WILD BLUEBERRIES AKA BILBERRIES
The Arctic bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) grows in the wild in the clean northern forests.
Bilberries which grow in the wild and cultivated blueberries are two different plants. On this site if we write about blueberries we mean the wild ones, the bilberries.
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Unlike cultivated blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium, V. corymbosum), Arctic bilberries are dark blue on the outside and in. Because of the high anthocyanin content, their flesh is juicy, fruity and either dark blue or purple in color..
On this site if we write about blueberries we mean the wild ones, the bilberries. This concerns the products, the articles and recipes.
Bilberries are a superior source of polyphenols and antioxidants. They contain several times more flavonoids and four times as much anthocyanin than cultivated blueberries. The importance of the bilberry in the human diet and for health is supported by scientific reports demonstrating its effectiveness against several chronic diseases, such as cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Compared with the cultivated highbush blueberry, the Arctic bilberries are smaller: they are 6–8 millimetres in size. Bilberries grow individually on the branches of a ramified shrub that reaches 10–40 cm in height. The skin of the Arctic bilberry is dark blue, waxy and so, and it breaks fairly easily.
Where to find them
The Arctic bilberry grows wild in the clean, northern forests. northern forests. It grows in fresh and relatively dry coniferous forests. It thrives in shady, spruce-dominated forests. In the north, it can be found growing on the sides of hills and fells. In some summers, the bilberry also grows around marshy ponds and on marshy tussocks. The bilberry is a typical coniferous forest plant, with a shrub able to grow for up to 30 years.
The bilberry flowers between May and June. Successful flowering requires favourable weather conditions and a sufficient number of pollinators. The main pollinators of lingonberry are bumblebees and insects.
In summer, an abundance of light, warmth and a suitable amount of moisture ripen the wild Arctic bilberries. It usually takes 8–10 weeks for a bilberry to develop from a flower into a ripe berry. In mid-summer, there are 19 hours of daylight in the southern parts of the Nordic countries, and in the northern Arctic Circle region the sun does not set at all. According to studies, this abundance of light promotes the formation of anthocyanin compounds. Due to the northern location, Arctic bilberries that grow wild in the forests form extremely high levels of anthocyanin and polyphenol.
In the southern parts of the Nordic countries, the bilberry usually ripens in mid-July, while in the northern parts it ripens in late July and early August. Weather conditions in early summer can affect the ripening time greatly.
The berry is spherical with a diameter of 6–8 mm. It is either dark blue and waxy or black and shiny, and dark blue on the inside. The berry can be identified by the distinctive pattern on its bottom.
It has been estimated that only Finnish forests and peatlands produce an average of 184 million kg of bilberries annually (Turtiainen et al. 2007). In 1997-2018, the range of variation in total yields was from 92 to 312 million kg (Turtiainen 2021).
Over 15 million kilograms of bilberries are picked for households in Finland. This number however makes up less than 10 per cent of the bilberry’s natural harvest, meaning that lots of this valuable berry is left in the forest.
Wild blueberry’s nutritional value and health effects
The regular consumption of berries has been observed to have a positive effect on contributing factors of cardiac health, blood coagulation, blood pressure and HDL cholesterol. In studies, polyphenols have also been observed to prevent viral and bacterial attachment and growth, and slow cell aging. For this reason, berries are also studied in the prevention of various inflammatory disorders. The effect of bilberry on ocular health, especially on night vision, has been known since the Second World War.
The use of wild blueberries
Wild bilberries have always had a place in Nordic culinary tradition. In summer, the berry is eaten fresh, alone or with milk or other dairy products. Many households continue this tradition and pick bilberries for the winter.
Bilberry products manufactured in the north include frozen bilberry products, dried berries, bilberry purées, powdered bilberries and ground bilberries. Bilberry jams, juices, shots, smoothies, wines and liqueurs are also popular. Bilberries are often used as a raw ingredient in yoghurts, ice creams, chocolate, desserts, snacks, soups and mueslis. In recent years, bilberry seed oil and bilberry extracts have become increasingly common in cosmetics products and nutritional supplements.
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