Vaccinium myrtillus…. can we really see in the dark?


Blueberry Watercolour by Amy
Blueberry Watercolour by Amy

I always thought it was carrots that helped us to see in the dark and as a child I would eat them like Bugs Bunny with the hope that night vision would befall me and I would morph from a very short-sighted little girl to a night hero able to commune with bats and owls. If only I’d eaten bilberries and blueberries.

In fact, growing up, I’d never even tasted blueberries and bilberries. I’d read about them in my books and imagined them and was quite jealous that we in the southeast of England didn’t have those berries which were my favourite colour growing in our hedgerows. I hadn’t tasted any until a muffin came my way as a young adult. Even later, I was in my mid twenties before I’d found wild bilberries in the UK and immediately decided they were an amazing treat on offer in our moorland areas…

Vaccinium myrtillus is the bilberry that we are familiar with in the UK, it is the blueberry’s little cousin – darker, smaller and bursting with juice. I first came upon it in the BreconBeaconsNational Park in Wales and picked them very gratefully, making sure to leave enough for birds and beasties and for babies of course (theirs, not mine).

They are actually quite fiddly to pick and I remember thinking about my eyes and fingers working together (when you’re picking a lot, you can use a special rake or brush to sweep them off the plants but in British moorland I’m not sure I would feel comfortable taking so many berries….). I thought of the time I had talked with my great uncle Bob about bilberries and he, an ex-pilot with the RAF, told me they had been given bilberry jam in the war for their night vision. No carrots at all!

With our native bilberries I first picked, I made cordial and rob (reduced juice to the thickness of a syrup) and scoffed the rest. It was too tempting! Bilberries are a native superfood in my opinion. They are blue. Blue is good (in this sense at least).

Blue is the colour of cyanidins, you know, from cyan – the blue colour in ancient Greek. The fruit of the vaccinium genus contain anthocyanidins which are a type of flavonoid. You may have heard of them as there is a lot of literature on the beneficial properties of these phytochemicals.

So in regard to eyes and seeing and connecting with owls, the former two (at least…) have long been researched (the latter still needs further research), clinical trials from 1964 onwards have shown that bilberry fruit protect peripheral circulation and capillaries. So the tiny vessels that take the blood to the extremities of the body are helped, strengthened so to speak.

It is thought that when the blue constituents of bilberry interact with the collagen in the vessel wall, a vaso-protective activity is induced (Mills & Bone 2001). Furthermore, anthocyanidins have been shown to demonstrate an affinity for the pigment epithelium of the retina (in vitro) and improve visual activity in poor light (night vision).

Like my great uncle Bob and his bilberry jam, the fruit was shown to improve night vision in uncontrolled trials with air traffic controllers, pilots and automobile drivers (Mills & Bone 2001).

In clinic I use bilberries for many eye disorders. In fact if there is something going on with someone’s eyes, I immediately think of the berry because in most instances I want to get the blood and all it delivers to the eye and I want in many cases to protect that eye.

Bilberries and blueberries can be used as a food freshly picked, in jams and cordials etc. and as a medicine – I usually make a tincture of bilberry and have seen great results with it. They can also be dried and used when needed as a tea.

It is not just the eyes that benefit from bilberries but I just wanted to talk a little about night vision and tiny blue constituents.

I painted the blueberry above yesterday – it is winter and I have no fresh bilberries to hand as they come out in July but they are still beneficial – I will update with a bilberry when I can.

Blueberries are blue and therefore have anthocyanidins but not to the same extent as bilberries (at least not the ones in the market that I can buy) – the littler berries may be small but they have great rich juice and I’ve included a photo of some blue lips (not due to cold) just to demonstrate that on the Dales (also pictured as their natural habitat), moorland or hedgrow, they are well worth a good pick and a scoff.

bilberry lips
bilberry lips

Until summer, enjoy bilberry (wild blueberry) jam and any cordial you can find! In summer, go on and find some bilberries – get down with a bit of rewilding and smear some on your skin… just to check the phytoconstituent content that is……