Shepherds purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)(L)
Kingdom Plantae – Plants
Subkingdom Tracheobionta – Vascular plants
Superdivision Spermatophyta – Seed plants
Division Magnoliophyta – Flowering plants
Class Magnoliopsida – Dicotyledons
Subclass Dilleniidae –
Order Capparales –
Family Brassicaceae – Mustard or Cabbage family
Genus Capsella Medik. – capsella
Species Capsella bursa-pastoris (L.) Medik. – shepherd’s purse
The genus Capsella belongs to the Mustard or Cabbage family Brassicaceae. The most common species is Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris). This hardy annual is of European origin but is now naturalized around the world except in tropical climates. The heart-shaped fruits of this plant resemble the purses that people used to hang from their belts in the Middle Ages, hence the name. Synonyms and Common names: Witch’s pouches, pickpocket, shepherd’s bag, shepherd’s scrip, shepherd’s sprout, shepherd’s heart, lady’s purse, rattle pouches, case-weed, blindweed, poor man’s parmacettie, pepper and salt, mother’s heart, cocowort, toywort, St. James’ weed.
French = bourse de pasteur, German = hirtentasche or hirtenfaschel, Spanish = Borsa de Pastor, Italian = Borsa di pastore, Irish = clappedepouch
Shepherds purse is an annual with erect stems that grow 3 – 18 inches tall from a basal rosette. The slender stem, which rises from the crown of the root, from the centre of the rosette of radical leaves, is usually sparingly branched. The plant is green. A rosette of basal leaves grows first in spring, followed by the stem which is smooth, except at the lower part, with some what rough with hairs, and bears a few, small, oblong leaves, arrow-shaped at the base, from which arises a basal rosette quite similar to that of a dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). The rosette generally grows to be 4″ to 8″ in diameter, and these are long, tapering, pinnately compound, lobed to entire and narrowing towards the stalk. The basal leaves are stalked, and the first leaves are usually rounded, while the later leaves are usually deeply toothed but may be rather variable. Smaller, slightly toothed, alternate leaves clasp the flowerstalk. The stem leaves have no petioles and are enclosing and glabrous. The main stem is erect, the others ascending and terminating in racemes of tiny bisexual white cruciferous flowers, 2-3mm in diameter. The main leaves, 2 to 6 inches long, are very variable in form, either irregularly pinnatifid or entire and toothed. When not in flower, it may be distinguished by its radiating leaves, of which the outer lie close to the earth. Shepherd’s purse has a slender, flexible, slightly hairy, white taproot which may be branched with secondary fibrous root system.
A common weed in gardens and fields, it also grows on waste ground and in hedgerows. Shepherd’s purse does its best in sunny, moist to dry, rich, disturbed soil, but it will also grow in partly shaded, extremely poor soils. One of the reasons for this is that the plant has sticky seeds, to which tiny insects get stuck, providing the seedling with extra food.
The odour of the plant is peculiar and rather unpleasant, though more cress-like than pungent. It has an aromatic and biting taste, but is less acrid than most of the Cruciferae, and was formerly used as a pot-herb, the young radical leaves being sold in some places as greens in the spring. It causes taint of milk when freely eaten by dairy cattle.
Shepherd’s purse can be found in flower from early spring through early winter. The small, numerous, inconspicuous white flowers appear in clusters at the end of long racemes (flowers arranged along a stem on individual stalks). The flowers are only about 2-3 mm across. Like all Brassicaceae flowers, they are radially symmetrical with four petals which form a cross and 6 stamens with yellow anthers. The flowers are self fertilizing. As the first flowers are maturing, the stalk continues to grow and produce new flowers. The calyx consists of four oval, bowl-shaped, open green sepals; the corolla comprises four oblong white petals, twice as long as the calyx; sometimes it is stunted or undeveloped.
Each flower develops into a flattened, heart-shaped, two-celled seedpod, about 5 mm long, containing a number of tiny, oblong, grooved, red/brown seeds divided by narrow partitions into two cells. It is attached to the stalk by its pointed end, projecting erect. When ripe, the pod dries, it splits in half, releasing the mature seeds. A single plant may produce over 1,000 long-lived seeds. The plants die soon after fruiting.
