Bilberries are any of several primarily Eurasian species of low-growing shrubs in the genus Vaccinium (family Ericaceae), bearing edible, nearly black berries. The species most often referred to is Vaccinium myrtillus L., but there are several other closely related species. Bilberries are distinct from blueberries but closely related to them.
Bilberries are found in acidic, nutrient-poor 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. One characteristic of bilberries is that they produce single or paired berries on the bush instead of clusters, as the blueberry does. Blueberries have more evergreen leaves. Bilberries are dark in color, and usually appear near black with a slight shade of purple. While blueberry fruit pulp is light green in color, bilberry is red or purple, possibly staining the fingers, lips, and tongue of consumers when eating the raw fruit, a color effect from significant anthocyanin content.
Bilberries are difficult to grow and have small fruits, and are thus seldom cultivated. Fruits are mostly collected from wild plants growing on publicly accessible lands throughout northern and central Europe, where they are plentiful – for example, up to a fifth (17-21%) of the land area of Sweden contains bilberry bushes. Bilberries can be picked by a berry-picking rake like lingonberries, but are more susceptible to damage. Bilberries are softer and juicier than blueberries, making them difficult to transport. Because of these factors, the bilberry is only available fresh on markets and in gourmet stores. Frozen bilberries however are available all year round in most of Europe.
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. One review found no such effect and origins of the RAF story cannot be found. Bilberries contain diverse anthocyanins, including delphinidin and cyanidin glycosides. Bilberries have been used in a variety of folklore and traditional medicine, but there are no proven anti-disease effects from consuming them.