Vaccinium, The Genus of Blueberries and Cranberries

Vaccinium is a genus of attractive shrubs. Many species produce tasty berries.

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   The genus Vaccinium belongs to Ericaceae, the heath family. This family contains many attractive shrubs, such as Kalmia latifolia, the mountain laurel, which has attractive flowers but poisonous leaves, because of which this photogenic plant has received such alternate popular names as lambkill and sheepkill.

     Fortunately, the tasty berries of the genus Vaccinium do not have the toxic qualities of the leaves of their Kalmia cousins. In fact, some of them possess chemical compounds with antioxidant properties.

     Whenever you enjoy a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner with cranberry relish, you can thank the genus Vaccinium for the treat. In scientific lore, cranberries go by the name Vaccinium macrocarpon, which means that it is a Vaccinium with big fruit. Herbalists claim that you get far more than flavor when you eat cranberries. They claim that it fights cancer. Whether or not these claims are valid, there is no doubt that cranberries are a healthful food.

     The blueberry is Vaccinium cyanococcus. Quite appropriately, this means that it is a Vaccinium with a blue berry. However, many different species of blueberry exist, such as Vaccinium boreale, the northern blueberry.

     Like other members of the genus Vaccinium, blueberries grow in shrubs of various sizes. The highbush blueberry is fairly tall. Other varieties are somewhat prostrate. Blueberries resemble other members of the heath family in the beauty of their flowers, which grow in attractive clusters.

     Several species of bilberry exists. One species is called Vaccinium myrtillus because the botanist who named it thought that its leaves resembled those of the myrtle. Another species, Vaccinium deliciosum, needs no translation.

     Bilberries are similar to blueberries; but while blueberries have pale pulp inside, bilberry pulp is red.

     Herbalists are especially exuberant in praise of the medicinal value of bilberries. They point out, for example, that they possess tannins, which improve blood circulation. They claim that this will prevent diabetics from developing eye problems.

     Vaccinium vitis-idaea means the Vaccinium which is a vine on Mt. Ida. There are two different mountains called Mt. Ida. One is near ancient Troy, and the other is in Crete. The Winternet website seems to think that it refers to the Cretan hill.

     Whether or not this berry is a Cretan resident, it has the Swedish name lingonberry. It is also called the cowberry. (Vaccinium superficially resembles vacca, the Latin word for cow. But the Latin word vaccinium designates some plant, the identity of which is uncertain.)

     It is not surprising that this plant has a Swedish common name because it grows in the far northern regions. It even is at home in the frozen arctic.

     The name “whortleberry” applies to several species of Vaccinium. It is an alternate common name for Vaccinium myrtillus and Vaccinium vitis-idaea. There is an interesting story about the whortleberry toward the end of the Kalevala. It relates that the Virgin Mary became pregnant by eating a whortleberry.

      Many more species of Vaccinium exist. It is a genus for which we should be thankful.



Winternet: Dictionary of Botanical Terms 

Medicine Plus: Bilberry


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