When moistened, the seeds of this plant release an adhesive compound to which small aquatic animals stick and eventually die. The rotting remains of these bugs may serve as a fertilizer for the germinating seed. This effect is so strong that people have tried scattering them in lakes as mosquito control methods, and makes it a borderline carnivorous plant. Although striking, it is not clear if this really means the plant is carnivorous. There are a few problems with this hypothesis; in particular, this plant does not grow in particularly wet areas, so why should its seed have a carnivorous technique that it cannot exploit? It is more probable that the seed’s mucous has other valuable properties we have not yet figured out. The seeds, aside from sticking to insects, are also reported to be toxic to mosquito larvae, and, when put in the water, may possibly help control mosquitos. Shepherd’s purse will also absorb excessive salts from the soil, and may be planted for that purpose. Seeds germinate early spring, summer, and early autumn. Cotyledons are egg-shaped with taper at petiole. The hypocotyl (stem below cotyledons) typically has purple coloring.
Feeding and other inter-species relationships Associated with Capsella bursa-pastoris:
A variety of birds, including grouse and goldfinches, eat the seeds. Chickens will apparently eat the whole plant. Dairy cattle will also eat it, and this may affect the flavor of the milk. When poultry have fed freely on the green plant in the early spring, it has been noticed that the egg yolks become dark in colour, a greenish brown or olive colour, and stronger in flavour. Small birds are fond of the seeds of Shepherd’s Purse: chaffinches and other wild birds may often be observed feeding on them, and they form valuable food for all caged birds.
- is a foodplant of larva Ceutorhynchus erysimi – a weevil (Coleoptera: Curculionidae) Bullock, J.A., 1992
- leaf-mine (end of) may house puparium Chromatomyia horticola – a leaf-mining fly (Diptera: Agromyzidae) Spencer, K.A., 1972
- leaf is mined by larva Chromatomyia horticola – a leaf-mining fly (Diptera: Agromyzidae) Spencer, K.A., 1972 [mine linear, whitish, both upper and lower surface]
- stem is galled by Albugo candida – an oomycete fungus (Peronosporales) Stubbs, F.B. (Editor), 1986
White rust Albugo candida
People have been eating this plant for thousands of years and it is presently cultivated in a number of eastern countries. Shepherd’s purse is one of the earliest wild greens in the spring. In the early spring, before the flowerstalks appear, the leaves are good in salads or cooked as greens. When the plant flowers, the larger basal leaves tend to die off, leaving only the smaller leaves clasping the stem. They’re still edible, but they get tougher, develop more flavor, and become labor-intensive to collect. The seeds, leaves, and root of this plant are edible. In China, it is commercially grown for consumption. “Stir-fried Shepherd’s Purse leaves” is considered a local delicacy. During the summer, the plant has a sharp, acrid taste, due to the stimulating principle.
The leaves are very high in thiamin (B1), choline, inositol, and fumaric acid. They are a good source of ascorbic acid (C), riboflavin (B2), calcium, potassium, and phosphorus. They also provide beta carotene (A), vitamin K, niacin, iron, and rutin.
Medicinal Action and Uses
Shepherd’s Purse is one of the most important drugplants of the family Cruciferae.
Collection: during the flowering period
Constituents: flavonoids (luteolin 7-rutinoside and quercitin 3-rutinoside), polypeptides, fumaric and bursic acids, amines (choline, acetylcholine, histamine and tyramine), saponins, tannin, mustard oil, volatile oil (including camphor).
