Bilberry is a name given to several species of low-growing shrubs in the genus Vaccinium (family Ericaceae) that bears 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. They were called black-hearts in 19th century southern England, according to Thomas Hardy's 1878 novel, The Return of the Native, (pg. 311, Oxford World's Classics edition).
The word bilberry is also used at times in the common names of other species of the genus, including:
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 paired berries on the bush instead of clusters, as the blueberry does. Another way to distinguish them is that while blueberry fruit pulp is light green, bilberry is red or purple, sometimes staining the fingers and lips of consumers eating the raw fruit.
Bilberries are seldom cultivated but fruits are collected from wild plants growing on publicly accessible lands, notably Fennoscandia, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, parts of England, Alpine countries, Poland, and northern parts of Russia. Note that in Fennoscandia, Austria, and Switzerland, it is an everyman's right to collect bilberries, irrespective of land ownership, with the exception of private gardens. Bilberries can be picked by a berry-picking rake like lingonberries, but are more susceptible to damage.
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 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 flavoring for sorbets and other desserts. In Brittany, they are often used as a flavoring for crêpes, and in the Vosges and the Massif Central bilberry tart (tarte aux myrtilles) is a traditional dessert.
Often associated with improvement of night vision, bilberries are mentioned in a popular story of World War II RAF pilots consuming bilberry jam to sharpen vision for night missions. However, a recent study by the U.S. Navy found no such effect and origins of the RAF story cannot be found.
Laboratory studies have provided preliminary evidence that bilberry consumption may inhibit or reverse eye disorders such as macular degeneration, but this therapeutic use remains unproven in humans.
As a deep blue fruit, bilberries contain dense levels of anthocyanin pigments linked experimentally to lowered risk for several diseases, such as those of the heart and cardiovascular system, eyes and cancer.