Bilberry: planting, harvesting & using Vaccinium myrtillus


With a passion for growing installed at an early age, I have always been happiest outdoors in nature. After training as a professional gardener and horticultural therapist, I currently run horticultural therapy and community kitchen gardens in the UK, helping others access the many physical and mental health benefits of growing vegetables, fruit and plants.

Favourite fruit: apples and pears
Favourite vegetable: asparagus

A firm favourite of foragers, bilberries are not only delicious but highly nutritious as well. Learn all about growing bilberries at home and their many culinary uses.

Bilberries on a plant
Bilberries are not only delicious but high in antioxidants [Photo: Nata Naumovec/]

The common bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) is a sweet-tasting berry that can be found naturally growing in the wilder parts of Northern Europe. However, even though closely related, it should not be confused with the more widely grown blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum). Read on to find out all there is to know about the bilberry plant and how to harvest and use its fruits.

Vaccinium myrtillus: origin and characteristics

The common or wild bilberry is known by a host of other names including myrtille, whortleberry and the European or wild blueberry. Here in the UK, you can find bilberries growing in their natural environment of acidic moors, heaths and woodlands, but they can also be cultivated at home in the garden. As part of the Ericaceae family of plants, bilberries are related to other soft fruits such as the cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccos) and lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea).

Bilberry plants are slow growing but can reach a height and spread of 45cm x 100cm over time. As deciduous shrubs, bilberries produce small green leaves in spring, which often provide some attractive autumnal colour before dropping as the temperatures fall in winter. However, it is the small and delicate white flowers that appear in spring, which turn into its characteristic and recognisable blue-purple berries from late summer onwards.

Loved by wildlife, bilberry flowers are a magnet for pollinators and unless you are quick the birds might get to the fruits before you do. Bilberry bushes are incredibly tough and being rated H6 for hardiness, can withstand temperatures down to -15 to -20 ℃. Along with growing bilberries for their fruits, bilberry plants can also make good groundcover for any natural planting areas.

Young bilberries developing on bush
When ripe, bilberries develop a darker colour than blueberries [Photo: Iryna Kaliukina/]

What is the difference between bilberries and cultivated blueberries?

Bilberries and blueberries differ in both habit and production. Bilberry plants remain compact, whereas blueberry bushes tend to be much larger, with some varieties growing to around 2m high. When it comes to the fruits, bilberries not only produce lower yields than blueberries, but their berries are smaller and darker as well. However, the fruit of the bilberry is said to be sweeter and have a more intense flavour than a blueberry, making it a prized treasure of foragers.

How to plant Vaccinium myrtillus

When it comes to growing bilberry bushes at home, the conditions need to be right for them to thrive and produce the delicious fruits they are known for. As an ericaceous plant, bilberries require an acidic soil with a pH of 4.5 to 5.5. Bilberries prefer to grow in well-drained loamy or sandy soil, in either full or partial shade. However, any soils that are prone to waterlogging should be avoided as this can lead to the roots rotting.

Due to their compact form, bilberries are well suited to growing in pots or containers. Make sure to use an ericaceous compost so that the pH is acidic enough for growing bilberries. Our Plantura Organic Ericaceous Compost has a low pH of 4.5 to 5.5, providing an ideal environment for acid-loving plants like bilberries. It also is pre-fertilised, helping to feed the plants for the first few months.

A row of blueberry bushes
As with blueberries, bilberries require an acidic soil to grow well [Photo: Ihor Hvozdetskyi/]

Before growing bilberries in the ground, test the soil with a pH meter to check if it is acidic enough. If the soil is only slightly acidic, the pH can be lowered by adding ericaceous compost, acidic organic matter or sulphur. However, if the soil is neutral or alkaline, growing bilberries in containers is recommended as an alternative.

To plant a bilberry step-by-step:

  • Dig a hole to the same depth and twice as wide as the plant’s current root ball
  • Gently tease or loosen the roots if they are tightly bound
  • Lower the plant into the hole to the same depth it was previously planted at
  • Backfill with an ericaceous compost, gently firming in as you go
  • Water the plant in thoroughly using harvested rainwater
  • Apply a mulch of chipped bark or leaf mould to prevent moisture loss and weeds from appearing

If growing more than one bilberry plant in the ground or a raised bed, a spacing of around 30cm between plants is advisable.

