The herb known as the bilberry, botanical name - Vaccinium myrtillus, belongs to the heath family, and is related to the blueberry. More than 450 species of plants are included in the genus Vaccinum, most of which can be found growing in cool temperate latitudes and along mountain ranges in the northern and southern hemispheres. There are many plants in this family which are deciduous or evergreen shrubs, this is suited to the temperate climate they grow in. Many of these plants bear edible fruits and are familiar to most people; they include the blue berry plants, the buck berry plant, the huckleberries, the farkle berry plant, the cranberry plant, the whortleberry, the crowberry, and the bilberry plant.
The morphology of the bilberry is similar to the other berry bearing plants, being a small shrub that can reach about a foot in height. It bears sweet, plump and blue-black colored berries in season. The distribution of the bilberry is wide; it can be found growing in the heaths and woods of northern Europe, in parts of western Asia, and in the Rockies of western North America. In Europe, the bilberry is absent in the Iberian peninsula and in Southern Italy, however, it is very common in northern Europe, and teems in the mountains of southern Europe as well - its range is restricted mostly by climate. The bilberry grows well in damp and acidic soils; it prefers damp woods and sandy or rocky soil surfaces. Clumps of this plant can cover vast areas wherever it is found. In higher mountain ranges, the bilberry is a scrub shrub and grows well at high altitudes. The bilberry ranges from Europe all the way to Western Mongolia. Being absent in the rest of Asia, it jumps the Pacific to appear again in Western North America, where it is found from British Columbia, southward to Utah all the way to parts of Arizona and up to New Mexico in the far south. The bilberry is commercially harvested for its fruits; most of this is done in the wild regions of Europe. Bilberry is harvested when it ripens, it is collected from July through the month of September in early fall.
The name of the genus Vaccinum is derived from the old Latin word, a name used in the works of the Roman playwrights Virgil and Pliny. Bilberry has a species name "myrtillus", this name is an allusion to the supposed resemblance of the bilberry leaves to the leaves of the myrtle plant. The plant is commonly known as the bilberry, the bleaberry, the blueberry, and even as the common whortleberry in England. Bilberry is the common name for this plant in North America.
The properties that are generally associated with the bilberry include an astringent action, an antihistamine effect, and it is also believe to posses anti-microbial as well as anti-diarrheal effects. The permeability of the capillaries with respect to fluids and cellular material seems to be lowered by the bilberry. The herb is also believed to aid in normalizing the collagen thickness in the capillaries. It is believed to inhibit the aggregation of platelets and is said to stimulate the cellular release of the vasodilator substance prostaglandin into the bloodstream. The bilberry may help counteract the actions of the enzyme hyaluronidase, this common enzyme is also used by microbes in order to penetrate tissues and infect the body. The chromium content and the high bioflavonoid content in the herb may be responsible for the anti-diabetic action displayed by the herb.
A potent and beneficial anti-oxidant action is displayed by the anthocyanosides, which are the bioflavonoid complex found in bilberries. This complex of bioflavonoid aids the body by supporting the normal formation of connective tissue and also strengthens the capillary tissues in the body. The flow of blood in the venous and capillary systems may also be boosted by the anthocyanosides.
Bilberries contains approximately 0.5% by volume of the anthocyanosides, they also contain the vitamins B1 and C, pro-vitamin A, at least 7% by volume is composed of tannins, and assorted plant acids are also seen. The tonic effect of the anthocyanosides on the blood vessels is the beneficial to the human body.
Due to the fruit sugar found in them, ripe bilberries have a mild laxative action. Dried bilberries are markedly binding and possess an antibacterial action. An herbal decoction prepared from the dried bilberries is effective in the treatment of diarrhea affecting children. The bilberry decoction is also used as an herbal mouthwash in treating various oral disorders and throat problems.
