The neglected weed with 100 different names that ‘deserves more than a passing thought’

Shepherd's purse is a common sight in our hedgerows, but there is much more to this plant than what meets the eye.

Esteemed herbalist Nicholas Culpeper wrote in his 1653 treatise that ‘Providence has made the most useful things most common and for that reason we neglect them’. He was making particular reference to one of our most familiar of wild plants, shepherd’s purse, that leggy weed whose modest, but unmistakable white pancake racemes so readily decorate hedgerows, verges, waste ground and field margins.

Today, we certainly neglect shepherd’s purse, but it deserves more than a passing thought. Its name alone should claim our interest. Unusually for a plant, let alone a weed, it carries a double-barrelled Latin classification, Capsella bursa-pastoris, determined by Linnaeus and confirmed by his less-renowned German contemporary Friedrich Medikus, although it was assigned to the Brassicaceae (cabbage) family by British botanist Gilbert Burnett. It translates directly into the name by which we and the French and Spanish know it — shepherd’s purse, capsella being a small box, bursa a purse and pastoris the genitive of pastor, a shepherd.

Traditionally, a shepherd’s calling commanded the utmost respect — after dogs, sheep were among the first domesticated animals, the mouflon noted in Mesopotamia from 9000BC or earlier. Many Biblical patriarchs were shepherds: Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David. It was hugely symbolic that shepherds were said to be the first witnesses summoned to the Nativity by the heavenly host — ‘While shepherds washed their socks by night’, as irreverent choristers used to sing.

‘A further peculiar characteristic, fairly recently discovered, is that Capsella bursa-pastoris hides a secret weapon’

Shepherd’s purse is, much like sheep, a native of the Mediterranean region, although it is now found worldwide wherever conditions offer accommodation, an archaeophyte of ancient distribution — in this country, its discs of unscented sprays appear almost all year round, largely unremarked. After bracken, it is said to be the second most prolific wild plant on the planet — although it reproduces entirely by seed dispersal, a single plant produces them by the hundred. They germinate so readily that the plant can produce several successive generations in a year. Those seeds that don’t spring instantly to life may stay dormant, but viable for long periods.

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A further peculiar characteristic, fairly recently discovered, is that Capsella bursa-pastoris hides a secret weapon. It is a proto-carnivore, those tiny copper-coloured seeds containing a mucilage that attracts and kills nematodes, the roundworm plant parasites, which are shed into the ground, enriching the soil.

The name of shepherd’s purse, seemingly naïve and folkloric, pre-dates Linnaeus historically. It was described as Bursa pastoris and illustrated in a herbarium of 1486 published in Louvain (a copy is held in the library of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh). The direct English translation was noted by John Gerard in his 1597 Herball, confirmed by Culpeper and further recorded in 1657 in Adam in Eden, or Nature’s Paradise by William Coles, a botanist well known in his day, but confounded in due course by his adherence to the doctrine of signatures, the ancient belief that, if a plant — root, leaf, bloom or fruit — in any way resembled a human organ, it was God’s signal that it could be used to treat a malfunction or disease in that organ. Coles wrote that it was ‘called Shepherd’s Purse or Scrip from the likeness of the seed hath with that kind of leathearne bag wherein Shepherds carry their Victualls into the field’.

Nematodes beware — a close up of the flower of Shepherd’s purse. Credit: iStockPhoto/Getty Images

That said, shepherd’s purse was by no means the only popular name by which medieval folk knew the plant. It commanded widespread regional recognition. Among rural children, it was called mother’s heart, for if the mature triangular seed pod was pressed it would burst and shed its contents, figuratively causing maternal heartbreak.

In Durham, it was bad man’s oatmeal, in Yorkshire it was blindweed, in East Anglia it was called lady’s purse, in Somerset it was poor man’s purse. Across the countryside, it was variously known as caseweed, cocowort, toywort, pepper and salt, pick-pocket, pick-purse, shepherd’s sprout, St James’s weed, shovel weed, sanguinary, witches’ pouches, rattle pouches, clapper pouch and whoreman’s permacety.

As did so many wayside plants, it offered curative properties for the taking. The Greeks and Romans valued it as a treatment for dysentery, diarrhoea and stomach cramps. Culpeper declared that it stopped ‘all fluxes of blood either caused by inward or outward wounds’. A poultice would help inflammation and St Anthony’s Fire (ergot poisoning) and was effective against ‘flux of the belly, bloody flux, spitting blood and bloody urine’. It controlled menstruation and treated jaundice if tied to the wrists and soles of the feet. Drops of juice in the ear healed ‘the pains, noise and mutterings thereof’.

‘Official medicine, however, does not recommend its consumption’

Traditionally, an amulet containing its seeds was deemed good for infant teething, a tea from its infused leaves would ease heart, blood and gynaecological conditions and could stem dysentery. An ointment could be applied to skin complaints and the juice was used to ease sore eyes. Seeds could be ground into a flour and mature seeds served as a pepper substitute. In parts of Asia, the plant is grown commercially and features in Japanese, Chinese and Korean cooking. Foragers recommend the flowers and the younger and fresher leaves both raw, when they taste like cress, and cooked to produce a cabbage-like flavour, with the seed pods adding crunch to a salad.

Modern analysis has identified calcium, iron, potassium, sodium, sulphur and zinc, vitamins C and K, and traces of acetylcholine, bursic and fumaric acids, choline flavonoid glycoside and tyramine polypeptides. Homoeopathy suggests shepherd’s purse as a treatment for heart and circulatory problems, including low blood pressure, headaches, bladder infections, diarrhoea and pre-menstrual problems, nosebleeds in children, superficial burns and cuts. It also proposes extracts of shepherd’s purse, lime blossom and hawthorn for high-blood pressure. Official medicine, however, does not recommend its consumption, citing possible adverse effects on heart conditions, kidneys, thyroid and the central nervous system.