Actions: uterine stimulant, diuretic, astringent, anti-haemorrhagic, urinary antiseptic, antipyretic
Indications: uterine haemorrhage, varicose veins
Therapeutics and Pharmacology: Capsella’s haemostatic action is due to the presence of tyramine and other amines, and the acetylcholine, choline and tyramine have been shown to produce a transient decrease in blood pressure and haemostatic activity in vivo. It can be used to treat urinary infections with haematuria, and menorrhagia. The polypeptides have a contractile action on the uterus. It is also of benefit in the treatment of haemorrhoids and varicose veins. The flavonoids have an anti-inflammatory action and the tannins are astringent. Capsella is an effective treatment for diarrhoea. It is also diuretic, due in part to the presence of mustard oil. Weak antibacterial activity mainly towards Gram-positive organisms has been reported.
Combinations: Capsella combines well with Trillium and Hydrastis in menorrhagia or metrorrhagia, and with Barosma in cystitis.
Additional Comments: During the First World War, when the standard haemostatic herbs Hydrastis and Claviceps were unobtainable in Britain, Capsella was used as an alternative. It has also been used as a quinine substitute in the treatment of malaria. In Chinese medicine it is used to treat dysentery and eye problems.
For medicinal use, the whole plant in flower is used (except the roots) usually in the form of a tea or infusion. Either fresh or dried material may be used, but fresh is preferred as the dry material soon loses its medicinal properties. Shepherd’s purse is astringent, anti-inflammatory, hemostatic, and diuretic. It constricts the blood vessels (usually), lowers blood pressure (usually), and contracts the uterus. It is used during or after childbirth and to ease difficult menstruation. This plant should not be used by pregnant people.
It also contains compounds (such as fumaric acid), which are known to have anti-cancer effects. The tea is sometimes recommended as a general tonic.
Medicinally, it has been used to stop bleeding. Externally, shepherd’s purse has historically been used as an astringent and styptic to treat wounds. Caution is advised as human skin may blister from contact with the seeds.
In modern herbal medicine the whole plant is employed, dried and administered in infusion, and in fluid extract.
A homoeopathic tincture is prepared from the fresh plant.
Several partial analyses have been made of it, but no characteristic principle has been definitely separated. The active constituent is said to be an organic acid, which Bombelon, a French chemist, termed bursinic acid. He also found a tannate and an alkaloid, Bursine, which resembles sulphocyansinapine.
A peculiar sulphuretted volatile oil, closely similar to, if not identical with oil of mustard, as well as a fixed oil, have been determined and 6 per cent of a soft resin.
When dried and infused, it yields a tea which is still considered by herbalists one of the best specifics for stopping haemorrhages of all kinds – of the stomach, the lungs, or the uterus, and more especially bleeding from the kidneys.
Its haemostyptic properties have long been known and are said to equal those of ergot and hydrastis. During the Great War, when these were no longer obtainable in German commerce, a liquid extract of Capsella bursapastoris was used as a substitute, the liquidextract being made by exhausting the drug with boiling water. Bomelon found the herb of prompt use to arrest bleedings and flooding, when given in the form of a fluid extract, in doses of 1 to 2 spoonfuls.
Culpepper says it helps bleeding from wounds – inward or outward – and: ‘if bound to the wrists, or the soles of the feet, it helps the jaundice. The herb made into poultices, helps inflammation and St. Anthony’s fire. The juice dropped into ears, heals the pains, noise and matterings thereof. A good ointment may be made of it for all wounds, especially wounds in the head.’ It has been used in English domestic practice from early times as an astringent in diarrhoea; it was much used in decoction with milk to check active purgings in calves.
It has been employed in fresh decoction in haematuria, haemorrhoids, chronic diarrhcea and dysentery, and locally as a vulnerary in nose-bleeding, which is checked by inserting the juice on cotton-wool. It is also used as an application in rheumatic affections, and has been found curative in various uterine haemorrhages, especially those with which uterine cramp and colic are associated, and also in various passive haemorrhages from mucous surfaces.
It is a remedy of the first importance in catarrhal conditions of the bladder and ureters, also in ulcerated conditions and abscess of the bladder. It increases the flow of urine. Its use is specially indicated when there is white mucous matter voided with the urine; relief in these cases following at once.
Its antiscorbutic, stimulant and diuretic action causes it to be much used in kidney complaints and dropsy; other similar stimulating diuretics such as Couch Grass may be combined with it.