The bilberry is a close cousin to the blueberry and huckleberry.
image by Szabi237: Wikimedia Commons
The cascade bilberry is a distant cousin to both blueberries and huckleberries. Like blueberries, bilberries grow from bushes. Bilberries even taste similar to blueberries. However, unlike blueberries, bilberry bushes produce one or two fruits on a stem rather than fruit clusters. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, bilberries were so prized by Native Americans that the location of certain bilberry bush fields was a closely guarded family secret. Today, you can cultivate your own bilberry bushes. Cultivating bilberries can be tricky, but once you know how, you can easily make your bilberry bushes thrive.
Establish plants from cuttings or seeds or purchase whole plants from a native plant nursery that operates within the growing range of the cascade bilberry. Do not attempt to transplant a mature bilberry bush. Bilberries grow in temperate or subarctic regions, particularly in alpine areas.
Cover your bilberry bushes with a shade cloth so that they get morning sun and evening shade. Most bilberry bushes prefer about 40 percent shade and 60 percent sun.
Amend the soil with pine needles or pine bark. Bilberries prefer acidic, nutrient-poor soil. You should avoid nutrient-rich amendments. The target soil pH should be between 4.0 and 5.0. You can test the soil's pH with a soil-testing kit.
Water your bilberry plants often. Bilberry bushes thrive in loamy, moist and well-drained soil. During summer drought conditions, take extra care to keep the roots damp. However, do not leave the plants standing in water. This will cause root rot. It's better to irrigate bilberry bushes than to water with a sprinkler system. Bilberry plants do not thrive with wet leaves.
Prune your bilberry bushes after the fruit-bearing season. Pruning your bushes encourages new growth. Like blueberries, you will not need to prune a bilberry bush for its first three years of life. Then you may trim it by cutting one to four of the oldest shoots from each bush hard to promote strong, new shoots.
Fertilize your bilberry bushes with a water-soluble fertilizer. Apply this fertilizer directly to the soil with your irrigation hose. In summer, fertilize with a balanced fertilizer, however, lower the nitrogen in your fertilizer during the fall. A fertilizer formulated for azaleas is good for bilberries.
Let snow cover your bilberry bushes if they have been planted in the ground. Because bilberries grow in alpine regions, they are very winter-hardy. Container-grown plants may be stored in a walk-in freezer at 32 degrees once they have gone dormant.