Our local moors are totally covered in bilberries at the moment. I think that they have other names if you do not live in the North of the England, and are also known elsewhere as winberries, huckleberry, whortleberries, or blaeberries (Scotland). For years I walked on the moors and didn’t even notice them as the bushes are only short in height in the UK, and often will be entangled or hidden by the heather. I now recognise the leaves which are oval and slightly serrated, and grow alternatively along the branch, rather than in pairs. They are dark green but often have a red tinge to them as the season ends. Luckily there isn’t anything really that they can be confused with that grows in that kind of habitat, especially if you check the shape of the leaves.
The fruit that look like blueberries, are dark blue and tiny, and they take time to harvest, and so it is a labour of love. I understand that you can buy a kind of comb that make harvesting them a shorter task, but I have not tried one, and I guess you would have to sort out all the leaves and rubbish it picked up when you got home. When I was a student, in the days when, as a single parent, you did not get any benefits during the holidays and lived off your loan, the bilberry provided my family with the vitamin C we really needed, and also other vitamins like A, D, E and K. In truth I cannot bring myself to turn down free food even if it does stain my hands purple for a few days and so I will be going to pick some later if the rain holds off for a couple of hours. I freeze them and add them to winter smoothies and pies, but you can make jam, compote, put them in muffins and make pancake filling out of them, too.
The fruit is safe to be eaten raw, and it tastes a bit like a strong blueberry, but kind of more intense. I am thinking of having a go at drying some this year and adding them to my muesli. I have read that they have four times the amounts of anti-oxidants of blue berries, and so must be what is known as a ‘super’ food. They are supposed to help with aging, fatigue, help prevent cancer, help control blood sugar, help with brain function, be good for your eyes, and reduce the chance of diabetes, and so I would be daft not to use a few hours to pick some. I don’t know if it is true or not, but I heard a rumour that the RAF used them to help with night vision on their bombing campaigns during the last world war. It seems mad that people pay a fortune for these kinds of super foods when they are sitting there free on moors and on the edges of woodlands which have acidic soil. I have never seen them for sale, either. I can’t wait to come home with a tub full. Do you pick bilberries?
If you are foraging it is important that you know what you are picking before you eat it, and so check with reliable sources and cross reference with plant identification books (but not apps as they are often wrong). If you are finding what you think are bilberries in a different habitat, and at a different time of year (they usually fruit during July and August) than chances are that it is not bilberries.