Autumnal foliage of bilberry bush
In autumn, the bilberry’s foliage turns red and orange [Photo: Nata Naumovec/]

Tip: bilberries can be planted at any time of year, as long as the ground is workable. However, autumn is considered the optimum time, as this gives the root system time to establish before the new growth appears in spring.

Organic Ericaceous Compost, 40L
Organic Ericaceous Compost, 40L
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  • Perfect for acid-loving plants such as hydrangeas, rhododendrons, blueberry bushes, azaleas & more
  • Ensures all-round healthy plants with lush blooms and aromatic berries
  • Peat-reduced & organic soil: CO2-saving composition

Caring for bilberries

Once established, bilberries do not require much ongoing care and when grown in the correct soil type, they do not need fertilising. Bilberry bushes are sensitive to nitrates and synthetic fertilisers, which in high levels can lead to plant damage and make them susceptible to some fungal diseases (Phytophthora). However, to give them a boost and to help acidify the soil, you can apply a mulch of chipped pine bark or leaf mould annually in spring.

Pruning bilberries is not strictly necessary but they can be lightly trimmed in late winter if required. Bilberries do need to be watered though, especially when grown in pots and during the summer months. As a general rule, you only need to water bilberry plants when the top layer of soil has dried out. Where possible, it is beneficial to water your bilberries with harvested rainwater, especially in hard water areas.

If you want to increase your bilberry plant stock you can propagate bilberries either from cuttings, seeds or suckers. However, due to their slow growth and time to harvest, you may want to buy new plants from a specialist nursery instead. To propagate bilberry bushes from their suckers, you can simply dig them up in spring to pot on or transplant. Alternatively, you can take semi-ripe cuttings in the summer. To grow bilberries from cuttings, remove a slightly woody shoot 8 to 12cm in length and cut away all but the top few leaves. Insert the cutting into an acidic, free-draining compost and keep the soil moist until roots have formed.

Ripe bilberries on bush
When grown in the correct location, bilberry plants need little ongoing care [Photo: Nata Naumovec/]

Harvesting and using Vaccinium myrtillus

Depending on the climatic conditions, bilberries are generally ready to harvest from August until September. Bilberries are ready and ripe to harvest when they are a deep blue colour and easy to remove from the plant. If you only grow a few bilberry bushes, you can pick the fruits by hand. However, if you grow rows of bilberries, you may find using a berry comb is easier to harvest a large crop.

Loved for their deep colour and intense flavour, bilberries are often used for baking and making puddings and jams. As an antioxidant superfood, bilberries are also a great addition to granola or smoothies. However, since bilberries are rarely available in the shops, you will either have to grow your own or forage for them instead.

Harvesting bilberries with a comb
A berry comb can be useful for harvesting large numbers of bilberries [Photo: Beekeepx/]

Tip: just like any other berries, wash and cook any foraged bilberries before eating to avoid the risk of ingesting any bugs or parasites.

How healthy are bilberries?

Bilberries are packed full of antioxidants, minerals and vitamins, which makes them a great addition to any meal and a healthy snack. Bilberries contain both vitamins A and C and were supposedly used to ward off scurvy. Bilberries are also a good source of magnesium and fibre, which help support daily body function and gut health. Also, bilberries contain high levels of antioxidants, which can help protect against free radicals and disease.

A purple bilberry smoothie drink
Bilberries can be used to flavour and colour smoothies [Photo: Anastasia Izofatova/]

Tip: it is the high amounts of anthocyanins that give blueberries their intense blue colour and ability to stain clothes and skin. If bilberries stain your clothes, it is advisable to treat the stains swiftly before they become permanent.

Are cultivated blueberries as healthy as bilberries?

Both bilberries and blueberries are considered healthy and good for you. However, with their higher levels of anthocyanins, potassium and vitamin C, bilberries could be deemed more nutritious. Nevertheless, blueberries are certainly easier to obtain and are readily available in most supermarkets and health food shops.

A bilberry flavoured muffin cake
Bilberries are a great addition to baked goods and pastries [Photo: IngridHS/]

The berries and flowers of the Elder shrub (Sambucus nigra) can also be foraged for or grown at home. Discover more about harvesting and using elderflowers and elderberries in our dedicated article.