Many different physical disorders and symptoms are treated using the dried leaves of the bilberries - different kinds of remedies are made from the dried leaves. The dried leaves of the bilberry are prepared from green leaves harvested early in the autumn, only the green fresh leaves are selected, and these are then dried by gently heating them and put in storage for late use. The use of the leaves as herbal medicine should not exceed three weeks at a stretch. The strong astringent action of the herbal tea made from the dried leaves is beneficial in the treatment of many diseases; this herbal tea also possesses a diuretic, a tonic and an antiseptic action, and is particularly beneficial for problems affecting the urinary tract of a person. This herbal tea is also used a remedy for treating diabetes and benefits the patient especially when it is used for a long period of time. While not suggesting their use as an alternative to conventional treatments, one report states that the bilberry leaves can also be helpful in treating pre-diabetic states in the human body. Bilberry leaves contain compounds known as glucoquinones, these compounds help in lowering elevated blood sugar. A topical oral treatment commonly utilized in treating ulcers and ulceration of the mouth and throat is a decoction made from the leaves and the bark of the bilberry. The distilled liquid made using the leaves of the bilberry makes excellent eyewash and is soothing to inflamed or sore eyes. A slight laxative effect is affected on the body by the fresh fruit when it is eaten raw, however, if the berries are dried, they possess an astringent action and are commonly employed as a treatment for disorders such as diarrhea and in treating many other intestinal complaints. A plant pigment called anthocyanin is found in the skin of the berries and the skin is specifically used in the treatment of hemeralopia - day-blindness. The bilberry is very abundant in anthocyanosides, these compounds have been experimentally shown to cause dilation in the blood vessels, and this property makes the bilberry potentially valuable as a treatment for problems such as varicose veins, to treat chronic hemorrhoids and to treat fragility in the capillary system.
Other medical uses
Habitat and cultivation
The bilberry is a native species of Europe and temperate regions of North America. The herb grows well in heath land, on moors and meadows, and also in moist undergrowth in lightly wooded areas. Bilberry is harvested during the summer, the fruits and leaves are collected from plants in the wild.
To grow at optimal rates, the bilberry prefers moist but well drained lime free soils. The plant grows well in soils that are rich in peat, while good growth is also observed on light loamy soil that has added leaf moulds or humus. The acidic range preferred in the soil ranges from a pH range of 4.5 to 6, the herbs can become chlorotic rapidly if lime is present in the soil due to the alkalinity. Bilberry prefers a site that has good exposure to sunlight and gives the best berries at such sites; however, the herb successfully grows in areas in light shade as well. The bilberry is sensitive to disturbance in the soil around the roots, cultivated plants are best grown in pots till they become well established and can then be planted out in their permanent positions in the garden. The bilberry can grow in light woodland as it tolerates some shade. The bilberry is quite resistant to wind and exposure. The fruits of plants grown in an exposed open location tend to be better than the berries borne on plants grown at sheltered sites. In woodlands with acidic soils, bilberry may grow very well and can form the ground vegetation in such woods. When it is growing well, it is a freely suckering shrub. If the aerial parts are destroyed by being burnt they can regenerate quite well from what is left underground. Bilberry is also tolerant to some grazing from grazers and browsers. Bilberry is self-sterile according to one report, while another report states that the plant self-fertilizes. Wild animals and birds enjoy the berries and the plant is a source of food for a number of insect species wherever it grows. Most plants in this genus are resistant to the destructive honey fungus and can resist this parasite well.
The normal mode of propagation is through seeds. Bilberry seeds are sown in late winter in a lime free potting mixture within a greenhouse - the seeds must be lightly covered with soil and not buried in the seed bed. A time period of upwards of three months may be required by stored seeds to overcome cold stratification. One study suggests that bilberry seeds are best sown inside a greenhouse as and when they ripen. As the seeds germinate and seedlings reach five centimeter in length, each of the seedlings can be pricked out into separate pots and then grown in a lightly shaded site within the greenhouse for their first winter. These seedlings can be planted out into their permanent sites late in the spring or in early summer, as soon as the last expected frosts of the year have passed. Bilberry cuttings can also be taken; cuttings of the half ripened wood, each at 5 cm - 8 cm including a heel can be taken in August and propagated on a frame. The cuttings from mature wood can be taken late in the fall. The bilberry can be subjected to layering late in the summer or early in the fall. One study states that the spring season is the best time to layer the plants.
Bilberry contains tannins, sugars, fruit acids, glucoquinone, glycosides.
The normal dosage regimen of the bilberry herbal extract used by the majority of people is 240 mg - 480 mg daily either in the form of capsules or in tablet form. Capsules and tablets are standardized to contain 25 % anthocyanosides and can easily be found in many herbal stores.
Side effects and cautions
The use of the bilberry herbal extract in recommended amounts does not produce any known side effects in patients. The remedy made from the bilberry does not react with the most common prescription medications. In addition, no known contraindications to the bilberry exist regarding its consumption by nursing or pregnant mothers.