In the United States they are known as huckleberries, and there are over 100 species with similar names and fruit throughout Europe, Asia and North America. The English call them whortleberries.
The Scots know them as blaeberries. Bilberry has been used as a medicinal herb since the 16th century. Bilberry has been valued for centuries as a nutritious food and a wild edible delicacy.
Bilberry is considered to be a diuretic, refrigerant or astringent. The herb contains Vitamins A and C, providing antioxidant protection that can help prevent free radical damage to the eyes. Vitamin A is required for sharp vision, while Vitamin C helps form collagen and is needed for growth and repair of tissue cells and blood vessels.
Modern interest in bilberry arose through serendipity after the Second World War. During night bombing missions, British Royal Air Force pilots reportedly experienced an improvement in night vision after eating bilberry jam. In the mid-1960s, reference to these observations eventually led to the first laboratory and later clinical studies on the effects of bilberry fruit extracts on the eyes and vascular system.
Compounds have been identified in the berry called anthocyanosides. These substances appear to fortify blood vessel walls, improving blood flow to the tiny blood vessels that keep eyes healthy, as well as to larger blood vessels that help maintain good circulation throughout the body. The plant appears to assist the retina, the light-sensitive part of the eye, in adjusting quickly to both dark and light. This is probably a result of the plant's anthocyanosides, which have antioxidant properties and appear to boost oxygen and blood delivery to the eye. Anthocyanosides also appear to strengthen collagen, the protein that provides support to healthy connective tissue.
Bilberry may also help slow the progression of cataracts, a clouding in the eye's lens that is common in older people. In one study of 50 patients with age-related cataracts, it was found that taking bilberry extract along with vitamin E supplements stopped the progression of cataracts in nearly all of the participants. It remains unclear, however, whether the vitamin or the bilberry, or even the combination of the two, was responsible for this beneficial effect.
The other important healing substance in bilberry fruits--astringent compounds called tannins--help treat such ailments as diarrhea, sore throat, and inflammations in the mouth. German health authorities approve of bilberry fruit for mild cases of diarrhea and mouth and throat inflammation. A cooled tea made from the dried berries can be either drunk or gargled for these purposes.
Put 3 lb. of clean, fresh bilberries in a preserving pan with 1.5 lb of sugar and about 1 cupful of water and bring to a boil. Boil rapidly for 40 minutes. Apple juice made from windfalls and peelings, instead of the water, improves this jam. To make apple juice, cover the apples with water, stew down, and strain the juice through thick muslin. Blackberries may also be added to this mixture.
Bilberry juice yields a dark-blue or purple dye that has been much used in the dyeing of wool. Picking berries for this purpose, as well as for food, constitutes a summer industry in some parts of Germany. Owing to the shortage of the airline dyestuffs formerly imported from Germany, Bilberries were eagerly bought up at high prices by dye manufacturers during the War, so that in 1917 and 1918 a large proportion of the Bilberry crop was not available for jam-making, as the dyers were scouring the country for the little blue-black berries.