The bilberry brush produces dark blue berries that are better known in Europe than in South Africa, where they are commonly used as an ingredient in preserves and pastries and in colouring wine.
The biological name of the plant is Vaccinium myrtillus, but it is more affectionately referred to as bilberry, and occasionally called black whortleberry, blueberry, burren myrle, dyeberry, huckleberry or wineberry.
The bush, which stands a mere one-foot high, grows avidly on high ground and is native to Europe. The shrub has small wiry branches and wax-like flowers, which bloom white pink and red in the months of April through to June, and its tough leaves start off as a rose colour and then become pale green and finally turn red in the months of autumn.
Bilberry belongs to the same family as cranberry, huckleberry and blueberry. The berries on this herb are globular, with a flat tops and they grow to the same size as the blackcurrant. They taste slightly acid when eaten raw, but the taste is improved when the fruit is cooked and sweetened. The ripe berries, along with the bilberry leaves, also contain beneficial compounds for medicinal use.
When dried, the berries and leaves have traditionally been recommended for conditions ranging from scurvy, kidney stones and urinary tract infections, to diarrhoea and improving night vision. The latter effect was noted by World War II British pilots, who discovered this medicinal property after eating bilberry jam prior to going on night bombing raids. Nowadays the berries are also used to treat fever and various extracts appear to have antihistamine, anti-inflammatory and antiviral qualities, the latter making them useful in the treatment of herpes simplex virus II and influenza.
Ripe berries and leaves (most often dried)
Anthocyanosides (potent antioxidants bioflavonoid complex), support the formation of connective tissue and the strengthening of capillaries and improve blood circulation in the body. Anthocyanidins also foster the production of rhodopsin, a pigment that improves night vision, helping the eyes to adapt to light changes.
Quinic acid and a small amount of tannin can be found in the leaves. The tannins act as astringents, to help abate bleeding, and also have anti-inflammatory properties, which account for the herb’s successful treatment of diarrhoea.
The berries contain sugar, vitamin B1 and C and pro-vitamin A.
What bilberry is used for:
chronic fatigue syndrome
Capsules or tablets: 240 - 480mg per day
Berries: 1 teaspoon of dried berries in a cup of boiling water, drink once a day
Tincture: 15 to 40 drops in water, three or more times a day as needed
Syrup: 60g to a litre of water
There are no known side effects associated with the bilberry herb when the herb is taken in recommended amounts. In addition, the herb is considered safe to use in pregnancy and nursing. The leaves can however induce symptoms of poisoning if used for extended periods.
It has been suggested that Bilberry may increase bleeding in people on blood-thinning medication like warfarin or anticoagulants.
- (updated by Birgit Ottermann, Health24, March 2010)