Shepherd’s Purse


Cool weather seems to bring out all those cabbage relatives. Shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) is no exception. One nice thing is that most crucifers are edible. What isn’t so nice is they all tend to get the same diseases.

Shepherd’s purse is that weed that sends out the flower stalk with small white flowers and little triangular seed pods. It has a ring of deeply lobed leaves at the base. This basal foliage is the best table fare, especially when young. I prefer it cooked to raw, but it is not one of my favorite wild greens.

The triangular to heart-shaped fruits temporarily irritate the skin of some people. They don’t bother me but I still don’t eat them. They’re bitter.

For centuries seeds have been used to treat intestinal infections and vision problems. Some people still chew seeds to improve their sight. Shepherd’s purse seeds are extremely high in vitamin A, which might explain skin irritations as mega doses of carotene sometimes cause that.

The most prevalent medicinal use is to regulate menstrual bleeding. The plant’s high vitamin K content could help explain that. Shepherd’s purse is also used late in pregnancy to stimulate uterine contractions and prevent post-partum hemorrhage. Like plantains, it has been used throughout history as a styptic to help heal wounds. Teas, foliage, and seeds reduce urinary tract irritation and are used as a mild diuretic. Always see a doctor before using medicinal herbs, especially if you are on medication.

Overseas, shepherd’s purse seeds and extracts have been employed as a substitute for quinine in treating malaria, and show insecticidal promise. They contain natural mucilage which is effective for killing mosquito larvae. The plant is used for that purpose in Africa.

Around here, shepherd’s purse grows on most disturbed sites from fall until early to mid-spring. It also springs up in lawns where turf has thinned. There are a few places where you should try to eliminate it. Keep it out of your garden if you plan to grow any cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower or any other member of the cabbage family.

Shepherd’s purse can carry a fungus disease called club root, which will spread to cultivated crucifers. The disease reduces yields and overall crop quality. Once in the soil, this slime mold can persist for 20 years.

Farmers are well aware of problems caused by weeds of this family. Rotating crops helps a lot, but once in the soil this pathogen can be challenging since it can persist so long. The disease is worse on wet acidic soils and shepherd’s purse handles those conditions well.

Some new fungicides show promise, but keeping fields free from this pathogen is the best and cheapest option. It’s definitely the way to go for home gardeners. Learn to recognize shepherd’s purse, wild mustard and pennycress and eliminate them from your vegetable garden site. Pennycress looks something like shepherd’s purse, but it grows later in the spring and seed pods are more round. Wild mustard has clusters of four-petal yellow flowers and long finger-like seed pods.

 

Shepherd's purse mature foliage

Shepherd's purse mature foliage

Mature shepherd's purse plant

Mature shepherd's purse plant

Shepherd's Purse Siliques

Shepherd's purse seedpods

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com) and frequently publish articles in several other newspapers in northeastern North Carolina. I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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5 Responses to Shepherd’s Purse

  1. I ate a lot of the seeds when I was a kid – you know, just because they were there? – and never thought they were bitter. Maybe that was the Oklahoma strain.
    Yes, it *is* a wonder I didn’t poison myself growing up, as many things as I ate out of the yard….

    • tedmanzer says:

      Maybe bitter was not the best word to describe shepherd’s purse seeds. They do have an aftertaste I don’t particularly like. It’s hard to get out of your mouth, almost like it’s soapy. Ted

  2. I have never heard of this plant. It is cool to know that it can help with eye sight and infectons. But I also didnt know that it can get a diseases.

  3. I also had never heard of this plant but i would like to have some to better my eyes

  4. it is very interesting that thisplant helps with eyesight. I find it fascinating that there are so many plants out there that help out with medical uses.

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