It is found in woods and on heaths, chiefly in hilly districts of Great Britain, northern Europe, and Asia.
Bilberries have been part of the human diet for thousands of years.
They spread across their range with the migratory flow of populations who appreciated their flavor, their medicinal properties and their hardiness.
The name “bilberry” appears to have a Scandinavian origin, possibly from as early as 1577, being similar to the Danish word bølle for whortleberry with the addition of “berry.”
Ancient Greeks recognised the medicinal properties of bilberries, hence they evolved to become a therapeutic product. This usage continued through the Middle Ages, when their antibacterial and antidiarrheal properties helped contain dysentery epidemics.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, bilberries regained their place as seasonal fruit in the regular diet.
Alongside blackberries, bilberries remain an important part of the European diet, appreciated both for their taste and their medicinal qualities.
Bilberry bushes are grown in the same way as other fruit trees, and their bluish-black colored berries are used both in the food and pharmaceutical industries.
The stiff stems, from 15 to 60 cm (6 to 24 inches) high, bear small egg-shaped leaves with serrated margins and small, globose, rosy flowers tinged with green.
The dark blue berries, ripening in July and August are about 1 centimeters (0.4 inch) in diameter.
The berries are borne singly, in contrast to those of the much more productive, cultivated blueberries of the United States, which are borne in short racemes.
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 are softer and juicier than blueberries, making them difficult to transport. Because of these factors, fresh bilberries are only available from markets and gourmet stores. Frozen bilberries, however, are available all year round in many parts of Europe.
There are 83 calories in 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of bilberries.
Bilberries are an excellent source of dietary fibre, vitamin C, vitamin K, manganese, iron, and a number of antioxidants.
The health benefits of bilberries include the ability to boost heart health, lower cholesterol, stop DNA damage, reverse aging, promote weight loss, boost brain health, help fight cancer, soothe inflammation, boost immunity, enhance digestion, and prevent hair loss.
In Brittany they are often used as a flavoring for crêpes, and in the Vosges and the Massif Central bilberry tart (tarte aux myrtilles) is a traditional dessert.
In Scandinavia, they are eaten fresh or made into jams and other dishes, including bilberry pie and blåbärssoppa, a bilberry soup served hot or cold.
In Iceland they are popularly eaten with skyr (a cultured dairy product similar to yoghurt).
In Romania they are used as a base for a liqueur called afinată – the name of the fruit in Romanian is afină.
Bilberries are a principal food of the grouse.