Herbs for Health: Benefits of Bilberry

| December/January 1996

If you grew up among the heaths, moors, and woodlands of northern Europe or are a wild-foods enthusiast in the Rocky Mountain region, you might be ­familiar with bilberries, fruits of a member of the heath family (Ericaceae) that are much like blueberries. Most Americans, however, are more likely to ­encounter them in the form of purple gelatin capsules in health-food stores.

The genus Vaccinium includes nearly 450 species that occur in cool, temperate flatlands and mountains of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Many are deciduous or evergreen shrubs with edible fruits, including blueberry, huckleberry, cranberry, whortleberry, and lingonberry.

Bilberry (V. myrtillus) is a foot-tall deciduous shrub with ovate leaves that bears globular pinkish bell-like flowers in spring. It covers vast areas of high mountains in Europe, thriving in damp, acid soils, damp woods, and sandy and rocky soils. From Europe, it ranges eastward to western Mongolia, and in North America, it is found from British Columbia southward to Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. In Europe, the sweet, plump blue-black fruits are harvested commercially from the wild in July through September.

Bilberry Through History

Bilberry fruits have been valued for centuries as a nutritious food. In England and Scotland, they are eaten with milk and used in pies, tarts, syrups, jellies, and wine. They were also esteemed by Native Americans living in the Rockies.

The first record of bilberry fruits as an herbal medicine is Hildegard of Bingen’s recommendation in the twelfth century to use them to induce menstruation. In the sixteenth century, other German herbalists were prescribing bilberries for bladder stones and liver disorders and bilberry syrups for coughs and lung ailments.

By the eighteenth century, European herbalists and physicians had added intestinal disorders, typhoid fever, gout, rheumatism, and infections of the mouth, skin, and urinary tract to the list of ailments that they believed bilberry would cure. Two hundred years later, people were drinking a tea of the dried berries as a tonic and to stop diarrhea and bleeding, promote urination, and prevent scurvy (vitamin C deficiency); it was also used as an astringent and disinfectant mouthwash for mouth inflammations.

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