for mouth ulcers and throat inflammations
The berries contain a pigment called arbutin, which is believed to kill or inhibit the growth of bacteria. This is especially helpful with urinary tract infections or cystitis, as well as for dysentery and throat inflammations. However, large quantities of the berries have a laxative effect.
Up to 10% of the extracted liquid can be made up of astringent tannins. The berries will solidify fecal matter, but not cause constipation. If taken in conjunction with slippery elm, its soothing action in the bowel is intensified.
It has been used as an antiscurvy agent, and its high iron content, to combat anemia.
Dried bilberry leaves lower triglycerides and blood sugar levels, by stimulating insulin production, in animal studies.
Its high anthocyanin content makes it a potentially valuable treatment in preventing circulatory disorders including decreased blood flow to the legs and atherosclerosis as well as for varicose veins, hemorrhoids, and capillary fragility.
Bilberries contain chemicals that protect and strengthen blood vessels that feed the eyes, important in fighting macular degeneration and in preventing night blindness, retinopathy, and other visual disorders. In one study, progression of senile cataracts was halted in nearly all who supplemented their diets with vitamin E and bilberry extract.
They have been known to relieve arthritis, gout, and dermatitis symptoms.
In Europe, herbal teas are prescribed for infants with infectious diarrhea and indigestion.
Sporatic studies are showing that bilberries may have some effect on preventing such diverse conditions as edema, liver damage, inflammation, angina, blood clots, high cholesterol levels, and painful menstruation.