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photo from the Penn State Jack Harper Photo Collection

Weed: Capsella bursa-pastoris. Family: Brassicaceae - Mustard Family (formerly Cruciferae family)

Common names: Shepherdspurse, also shepherd's purse, pepper plant, case weed, Shepherd's Bag, Shepherd's Scrip, Shepherd's sprout, lady's purse, witches pouches, rattle pouches, pick-pocket, pick-purse, blind-weed, Pepper-and-salt, poor man's parmacettie, sanguinary, mother's heart, shepherds heart, cocowort, toywort, St. James' weed, shovelweed. According to Mrs. M. Grieve's A Modern Herbal, "The Irish name of 'Clappedepouch' was given in allusion to the begging of lepers, who stood at cross-roads with a bell or clapper, receiving their alms in a cup at the end of a long pole."

Description: Annual plant. Shepherdspurse has a short, thin, hairy taproot. The flowering stalk emerges from a basal rosette of deeply lobed leaves. Alternate leaves are on the flower. These leaves are smaller and can be smooth or slightly toothed. Clusters of four-petaled flowers appear at the tip. The stem will continue to grow and produce more flowers. Flowering time is from March into November. The plant gets its common name(s) from the seedpods which are heart-shaped on a petiole, containing multiple seeds. The pods look like tiny heart lollipops, as shown in the photo below, from the USDA Plant Database, by Robert H. Mohlenbrock.

Where: Disturbed areas. Will grow in very poor soil but only grow to a few inches, but will grow to 2 feet in rich soil.

Propagation: Reproduces only by seed. A single plant can produce 40,000 seeds that can survive for 35 years in the soil.

Poisoning: None known, although some sensitive people get dermatitis from seeds.

Historical: Native to Europe and has naturalized around the world. It was not known in the Americas prior to settlement by the Europeans. It was introduced to Greenland by Norsemen 1,000 years ago.

What: Shepherdpurse is a forb that is both a weed and cultivated for beneficial herbal uses. According to the Journal of Experimental Botany, shepherdspurse has become one of the most widely distributed flowering plants on our planet.

Pros: The seeds are eaten by ground-foraging birds. Shepherdspurse has been used as at the dinner table - leaves in salads, and seeds used as a substitute for mustard, seasoning for soups and stews.

Shepherdspurse seeds are reported to be toxic to mosquito larvae, and, when put in the water, may possibly help control mosquitos. No research was found to support this. Shepherdspurse is said to absorb excessive salts from the soil if planted for that purpose.

Herbal: The leaves contain thiamin (B1), choline, inositol, fumaric acid, ascorbic acid (C), riboflavin (B2), calcium, potassium, and phosphorus. They also provide beta carotene (A), vitamin K, niacin, iron, and rutin.

A number of herbal medicine proponents claim benefits for the following uses: treatment for excessive menstrual bleeding, heal the source of blood in the urine, urinary tract infections and stones, diarrhea, hemorrhoids, dysentery, hemorrhages. It has been used for heart and circulatory problems including mild heart failure, low blood pressure, and nervous heart complaints. It also has been used for headaches, and vomiting blood. A poultice applied directly to the skin is used to treat nosebleeds, mild burns, and bleeding skin injuries. As always, we are not suggesting you try these options as the dose, efficacy, and side effects are not known.

Cons: Shepherdspurse can be weedy, or invasive because of the thousands of seeds that survive. It has low food value for wildlife mammals. If cows eat the plant, the color and flavor of their milk may be affected. Likewise, if eaten by chickens, the color and flavor of their egg yolks may be affected. Herbalists say women who are pregnant or breast feeding should not ingest this plant.

Mary Anna Anderson
Mary Anna Anderson
Nebraska Extension Horticulturist

Mary Anna Anderson served from 1997-2013 as a horticulturist with Nebraska Extension in the Douglas/Sarpy County offices.