Ericaceae (Heath Family); Subfamily Vaccinioideae, Vaccinieae Tribe
Forms and Subspecies
The bog bilberry can vary considerably in appearance from one location to another. In lowlying areas, it can develop into an imposing bush, while in the high mountains it takes on a compact form (Hecker 1995, 288*).
Airelle uligineuse (French), bogbilberry, bog bil-berry, bog whortleberry, lausbeere, mirtillo falso (Italian), moorbeere, moorheidelbeere, moosbeere, rausch, rauschbeere, rijsbes (Dutch), saftbeere, schwindelbeere, schwindelbeeri, sumpfheidelbeere, tollbeere, trunkelbeere
The renowned paleoanthropologist Björn Kurtén has reconstructed the prehistory of humans in northern Europe in novel form. He places the invention of an inebriating drink made from plants from the Heath Family there in the early Stone Age. During the Middle Ages, a wine made from bog bilberries was produced in Scandinavia. In Siberia, shamans used the berries together with fly agaric mushrooms (Amanita muscaria), a custom that may also have been known in Europe. In Tyrolia (Austria), it is still said that children will lose their minds if they eat bog bilberries (Engel 1982, 109*).
The bog bilberry is a circumpolar plant that is at home in North America and in Siberia. It is also frequently encountered in dwarf shrub heaths and arolla pine forests in the Alps, e.g., on Bettmeralp and in other locations in Valais (Switzerland) (Hecker 1995, 288*).
Propagation is performed from seeds, which can be raised in seedbeds that should be kept moist. The seedlings can then be transplanted as desired.
This undershrub can grow as tall as 1 meter. It has alternate, summer-green, deciduous leaves. The pinkish white flowers hang in clusters. The round, blue, pruinose fruits resemble blueberries; they produce a colorless juice and have a sour/sweet taste. The plant flowers in June and July, and the fruits mature in the fall (August to September).
Other Rauschbeeren (“Inebriating Berries”)
The German name rauschbeere, “inebriating berry,” is also given to several other plants, especially the evergreen dwarf shrub Empetrum nigrum L. (Empetraceae/Crow Berry Family), known as the black crow berry. This inebriating berry occurs in two subspecies: ssp. hermaphroditum (Lange) Böcher [syn. Empetrum hermaphroditum (Lange) Hagerup] and ssp. nigrum (Zander 1994, 558*). This Scandinavian plant has a long history of use as an inebriant:
In Norway, the juice of the drunken berry or inebriating berry (Empetrum nigrum L.) was used to make wine. King Sverre (12th century) attempted to use such native wines to drive out the foreign wine that German merchants were importing in. In 1203, Bishop Jon taught the Icelanders how to make a wine like the one that King Sverre had taught him about. It was apparently this wine or another that was prepared from berries that was involved when the Norwegian and Icelandic clergy asked Pope Gregory IX for permission to use domestic wine during mass because true wine was not available in the country. Although the Pope did not give his permission, tradition says that such inebriating berry wine was used in Iceland for Holy Communion. (Hartwich 1911, 761*)
Even today, the plant has a reputation of being a hallucinogen: “The inebriating berry of the North Sea coast, which is consumed raw and cooked, causes inebriated states and hallucinations but is not a [narcotic]” (Körner 1994, 1572*).
The entire plant contains quercetin, ursolic acid, rutin, isoquercitrin, ellagic acid, andromedotoxin, and alkaloids. Honey from this plant can be toxic (Roth et al. 1994, 319*).
The cowberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea L.) is also known colloquially as “inebriating berry,” perhaps because its berries are also used to produce inebriating beverages (e.g., Kroatzbeeren liquor).
Vaccinium floribundum H.B.K. var. ramosissimum (D. Don) Sleuner, a Bolivian species closely related to Vaccinium uliginosum, is known locally as macha-macha (cf. macha). The same name is given to the related Pernettya spp. (von Reis Altschul 1975, 215*), which also produce inebriating fruits (cf. chicha).
The bog bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum), an alpine native, can have inebriating effects. (Wild plant, photographed near the Aletsch glacier, Bettmeralp, Switzerland)
The German name for the bog billberry, rauschbeere (“inebriating berry”), is appropriate, for the fruits can produce an inebriated state if enough are consumed. (Woodcut from Tabernaemontanus, Neu Vollkommen Kräuter-Buch, 1731)
The plant can be easily confused with the true blueberry (Vaccinium myrtillus L.) and other members of the Heath Family (e.g., Vaccinium vitis-idaea L., Vaccinium oxycoccus L.), especially before the fruits ripen.
