To make agrimony tincture, pick the flowers and leaves on a bright sunny day. Pack them into a glass jar large enough to hold your harvest - clean jam jars work well - and pour in enough brandy or vodka to cover them. Put the lid on the jar and keep it in a dark cupboard for six weeks, shaking it every few days. Strain off the liquid, bottle, and label.
Amber or blue glass bottles will protect your tincture from UV light. If you use clear glass bottles, you will need to keep your tincture in a dark cupboard. It doesn't need to be refrigerated and should keep for several years, although it is best to make a fresh batch every summer if you can.
Dose: For tension or interstitial cystitis: 3-5 drops in a little water three times a day; as an astringent to tone tissues (as in diarrhea), half a teaspoonful in water three times daily.
The tincture can be used as a first-aid remedy for burns. First cool the burn thoroughly by holding it under water running from the cold tap for several minutes. You can just pour a little tincture onto the burn, but for best results, wet a cotton ball with the tincture and hold it in place until the burn stops hurting.
Va c c in i u nB I na ye ib t ei rl Whortleberry
Ericaceae Heather family
Description: A short deciduous shrub with green twigs, pink flowers, and bluish-black berries.
Habitat: Heathland, moors, and woods with acid soils.
Distribution: Circumboreal in distribution, occurring in Europe, northern Asia, and in western North America.
Related species: North American blueberries are very similar to bilberries. There are several species, including highbush blueberry (V. corymbosum) andlowbush blueberry (V. angustifolium).
Parts used: Berries and leaves picked in summer. Bilberry is an ancient source of food and medicine in northern Europe.
Its long period of use is reflected in its many colorful British regional names: bilberry in northern England, blaeberry or blueberry in Scotland, wimberry in Shropshire, whortleberry in south-eastern England, and huckleberry in the Midlands.
In North America it grows wild in western states, and is known as European blueberry, whortleberry, or huckleberry. There are several similar North American species, including highbush blueberry (V. corymbosum), lowbush blueberry (V. angustifolium), and dwarf bilberry (V. cespitosum), that can be used the same way as bilberry, though not as well studied.
In Britain, gathering bilberries in high summer was once a regular family and social occasion, as well as a local cottage industry. The main food harvest, usually grain or potatoes, was about to begin, but the timing of early August was just right for a day celebrating bilberries.
Whether Fraughan Sunday in Ireland (from Gaelic for "that which grows in the heather'), whort or hurt day in southern England, Laa Luanya in the Isle of Man, and equivalent August picking days in Wales, Scotland, and the southwest, the pattern was similar.
Whole communities would visit hill tops, woods, lakes, or holy wells, and the more assiduous would pick bilberries in rush or willow baskets. This was a rare day out, and it was a noisy, happy, and often drunken occasion. It had predictable consequences, with unmarried boys and girls, off the leash for once, taking the chance to slip away and have more personal kinds of fun.
In Yorkshire, there was a more sober bilberry connection, with bilberry pies the traditional fare of funeral teas: berries mixed with sugar and lemon juice were baked in crusty pastry. Bilberry pies were known there as "mucky-mouth pies" because they stained your hands and mouth blue, though still deliciously worth the trouble.
Bilberry is a wild plant, rarely cultivated, and you must gather it for yourself if you want it. Picking bilberries takes the present-day forager as close to being a hunter-gatherer as one can get. For our ancestors, the harvest was more than recreational, it was an important source of nutrition.
Picking the berries is the perfect excuse to get out into wild nature, as bilberry grows on windswept moors or in heathy woodland. You have to get down to it on all fours to gather, especially on tundra and moors where the plants are very low-growing.
Harvesting the low-lying fruit was and is backaching work, but bilberries are so intensely flavorful and so loaded with nutritional benefits that it is still worth the effort today. Where commercial gathering was undertaken, as in Gwent, the process was sometimes eased by a toothed metal comb or rake, the peigne, named from a French tool, which could remove the berries from their stems. The fruit would be sold via dealers to jam-making factories, and sometimes for dyeing.
The dealers were reported as being annoyed in 1917 and 1918 when the bilberry crop was requisitioned for wartime dyeing needs and they made less on the deal than with the usual jam.
These are a class of flavonoid compounds, found in high levels in bilberries. Anthocyanins are pigments that give red or blue color to blackberries, elderberries, hawthorn berries, cherries, and many other fruits and vegetables.
These compounds are powerful antioxidants that are attracting a lot of attention in nutritional research. Their potential health benefits include easing the effects of aging, reducing inflammation and increasing insulin production. Anthocyanins also protect the blood vessels and have a range of anti-cancer effects.
It is a pity they [bilberries] are used no more in physic than they are. - Culpeper (1653)
... the first and most indispensable of all the tinctures in our family medicine chest.
