Sandy’s Garden ... Blaeberries

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

I have no idea why ‘blaeberries’ burst into my mind recently.

I’m sure I haven’t eaten any for many a long year; and I’m pretty certain that, although a number of Scottish distillers do use them as one of their botanicals in gin, I have not drunk any of the brands in which they feature. Thus I have no idea why ‘blaeberries’ burst into my mind recently. But burst into my mind they did, recalling almost-forgotten visits to maternal relations in north Fife during my childhood years. I remember gathering the fruit … rather reluctantly, for it was a chore which a child did not enjoy … and recollect enjoying the tarts which was the reason for the harvesting rather more. And once again, I’m sure I haven’t tasted a blaeberry tart for many a long year.

Let’s start by assuring you, gentle reader, that I am not thinking of blueberries which, although very similar, are a different species of the same family of plants. The blaeberry is, botanically, Vaccinium myrtillus while the blueberry is Vaccinium vitis-idaea. From an everyday point of view, the blaeberry plant is a low shrub which … between July and September … bears purple berries with a smooth, circular outline at the end opposite their point of attachment while the fruits of the blueberry plant … another low-growing shrub … have a flared crown at the end opposite their point of attachment. Blaeberries are rather darker than blueberries in colour, often seeming to be almost black. They can also be distinguished from their cousins by the fact that blaeberries are found in single or paired berries on the bush rather than in the clusters found on blueberry bushes. The berries of both plants are edible and are used in jam, pies, puddings, ice creams and cakes, the blueberry being, to my mind at least, the tastier of the two. (You will gather that harvesting berries one or two at a time is not child’s play!)

We … my parents, my aunt and I … collected blaeberries on hillsides around Newburgh in Fife. They are very seldom grown commercially, for they are difficult to cultivate successfully and the small berries yield scant return for the effort involved. The bushes are found growing wild widely across northern and central Europe, most often in conifer woods and on moorland. They thrive in acidic, nutrient-poor soils and are perfectly happy in Scotland. I have no idea whether blaeberries can still be found in north Fife but learn … somewhat to my surprise, I confess … that they are one of the ten most commonly gathered Scottish NTFPs, according to an organisation called Wild Harvest. (An NTFP, I also learn, is a ‘non-timber forest product’ and is used to refer to the plant and fungal material that is harvested from forested areas as well as items that may be made from these materials.)

Sundry medicinal claims have been made over the years for blaeberries. There used to be an-oft repeated tale of RAF pilots eating blaeberry jam, which is almost certainly true; that it improved their night vision is more doubtful. Nor can I comment on the veracity of claims that a syrup made from the leaves is helpful in the treatment of ulcers or that a tea brewed from the leaves is a remedy for diabetes. Our ancestors in the Hebrides ate the berries as a cure for diarrhoea; and the berries were thought to be good to treat scurvy – which may well be right, for they are rich in vitamin C. And with regard to the name ‘blaeberry’, it may have come to Scotland from Scandinavia, while the bush is known by a variety of names elsewhere in the United Kingdom and the United States, including bilberry, black whortles, hurtleberry, hurts, trackleberry, whinberry and whortleberry. But I’ll stick with ‘blaeberry’, just as the Woodland Trust has stuck with Blaeberry Woodland for an area close to East Whitburn.