Blueberries are small sweet dark blue fruits that have been all over the news in recent years due to their high antioxidant content. Antioxidants are compounds that help the body to fight off cell damage and aging and may help prevent a wide variety of diseases including cancer and heart disease. What many people don't know is that there are several other dark blue berries that have the same, if not stronger, antioxidant properties as blueberries, and are easy to substitute for them. Some of these berries may even grow wild in your area.
Smaller but more flavorful than their close relative the blueberry, bilberries are native to northern Europe, where they have a strong reputation as a health food. Bilberries and bilberry products like jams, pies and spreads are used to treat poor vision, circulatory problems and diabetes. The powerful attributes of bilberry are attributed to the potent antioxidant compounds called anthocyanosides, which are also found in blueberries. Pound for pound, however, the bilberry is more potent than the blueberry in terms of antioxidant content.
Another close relative of the blueberry, black huckleberries grow on upright bushes in the wild across western North America. Once a staple of the diet for many Native American cultures, black huckleberries taste similar to blueberries but are more full bodied and jammy, with a slightly acidic aftertaste. They also are a super source of powerful antioxidants including anthocyanosides and contain high amounts of nutrients like iron, potassium and vitamin C. In fact, wild huckleberries, much like their European counterparts bilberries, were held in high esteem by Native Americans as a medicinal food.
Popular in the British Isles where they have been used traditionally for hundreds of years, black currants were once grown in the United States as well until they were banned from farms because they were thought to carry white pine disease, which threatened the timber industry. Black currants are packed with antioxidants (almost twice as much as blueberries) and vitamins and are used in England to treat a wide variety of health conditions including Alzheimer's disease, asthma and vision problems. Once again, it is these anthocyanosides, which gives berries their deep purple-blue color, that are responsible for many of these health benefits.
Native to the temperate rain-forests of the Pacific Northwest, the salal berry looks and tastes very much like a blueberry with an almond center. This berry was an important food source for coastal Native Americans although there are no scientific studies done on their nutritional constituents or health benefits. The salal berry grows in abundance along trails in coastal forests and is easy to collect and enjoy by hikers of all ages.