- Abbé Kneipp (1821- 97), on fresh bilberry tincture
The berries made more than jam, going into wine and liqueurs in Scotland and on the Continent. As well as a purple dye, in medieval times the bilberry was also tried as a writing ink and paint. Sources of purply-blue paint became increasingly important in the Middle Ages as coloring in depictions of the Virgin Mary's gown.
Bilberries have always been found nutritious and safe to eat fresh; also they are not spiny and only have small internal pips. They are equally good dried for later use in the home or while traveling. However, they are so delicious eaten straight off the bush or fresh with a little cream that you may never have any left to preserve.
Bilberries have remained a favorite for their sweet, deep-toned, and slightly astringent flavor in pies, jams, and syrups. Commercial jammakers appreciated them because they have fewer seeds than most other soft fruits and also more pectin. This meant that less sugar was needed to set them, one pound of sugar setting two pounds of fruit (other fruit recipes usually specify about equal amounts of fruit and sugar). No wonder bilberry made a cheap and popular jam, one also rich in vitamins C and A, and healthier because it had less sugar.
There's an interesting story about bilberry jam that neatly links its commercial and medicinal uses. Back in the early days of the Second World War, British pilots going on night missions chanced on the fact that eating bilberry jam sandwiches before flying would improve their nightsight. This all might seem "jolly prang" apocryphal, but research has confirmed that taking bilberry stimulates production of retinal purple, known to be integral to night vision.
The berry's eyesight benefits are now recognized as also including treatment of glaucoma, cataracts and general eye fatigue. Bilberry seems to work by its tonic effect on the small blood vessels of the eye, thereby improving the microcirculation.
So taking bilberry as a tea, syrup, wine, dried fruit, jelly, or jam is officially good for eyes as well as your taste buds!
This is a relatively new feature of bilberry's repertoire. Mrs Grieve, the modern standard among British herbals, published in 1931, doesn't mention taking bilberry for eyesight. But, as you come to expect from reading Mrs Grieve, she is thorough on historical uses.
So she mentions that the berries, being diuretic, antibacterial, and disinfectant, as well as mildly astringent, are an old remedy for diarrhea, dysentery, gastroenteritis, and the like. A bilberry syrup was traditionally made in Scotland for diarrhea. Eating a handful of the dried berries works well too.
The berry tea was used for treating bedwetting in children, and to dilate blood vessels of the body, in the same way as described for the eye. The tea is valuable for varicose veins and hemorrhoids, strengthening vein and capillary walls. The berries mashed into a paste are applied to hemorrhoids.
Then there are the bilberry leaves, which are a valuable herbal medicine in their own right, with a slightly different range of qualities, although often used in combination with the berries. The leaves are deciduous, and turn a beautiful red in autumn before they fall.
The particular and long-appreciated effect of the leaves is as an antiseptic tea for treating urogenital tract inflammation, especially of the bladder. This tea can also be drunk for ulcers, including of the mouth and tonsils.
Bilberry leaves are known to be hypoglycemic, i.e., they reduce blood sugar levels, and are used successfully in treating late-onset diabetes. This is a slow-acting treatment, however, and taking the tea for long periods may lead to a build-up of tannins that is counter-productive. Some sources suggest using the leaf tea for only three weeks at a time; others say it is best with strawberry leaves.
Julie uses bilberry syrup for eyesight and vascular problems. She says:
Bilberry flowers on the Long Mynd, Shropshire, England in April
Many a lad met his wife on Blaeberry Sunday. - traditional Irish saying
This fruit and its rela-
tives ... have been used traditionally for problems with visual acuity. And scientific research has validated this folk medicine approach.
"A friend once asked me to make up bilberry syrup for her elderly neighbor. This lady had a lot of aching and discomfort in her legs from varicose veins but was about to go on a long walk, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. She completed the pilgrimage successfully, walking many miles, commenting that she could 'feel her veins tightening up' when she took the syrup."
Bilberry combines well with ginkgo tincture or glycerite for eye problems. Julie's father has been taking this combination ever since he had surgery for a detached retina many years ago. His eye surgeon was initially sceptical, but checked into the research and now regularly recommends both these herbs to his patients.
Julie has used this combination for macular degeneration or retinal tears. Two cases stand out, both people with small tears in the retina. These were not bad enough to warrant surgery, but were intensely worrying to the people concerned, who came to see her to learn if further damage could be prevented.
In both cases, the patients went back to their eye specialists after taking bilberry and ginkgo for several months, and the specialists said words to the effect of "but there's nothing there, we must have made a mistake when we looked at your eyes initially." Not everyone may be as fortunate, but bilberry certainly has an important role to play in promoting and restoring eye health.
A wider-angle view of bilberry plants on the Long Mynd: picking the berries is a loww-down job!
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