Bilberries, sometimes called European blueberries or whortleberries, are the fruits of a shrub commonly found in Great Britain, Europe and some Asian countries. They are in fact related to the wild blueberries and huckleberries found in North America, and a few varieties grow in certain western states. Bilberries can be eaten raw, but many cooks prefer to use them in jams, jellies, syrups and other products. They are highly regarded for their high levels of antioxidants and are said to be effective digestive aids.
One widespread misconception concerning bilberries is their alleged effect on night vision. This rumor most likely started during World War II, when British pilots routinely received care packages from loved ones. These packages often included jams or jellies made with bilberries. Pilots who consumed items made with the berries shortly before night missions allegedly claimed that the fruit's ingredients improved their night vision significantly. Soldiers trapped behind enemy lines were said to consume them while traveling in the dark.
Scientific tests on bilberries have not revealed any ingredient known to improve night vision. There is some unscientific evidence that they can have an effect on other eye diseases, such as macular degeneration, but to date, the fruit has no approved medical uses. The leaves of the bilberry plant have also been used to make therapeutic teas for gastrointestinal problems, but this is a purely homeopathic remedy.
Despite the lack of any scientific endorsement of bilberries as a proven health aid, many natural supplement companies market extracts, infusions and topical ointments made from both the berries and the leaves. Some consumers of bilberry extracts report relief from menstrual cramps, varicose veins, diarrhea and certain eye problems. The leaves are touted as a natural treatment for complications of diabetes. The berries also seem to have some noticeable effects on capillaries and other parts of the circulatory system.
Bilberries can be used in both wines and liqueurs. They have also been used in tarts and as a flavoring for crepes, much like the blueberry pancakes popular in the United States. Essentially, anything that can be created with blueberries can also be created with bilberries, although locating fresh ones on American grocery store shelves may prove difficult. The plants are rarely cultivated for export, but jams, jellies and syrups made from the berries may be available in gourmet shops or European grocery stores.