In Ireland, the last Sunday in July (July 31 this year) is known as Bilberry Sunday, although it seems the custom of going to the mountains to look for bilberries has somewhat died out. I found one reference online to a festival in Ardagh, Ireland, in 2015 where the participants climbed Bri Leith (also known as Ardagh Hill) to collect bilberries.
I read of one old custom where the girls would bring home bilberries and bake them into a cake to present to the one they loved. But Máire MacNeill, in her book on the festival of Lughnasa (August 1), says the boys make the girls bilberry bracelets, which are left behind when it’s time to return home. Either way, this is a courting festival like May Day, three months earlier.
The bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) is a relative of the blueberry that is smaller (about half the size), darker in color, and more sour. Bilberries grow best in acidic soil, usually on mountains or moors. The shrubs are low-lying and have dark-green, myrtle-like leaves. Because they are so hard to harvest, bilberries are almost never cultivated, but they are prized as a seasonal food that can be turned into jam or juice, baked into a pie or tart, or used as the base of a liqueur.
Since bilberries aren’t common where I live, I choose to harvest a different wild berry: the Himalayan blackberry, which grows wild (in fact, is a noxious weed) all over Seattle. Bilberry Sunday seems like a good opportunity to survey the wild berries that grow where you live. If you can pick enough of them to bring home, you can try making one of the treats above. I also like serving blackberries tossed with lavender simple syrup or lavender ice cream (after all, July is ice cream month).
Waverly Fitzgerald is a writer, teacher, and calendar priestess who has studied the lore of holidays and the secrets of time for decades. She shares her research and her thoughts on her Living in Season website and in her book, Slow Time. She is currently working on a series of essays about looking for nature in the city and blogs for the Seattle PI as the “Urban Naturalist.”