The wild blueberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) is a plant belonging to the botanical family Ericaceae that gives us its small fruits towards the end of summer. These berries are highly valued for their beneficial properties and have always been part of folk medicine. We have already discussed blueberry cultivation, especially the hybrid species that are most suitable for planting in a home orchard.
In this article, we will delve into the knowledge of the wild blueberry plant. We will discover its botanical characteristics, its natural habitat, the properties, and uses of its fruits.
Where to Find Wild Blueberries
The wild blueberry is a plant typical of continental Europe. It thrives in temperate climates, so in Italy, it is distributed in the central and northern regions. It is widespread along the alpine arc and grows up to an altitude of 2,000 meters. Its preferred habitat includes forests, mountain pastures, and spontaneous clearings in association with other species, such as rhododendron. Enthusiasts of mushrooms or blackberry might encounter this plant along their paths during hikes. To thrive, the blueberry requires acidic soil with a pH level similar to that of myrtle (a similar-looking plant belonging to a different botanical family and distributed in the Mediterranean area).
Botanical Characteristics of Vaccinium myrtillus
The wild blueberry plant grows wild. It is a small shrub that is perennial and does not exceed 50 cm in height. It has an upright growth habit with numerous green branches that intertwine.
Leaves of Vaccinium myrtillus
The leaves of Vaccinium myrtillus are small and alternate along the stems. They have short petioles and an elliptical shape with a rounded base and a pointed tip. The leaf margin is finely serrated. The surface is smooth, green, dark on the upper side, and lighter on the lower side. Additionally, they have visible veins.
Flowers of Vaccinium myrtillus
The blueberry flowers are borne on short stalks and appear in the axils of the leaves. They have a pendulous growth habit and are typically solitary. The calyx is divided into 4/5 lobes, the tubular corolla widens at the base and narrows at the throat, where it is also divided into 4/5 lobes that bend backward. The flowers are hermaphroditic and are pollinated by bees and other pollinating insects. They are pinkish-white in color. Flowering occurs in late spring.
The fruits of Vaccinium myrtillus are called wild blueberries. They are small, fleshy berries that are bluish-violet, almost tending towards black.
- The outer surface is covered with a light waxy bloom.
- They have a sub-spherical shape, flattened at the apex where they retain the typical annular scar. The interior is lighter in color, and the flesh tends towards brown, containing numerous small brown, crescent-shaped seeds.
- The taste is tangy yet pleasant.
- The fruits start to appear in July and their abundance increases in August.
- The berries persist on the plant and can be harvested throughout September.
Wild blueberries can be consumed fresh or dried. However, they are excellent for making jams, juices, jellies, and liqueurs.
Contents of Wild Blueberries
There are numerous active components contained in wild blueberries, both in the berries and leaves.
In the berries of the blueberry, you can find:
- Flavonoid anthocyanins (anthocyanins),
In the leaves, you can find:
Anthocyanins contained in wild blueberries are considered among the most important components. Usually, their concentration in fresh fruit ranges from 0.1% to 0.25%. In concentrated wild blueberry extracts, the anthocyanin content is typically around 25%. The content of these berry elements increases as the fruit matures, while the opposite is true for the active principles contained in the leaves.
Properties of Wild Blueberries
The strong antioxidant properties of wild blueberry extracts containing anthocyanins have been demonstrated by several studies. These anthocyanins stabilize collagen fibers and promote collagen biosynthesis. Additionally, they decrease capillary permeability and fragility and inhibit platelet aggregation. Together with other components of wild blueberry, they prevent the release and synthesis of pro-inflammatory compounds such as histamine, prostaglandins, and leukotrienes. Moreover, infusions made from wild blueberry leaves lower blood glucose levels. If you don’t have the opportunity to gather these fruits, you can find a range of ready-to-consume products.
Benefits of Wild Blueberries
The wild blueberry has been used as a food source for centuries due to its high nutritional value, and it continues to be a precious natural delicacy. The history of the benefits of blueberries, and therefore their medicinal use, dates back to the Middle Ages. It became well-known among herbalists in the 16th century when its use was documented for treating bladder stones, gallbladder disorders, scurvy, cough, and pulmonary tuberculosis. More recently, wild blueberry extracts have been used for treating diarrhea, dysentery, and mouth and throat inflammations. Decoctions made from the leaves were also used to lower blood glucose levels in diabetes. Today, research has focused on treating ocular and vascular disorders, as well as diabetes mellitus.