Q.When are winberries in season and why do we not hear alot about them anymore?
(Mrs Carolyn Briggs-Conway, 6 October 2008)
A.The first part of your question is a lot easier to answer than the second – if you’re looking to harvest some wild winberries, then I’m afraid you’ve almost certainly missed your chance. In most years, they can be collected from July to September, though depending on the weather and whereabouts you are in the country that can stretch a bit in either direction.
As to why we don’t hear much about them anymore – the answer is probably because they also have a number of other names, which seem to have become more commonly used. Winberries – sometimes written as whinberries, whimberries or whynberries – are also known as blaeberries, bilberries, whortleberries or huckleberries (as in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn). Originally largely regional names, people obviously kept the name for these delicious berries that they were used to when they moved, so there is now considerable confusion as a result, with a lot of people firmly convinced that they are all different fruits!
Throw in the influence of other countries ‘folk’ names for winberries – especially Finland and Scandinavia where they have been historically used – and things get even more complicated, with the likes of ‘blåbær’ being normally translated as ‘blueberry’.
A Little Bit of Botany
Along with the likes of cranberries, blueberries and lingonberries, winberries belong to the botanical genus Vaccinium, which is part of the Heath or Ericaceous family of plants (Ericaceae).
The group contains around 450 species, most of which live in the cooler and more westerly parts of the northern hemisphere – though a few are found south of the equator. Just to complete the picture of horticultural confusion, many of these species can hybridise – and then goodness only knows what you’d call them!
Until fairly recently, there were plenty of recipes for winberries, particularly amongst country-folk, but with the growth of supermarkets and imported ‘proper’ fruit, like many of the old staples, the blaeberry seems to have fallen out of favour – at least until now.
In one of those ironic twists, as society has become more concerned about organic and environmental issues – things like food miles and how our food is produced has started to bring many of the old favourites back in fashion.
While we may not all start cooking the rabbit, grouse, venison or pigeon for which winberries once formed the traditional accompaniment, these wild berries may yet become more popular once again and then you’ll hear more about them – whatever you call them yourself!