Foraging Shepherd’s purse

Foraging for Shepherd’s purse in the UK

Capsella bursa-pastoris – Shepherd’s purse


Shepherd’s purse is a remarkable edible and medicinal herb in many ways.  This plant grows quickly in numerous settings, so that with sharp eyes, we can generally find it all year round.

Shepherds purse is the only member of the genus Capsella and is native to temperate zones in Europe, and now naturalised in North America and parts of Asia.

The scientific specific name  bursa-pastoris, literally means ‘shepherds purse’ in Latin, and has been derived from the distinctive heart-shaped seed pods, which are similar in shape to traditional shepherds purses, made from the scrotum of a goat.

This is another plant easily found in town or country, happily growing in all lowland settings up to around 750 metres. It is one of many ephemeral weeds that are common to our gardens, cultivated fields, roadsides, and waste-grounds.

Some of these opportunist plants take only a few weeks to complete their life cycle, from germinating seed to setting seed. So, you will often see shepherds purse in its rosette and flowering form near to each other .

Shepherds purse initially grows as a rosette with pinnately-lobed leaves (typically up to 12 cm long), then quickly produces its flowering stalks to around 40 cm high. Its flowering stem has alternate leaves, found clasping the stem, with basal lobes.Shepherd's purse can be found all year round

Image of distinctive heart-shaped seed pods of Shepherd's purse
Distinctive heart-shaped seed pods of Shepherd’s purse

The inflorescence is a sparsely branched and loose raceme. The flowering stems bear tiny (2.5 mm across) white flowers on 1-2 cm long horizontal stalks. The flower stem continues to grow as the first seeds are ripening. The flowers consist of the standard four petals, six stamens and two carpels, which quickly give rise to the distinctive heart-shaped fruit. Looking closely, you can see a seam running from top to bottom, splitting the pod in to two.

When ripe, the pod releases two seeds, which can happily lie dormant for many years before germinating. One plant can produce up to 1000 seeds! If moistened, the seeds produce a sticky gel which is known to adhere and trap small aquatic animals, before dissolving them. This possibly provides fertiliser for the emerging shoots from germinating seeds.

Parts used All parts can be used,

Harvest As and when required.

Key constituents Amino-acids (including tyramine, histamine, choline, acetylcholine); flavonoids (rutin); saponins; tannins; glucosilinate (sinigrin); carotenoids; Vitamin C; volatile oil (including camphor).

Actions Diuretic, haemostatic, astringent, urinary anti-septic, mild anti-lithic, hypotensive, circulatory-stimulant.

Pharmacology and uses  Shepherds purse is available almost all year round, so this is one of the plants to cherish for offering us regular, ongoing chances to harvest medicine and food.

Shepherd's purse has mucilage rich seeds helping to germinate in dry weather
Shepherd’s purse has mucilage-rich seeds, helping it germinate in rid conditions

This unassuming and often overlooked little plant has created quite a reputation for itself as a chief plant remedy for women. All of the plant can be used,

shepherds purse rosette
image of Shepherd’s purse in trampled urban grasslands.

The Brassica family are renowned not only for their excellent nutrient profile but also for their medicinal compounds. The compounds formerly known as the mustard oil glycosides – the glucosilantes – are now known to be useful cancer preventative agents. The seeds of shepherd’s purse are rubefacient and vesicant due to the glucosilinates. 

Certain molecules prominent in the plant family, including di-indolemethane, indole-3-carbinol, and some of the isothiocyanates such as sulphoraphane, are being researched by pharmaceutical companies for medicinal use.

The research will likely reinforce what we already knew – that eating your cabbage family greens prevent illness and disease. As foragers, we have a superb array of brassica greens  freely available for 365 days a year…

Amongst its primary medicinal uses are for treating blood in the urine, as well as for gravel in the kidneys and excessive bleeding from the womb. During World War 1, Shepherd’s purse was reportedly used as a styptic to reduce and prevent bleeding when preferred drugs from goldenseal and ergot ran out. It works by contracting tissue, hence its use in arresting bleeding.

The plant is now known to reduce capillary and blood vessel permeability. Shepherd’s purse is considered by many herbalists as one of the best remedies for stopping haemorrhages of all kinds – for the lungs, stomach, the kidneys especially, and for the uterus; specifically where uterine cramps and colic are associated with it.

Shepherd's purse, is an opportunist and lover of exposed soils
Two  remarkable opportunist medicinal herbs. Shepherds purse and the opium poppy

Unsurprisingly for a plant that can contract tissue and arrest bleeding and haemorrhage; the leaves of shepherds purse have been traditionally employed to combat menorrhagia, as well as finding use in treating diarrhoea, and acute catarrhal cystitis. The German Commission E approved this plant to treat pre-menstrual syndrome and mild menstrual irregularities such as menorrhagia.

A decoction of the roots can be successfully used in cases of diarrhoea, haemorrhoids, and dysentery.  It has been locally used as a vulnerary for nose bleeds. For this, you can simply apply the juice of the plant onto cotton wool.

Culpepper knew centuries ago that it helps to stop bleeding from wounds, inward or outward, and…“if bound to the wrists, or soles of the feet, it helps the jaundice”. He also states that “…the herb made into poultice, helps inflammations, and the juice dropped into the ears heals the pains, noise and matterings thereof. A good ointment may be made of it for all wounds, especially wounds in the head.”

As a food this plant has been used for thousands of years. It is still cultivated in China and other parts of the Far East, and often used in stir fries.

The leaves are unsurprisingly slightly peppery and hot to taste, and somewhat salty, which may well be accentuated when found by the coast. The young leaves and the young flowering tops are a lovely salad addition and garnish, working well with vegetarian and fish dishes.

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