Blueberry or bilberry? What’s the difference?

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Blueberry or bilberry? What’s the difference?

Discover Sörmland Blog
Published by Stefanie Schlosser in Nature · 20 January 2022
Tags: blueberrybilberryforestnature
From July-August, the Swedish forests are rich in blueberries - or bilberries? Wait, what’s actually the difference?
What are blueberries? What are bilberries? Are there any differences at all?
These two names are commonly used interchangeably for these tasty, dark-blue berries. Whilst the actual blueberry refers to the American blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), the name bilberry is reserved for the European blueberry (Vaccinium myrtillus).
Vaccinium myrtillus grows on low bushes that can live up to 30 years. The leaves of this deciduous plant turn reddish in autumn before they finally fall off. It is this species that is widespread over large parts of Sweden and is called blåbär in Swedish, which directly translates to “blue-berry”. This is another source of confusion concerning the slightly different names in English.
Furthermore, it is cultivated forms of the American blueberries that can commonly be found in supermarkets and that are offered as plants in garden centers. The various species of cultivated blueberry that have been derived from the American blueberry are, at least at second glance, very different from the bilberries we can find in the Swedish forests.

Fig 1: Natural occuring difference in size of bilberries (European blueberry, Vaccinium myrtillus).
The difference is most obvious to those who like to pick blueberries and eat them directly. From the outside, the only obvious difference seems to be the size. Cultivated blueberries are generally much larger than their wild relatives. However, it quickly becomes clear that the real difference lies inside the berries. While the European blueberries are deep purple through and through, the cultivated varieties show up whitish on the inside and thus do not turn clothes, fingers, teeth or tongue blue. What may seem convenient at first, is less of an advantage when taking a closer look at the health aspects.
Anthocyanins are a very valuable ingredient of both blueberries and bilberries. They are not only responsible for the blue coloration, but also act as anti-inflammatory antioxidants in the human body. Those less-colored, cultivated blueberries logically contain significantly lower amounts of anthocyanins. In addition, the content of vitamin C in the cultivated varieties is about 10 times lower. Certainly, the large berries on the high-growing bushes are easier to harvest and can be stored better, but they also are less intense in flavor.  
To summarize: While cultivated blueberries are a healthy and tasty snack, they should only be second choice if you have access to wild bilberries from the Swedish forests. This superfood - to aptly use this fashionable term here - is nearly unbeatable concerning taste and health benefits.
The Swedish Right of Public Access (Allemansrätten), allows anyone to roam freely through the woods and pick berries and even edible mushrooms to their heart's content.

Most popular in Sweden are blueberry pancakes, blueberry jam, blueberry pie and of course the famous Swedish blueberry soup.
Personally, I prefer to eat these wonderful gifts of the forest in their purest form, either straight from the bushes or as an enrichment to my breakfast. What's your favorite blueberry dish? Feel free to share it with us in the comments below.

Fig 2: My breakfast enriched with bilberries of the Swedish forests.

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© Stefanie Schlosser 2023
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