—Fruits (uliginosi fructus, fructus uliginosi, rauschbeeren, rauschbeerfrüchte, bog bilberries)
—Leaves (uliginosi folium, folia uliginosi, rauschbeerenblätter, bog bilberry leaves)
Preparation and Dosage
The fresh berries or the juice pressed from them is ingested. One handful of berries is said to be sufficient to induce inebriating effects. Bog bilberry has retained its reputation as an inebriant in part because a type of wine is made from the plant:
In Norway, the juice of the fruits of Vaccinium uliginosum L., the bog bilberry, with some sugar, which is also a popular additive in the production of berry wine, is allowed to ferment into a wine. (Hartwich 1911, 761*)
In Siberia, the juice pressed from fresh bog bilberries is mixed with dried fly agaric mushrooms (Amanita muscaria) and drunk (Lewin 1980 [orig. pub. 1929], 168*; Schultes 1969, 246*). Water and yeast were sometimes added to the mixture to produce a kind of beer. It is possible that the berries were also used as an additional inebriating additive to Germanic mead and beer.
The berries can be preserved by drying. They should be collected when ripe and dried in the sun or in a warm location.
The dried leaves can be smoked (cf. smoking blends, kinnikinnick) or brewed into a tea known as batum (Lewin 1980 [orig. pub. 1929], 352*).
In Old Germanic times, the wine produced from bog bilberries apparently was consumed as part of certain drinking rituals, for it was used as a wine in early Christian masses. Since the Catholic Church integrated traditional pagan customs into the local liturgies to ensure its position of power, it seems reasonable to assume that bog bilberry wine was once an offering drink to the Germanic gods, e.g., to Odin/Wotan, who the Eddas tell us was the “wine drinker” of the gods (cf. mead).
For information about the shamanic use of bog bilberries in Siberia, see Amanita muscaria.
It is possible that some skaldic songs and head rhymes were inspired by bog bilberry wine (cf. mead).
Bog bilberry leaves were used in folk medicine in the same manner as bilberry or bearberry leaves (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi; cf. kinnikinnick). A tea (cold-water extract) of bog bilberry leaves and/or fruits is drunk for diarrhea and bladder ailments (Pahlow 1993, 245 f.*).
The entire plant contains flavanols, flavonoid compounds, tanning agents, vitamins (especially C), minerals, a glycoside, and arbutin derivatives (Pahlow 1993, 254*).
The inebriating constituents of the berries are apparently a metabolic product or a constituent of a parasitic fungus (Sclerotina megalospora Wot.) that often infects the fruits (Frohne and Pfänder 1983, 111*). To date, however, no constituent has been isolated or identified (Roth et al. 1994, 718*). Because the inebriation is likely a metabolic product of a fungus, the active constituent may be some type of ergot alkaloid.
The leaves contain hyperoside, ursolic acid, αamyrine, friedelin, oleanolic acid, (+)-catechin, and organic acids (Roth et al. 1994, 718*). The quercetin derivative found in the leaves, quercetin-3-glucuronide (Gerhardt et al. 1989), may be a narcotic compound (cf. Psidium guajava).
Consuming the fruits is reported to induce an inebriation characterized by excitation, pupillary dilation, feelings of dizziness, and vomiting and numbness (Frohne and Pfänder 1983, 111*; Roth et al 1994, 719*; Zipf 1944). Sometimes the only effect reported is “nausea” (Root 1996, 32 f.*).
Commercial Forms and Regulations
Gerhardt, G., V. Sinnwell, and Lj. Kraus. 1989. Isolierung von Quercetin-3-glucuronid aus Heidelbeer- und Rauschbeerblättern durch DCCC. Planta Medica 55:200 ff.
Moeck, Sabine. 1994. Vacccinium. In Hagers Handbuch der pharmazeutischen Praxis, 5th ed., 6:1051–1067. Berlin: Springer.
Zipf, K. 1944. Vergiftungen durch Rauschbeeren: Sammlung von Vergiftungsfällen. Archiv für Toxikologie 13:139–40.
“The drunken berry is very similar in appearance to the bilberry. It thrives in low mountains and in turf heathlands. It induces inebriated states and hallucinations but is not a [narcotic]”
HARALD HANS KÖRNER KOMMENTAR ZUM BETÄUBUNGSMITTELGESETZ [COMMENTARY ON THE NARCOTIC LAW]