How to find wild food – part 4: Bilberry

Forager Miles Irving tells you all you need to know about bilberries. 

Bilberry illustration.

Forager Miles Irving tells you all you need to know about bilberries. 

The proliferation of berries around in September makes it a very busy time of year for those who know what to look for.

There always seem to be many more blackberries than the combined forces of feathered, furry and human foragers can eat, and plenty are left to shrivel or rot.

The same is often true of this month’s featured plant, variously known as bilberry, blaeberry, whortleberry, whinberry and wild blueberry, depending on where you live in the country.

At one time, it was harvested in huge quantities by commoners in Surrey, then sent to be sold in markets in London.

Bilberry harvesting is undergoing something of a resurgence in parts of Wales and Scotland, but is much less popular in the UK than in Finland, where an estimated 50 million kilograms of wild berries are gathered every year.

The Finns also harvest berries, such as cowberry and sea buckthorn, that are plentiful but overlooked in Britain. They’re also keen on cloudberry – scarce here in upland bogs, but common there.

Bilberry bushes are low-growing, deciduous and extremely abundant on acid soils in habitats as diverse as heaths, moors and woodlands of birch, oak or conifers.

Like many plants, they suffer in the presence of sheep – even a medium-sized flock of woolly munchers eliminates them entirely.

But if you find some in a sheep-free area, you’re in for a treat, because the bushes have a prodigious output.

However, harvesting by hand can be slow, so try using a berry rake instead – a scoop with teeth like a comb.

Use bilberries with a little stock and red wine to make sauce for game; in pies, tarts and cakes; stewed to serve with ice cream; or fresh from the bush as sustenance during rural wanderings.


Next month... How to find and prepare common mallow. 

Read more how to find wild food blogs. 

Find out more about the work of Miles Irving and follow him on Twitter @foragerLtd.

Discover more about finding food in the countryside with the help of The Forager Handbook by Miles Irving. 

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