Bilberries grow wild in Europe. Blueberries look similar but bigger, and are native to North America. That’s the short answer, but the longer truth is that there are quite a few different varieties – all cousins related to one another. It’s usual to call dark blue members of the European branch of the family bilberries, and similar-looking American berries blueberries.
European bilberries are generally smaller, lower-growing, and less suitable for anyone looking to cultivate and market them. It takes ages picking enough to share at a family meal, even if you have enthusiastic children who enjoy hunting the tiny fruit at ankle height. If you only take a handful home, pulp them to colour yoghurt a striking pink. Bilberries have intensely purple juice, unlike blueberries, and were once used to dye wool.
In the UK bilberries are considered a wild fruit, of no interest to agriculture. American blueberries, bigger and on taller bushes, are grown by some European farmers – more so now there’s an interest in their health-promoting potential. Some of this is shared by bilberries – also rich in antioxidants. Both fruit have been linked to eye health, with encouraging studies on blueberries, while the evidence on bilberries is weaker. There are a number of traditional medicinal uses of bilberry, not yet researched.
There are all sorts of regional names for this family of fruit and they mean different things to people from different places. Do you think of a huckleberry as blue, black or red? If you want to be absolutely correct you have to match Latin botanical names to distinct vaccinium species and there are scientific sources to help you. Here we’ll look at traditional names.
Did you know that the American name huckleberry probably started out as a sound-alike version of the name blue-black berries once had in parts of England – hurtleberries? This also explains the old Newfoundland name for blueberries: hurts.
Whortleberries, hurtleberries, whorts, hurts, harts or black-hearts grow wild in the English south-west. Children and available adults used to take baskets out in summer for whorting - gathering bilberries while staining young lips and fingers purple. Fruit that reached home was sold or made into whort pie or whortleberry jam, while Newfoundlanders who had been a-hurting made hurt pudding. (There’s also a red whortleberry.)
Move further north up the western side of the UK and you reach areas where the same little shrubby plants with tiny dark fruit are called wimberries, whinberries, winberries, or even wind-berries. The name whinberry conjures up the landscape where these little bushes do well – alongside whin, aka gorse or furze, on heathland and moors. Rough terrain makes picking even tougher – perhaps two hours to pick a pound.
Bilberry used to be thought of as a Midlands word for the fruit. Does anyone know the reason why this word took over as the mainstream English name, rather than any of the others?
Travel to the far north of England and on into Scotland, and bilberries become blaeberries. You guessed it – that means blue berries. Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, and some German-speaking people use similar names for the fruit, all meaning blue berry. So there must have been settlers in the USA and Canada who would have started calling little dark blue fruit blueberries without ever having thought of any other name.
Bilberry..is merely the midland name for the bleaberry of the North, the whortleberry of the West, and the whinberry of the Welsh Border.(Westmoreland Gazette 1906 - from the OED)
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