Shepherd's purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), classed as an annual weed, is native to Europe and naturalised in many parts of the world including Australia and New Zealand. In the southern hemisphere it flowers and fruits from September to January (spring to mid-summer) but can be found growing in some areas in the cooler months. Although it grows from seed and self-sows easily it is not easily cultivated as it goes to seed quickly. It is well adapted for survival in the wild with a single plant producing as many as 40,000 seeds.
Shepherd's purse was given its name because the seed pods resemble the leather pouches carried by shepherds. In some areas it's also known as 'shovel weed' because the seedpods have a similar shape to pointed shovels.
Valued by herbalists for its medicinal properties, shepherd's purse has historically been used to treat internal and external wounds such as haemoptysis (coughing of blood, usually from the lung); irritation of the urinary tract, uterine cramps, and haemorrhoids. It was also used as a poultice for inflammations such as rheumatic joints, and for bruising. An ointment made from the plant was an all-round treatment for wounds and the juice was used to treat noises in the ear, and earache. Nose bleeds were also treated by inserting cotton wool soaked in the juice. Jaundice was treated by binding the herb around wrists and feet.
Today, shepherd's purse is used to treat menorrhagia (uterine haemorrhage) for which it is BHP specific; haematemesis (vomiting of blood), diarrhoea, acute catarrhal cystitis, and haematuria (blood in the urine). Extracts of this medicinal herb have been shown to have a temporary hypotensive action and a demonstrable haemostatic (stopping the flow of blood in blood vessels) activity - the chief use of the herb in medicine has been to halt bleeding from internal organs. Other demonstrated actions include anti-ulcer, diuretic, and anti-inflammatory. Shepherd's purse extract was also shown to inhibit solid tumour cells which was found to be due to fumaric acid. It is interesting to note that when German drugs that controlled bleeding were not available during World War 1, British doctors used extracts of shepherd's purse.
The herb contains vitamins: C and K and minerals: iron, zinc, sodium, calcium, potassium and sulphur.
Adult dose for an infusion of the dried herb is 1 - 4 grams three times a day.
The leaves of shepherd's purse can be used to flavour stews or eaten like spinach while the seeds are an excellent substitute for mustard.
Proprietor, author, and tutor of The Home Herbalist Online Course.