Shepherds Purse

It is winter and you are hoping to spy a wildflower blooming somewhere along the lifeless winter ground. Cheer up- chances are good that you might be able to find a wildflower from the mustard family among the waste places near you. And not just any wildflower, but a wildflower that has a long and rich botanical history for its use as a medicine.

Shepherd's Purse is one of the earliest blooming and widespread wildflowers to be found every year. It's scientific name of Capsella bursa-pastoris translates loosely into the same meaning as its common name. Capsella is latin for "little box", while bursa-pastoris translates literally into "Shepherd's Purse". In either case, it is known as Shepherd's Purse because of its little heart shaped seed pods which remind many of the little satchels that shepherds would carry with them into the fields with their sheep.

Shepherds purse has a long history of use as a medicinal plant. But it was surprising to me to note that the European medicinal uses and the Native American uses of the plant were somewhat different. The Europeans seemed to think more of the plant as a plant that was useful for stopping bleeding, whereas the Native Americans either didn't know of the plant for that use- or simply ignored it. In Daniel Moerman's excellent book Native American Ethnobotany, he documented the following uses for this plant by Native American tribe:

  • Cheyenne- as an analgesic. They took an infusion of the powdered leaves and stems- or ate small quantities of the powder for head pains (sort of like Goody's powders, I suppose)
  • Chippewa- Analgesic, anti diarrheal, and as a gastrointestinal aid for stomach cramps.
  • Costanoan- Anti diarrheal
  • Mahuna- Anti diarrheal
  • Menominee- Dermatological. Entire plant was used as a wash for poison ivy
  • Mohegan- Stomach aid. An infusion of the seedpods taken for stomach pains. They also used an infusion of the seedpods as an anthelmintic for the killing of internal worms.
  • Apache-made bread and cake from the seeds after they had been ground into a flour.
  • Cherokee- used the leaves cooked and then eaten as greens.
In 1633 edition of his book Gerard's Herbal, the famed naturalist and herbalist, Gerarde noted: "Shepherds purse stayeth bleeding in any part of the body, whether the juices or the decoction thereof be drunke, or whether it be used pultesse-wise, or in a bath, or any other way else. In a Clyster it cureth the bloudy flix: it healeth greene and bleeding wounds: it is marvellous good for inflammations new begun, and for all diseases which must be checked backe and cooled. The decoction doth stop the laske, the spitting and pissing of bloud, and all other fluxes of bloud."

Mrs. M. Grieve, the author of A Modern Herbal, wrote the following in 1931 concerning the medicinal uses of Shepherd's Purse: "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... Its haemostyptic properties have long been known and are said to be equal to those of ergot and hydrastis. During the Great War, when these were no longer obtainable in German commerce, a liquid extract of Capsella bursa-pastoris was used as a substitute."

There are many online stores that sell Shepherd's Purse products for medicinal uses.


Joan said...

Thanks for posting this. I saw some down at Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center last month. First time I'd ever seen them in the wild. Didn't know anything about their blooming season and most resources don't mention it. Your post is educating me and I'm keeping a close lookout around our place for them now that I know when to look.

Eve said...

Wow. How did they figure all that stuff out??? It's amazing when you think about it. Great post Daniel, I hope to see Shepherds Purse some day.