I’ve recently done a wikipedia deep-dive into the unexpectedly complex topic of blueberries, and wanted to share with you my discoveries. That said, no scientists are actually baffled by this. But I do think you will be as surprised as I was.
One thing did see coming is that there is no one species of berry that IS blueberry. There are a bunch of different species and hybrids all called “blueberry”, or some variation thereof in the local language:
- Vaccinium alaskaense (Alaskan blueberry)
- Vaccinium angustifolium (lowbush blueberry)
- Vaccinium boreale (northern blueberry)
- Vaccinium caesariense (New Jersey blueberry)
- Vaccinium corymbosum (northern highbush blueberry)
- Vaccinium constablaei (hillside blueberry)
- Vaccinium darrowii (evergreen blueberry)
- Vaccinium elliottii (Elliott blueberry)
- Vaccinium formosum (southern blueberry)
- Vaccinium fuscatum (black highbush blueberry)
- Vaccinium hirsutum (hairy-fruited blueberry)
- Vaccinium myrsinites (shiny blueberry)
- Vaccinium myrtilloides (sour top, velvet leaf, or Canadian blueberry)
- Vaccinium operium (cyan-fruited blueberry)
- Vaccinium pallidum (dryland blueberry)
- Vaccinium simulatum (upland highbush blueberry)
- Vaccinium tenellum (southern blueberry)
- Vaccinium virgatum (rabbiteye blueberry)
- Vaccinium koreanum (Korean blueberry)
- Vaccinium myrtillus (bilberry or European blueberry)
- Vaccinium cereum (East Polynesian Blueberry, Pacific Blueberry)
Not only that – there are also several species of bilberry which is basically also “blueberry”:
- Vaccinium myrtillus (bilberry)
- Vaccinium uliginosum (bog bilberry, bog blueberry)
- Vaccinium caespitosum (dwarf bilberry)
- Vaccinium deliciosum (cascade bilberry)
- Vaccinium membranaceum (mountain bilberry)
- Vaccinium ovalifolium (oval-leafed blueberry, oval-leaved bilberry)
Unsurprisingly all of these species look and taste slightly differently and are prevalent in different regions. So for example Vaccinium myrtillus – bilberry or European Blueberry, which is prevalent in Europe and northern Asia – are low shrubs with single or paired small berries. They are difficult to cultivate, so are generally wild. This is why it’s rare to find bilberries in a US supermarket. On the plus side, bilberries tend to have a “fuller taste”, and “when cooked as a dessert, bilberries have a much stronger, more tart flavour and a rougher texture than blueberries”.
On the other hand we have Vaccinium corymbosum, the northern highbush blueberry, which is the specie of the blueberry most cultivated in North America. Its shrubs grow to 6-12 feet, and bear larger berries, which grow in bunches, which makes them easier to pick. This makes northern highbush blueberry and similar species much more suited to cultivation. Such cultivation, in fact, has reached indusrtial proportions, which surprised and impressed me. Such approaches would not be possible with bilberries.
Unfortunately I have grown up eating wild bilberries and I enjoy their tart and tangy taste, so I have found that it’s a rare batch of blueberries available in the US that I find truly tasty. Most of them are too sweet.
Wikipedia describes the following way of distinguishing most types of bilberries from most types of blueberries: “Bilberries are darker in color, and usually appear near black with a slight shade of purple. While blueberry fruit pulp is light green in color, bilberry is red or purple, heavily staining the fingers, lips, and tongue of consumers eating the raw fruit.”
So now you know – if you get a batch of blueberries that just don’t hit the spot in the same way that Old-World blueberries did, this is because they’re probably one of two dozen different species.
But we’re not done yet. It’s not a stretch to realize that in addition to “Черника” (blueberry) both “Голубика” (Vaccinium uliginosum, bog bilberry, bog blueberry) and “Красника” (Vaccinium praestans) are also a species in the Vaccinium genus. But what I never knew is that so is “Брусника” (Vaccinium vitis-idaea, Lingonberry), and unexpectedly so is “Клюква” (three species of Cranberry in sub-genus Oxycoccus)
So there it is, the seedy world of blueberries. It was an eye-opener for me. But I will leave you with one interesting fact. A common name used in North America for several species of berries in the Vaccinium genus is “Huckleberry“. In fact in some localities the name Huckleberry may be applied to blueberries. Think on that as you re-read Mark Twain.
Disclaimer – most of the above information has been mined from Wikipedia, so please take it all with a grain of salt.