Foraging Shepherd’s purse – Like the last 60,000 years!

Foraging for Shepherd’s purse in the UK

Capsella bursa-pastoris – Shepherd’s purse – Brassicaceae

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.

This plant 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.

Where to look when foraging Shepherd’s purse?

This can depend on whether you live in town or country, as your habitat will influence its most likely habitats! This is another plant usually easily found 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. It  thrives in areas of wateground and undermaintained parks, especially found germinating away on disturbed soils and in times of drought.  More information can be found in our article on where to forage?

The leaf roseete is a common sight across the country, and for almost all of the year, when you are foraging shepherd's purse
The leaf rosette of younger plants is an almost all year round affair when foraging for shepherd’s purse

Some of these plants only take a few weeks to complete their life cycle, from germinating seed to setting seed. So, you will often see shepherds purse in both its rosette and flowering form near to each other. are being researched by pharmaceutical companies for medicinal use. 

Shepherds purse initially grows as a rosette of pinnately-lobed leaves (typically up to 15 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.

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. Its flower stem continues to grow as the first seeds are ripening. The flowers consist of 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. 

The heart shaped seed pods will draw your eye to this plant in the summer, when foraging for shepherd's purse
Shepherd’s purse and its distinctive heart-shaped seed pods

Over on the plant family patterns page, you can find more details about these easy to remember patterns of the brassica family, as well as other plant family patterns of importance to foragers

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.

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,

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, are being researched by pharmaceutical companies for medicinal use. These include di-indolemethane, indole-3-carbinol, and some of the isothiocyanates, such as sulphoraphane. You can read more about the common medicinal plant constituents and their actions here

This research will likely reinforce what we already knew – that eating your cabbage family greens can 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.When you are foraging for shelherd's purse, you will see numerous small seedlings readily germinating on distubed and bare sols

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. Get more cookery ideas from our selection of wild food  recipes

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