Herb Profile: Shepherd’s Purse

Botanical Name: Capsella bursa-pastoris

Common Names:  Shepherd’s Purse, Sanguinary, Pick Purse, Witches’ Pouches, Mother’s Heart (Scots), lus na fola – The Blood Herb (Gaelic),

Family:  Brassicaceae

Parts Used:  Aerial parts

Botany & Identification: A variable annual or biennial plant with an erect main stem which grows from 3cm to 40cm depending on its conditions. The stem can be hairy or smooth. It grows from a basal rosette of leaves, which can be anything from deeply pinnate to barely toothed. It is very variable probably due to its tendency to self-pollinate. Flowers appear in erect racemes, are white and up to 2.5mm across. They have the classic cruciferous pattern of four petals in a cross shape. Fruits are erect, like triangles standing on their points, often described as ‘purse-like.’

Growing & Harvesting:  Shepherd’s Purse is well suited to growing on disturbed and cultivated soils. Easily found in the cracks of pavements, wastelands, roadsides, and widespread throughout Britain. It is best to harvest between April & June, though the plant can be available all year round. Only harvest plants that are free from a white fungal coating.

Edibility & Nutrition: The whole of Shepherd’s Purse is edible, and is rich in vitamins A, B, C and K and the minerals listed below. In Japan it is widely cultivated as a vegetable.

Constituents: Variable amongst individual species, but include: vaso-active amines including choline, acetylcholine, aminophenols and tyramine, traces of the alkaloid bursine, mustard glycosides (now known as glucosinolates) diosmin, tannins, volatile oils, minerals including calcium, iron, potassium, sodium, sulphur, zinc, and flavonoid glycosides

Energetics & Qualities: Drying, Warming (or Cooling – Herbalists present with different opinions on whether this plant is warming or cooling – I consider it warming personally). Decongesting, stimulating, restoring

Tastes: Pungent, Salty, Astringent, Slightly Bitter

Medicinal Actions: Astringent, Circulatory Stimulant, Diuretic, Emmenagogue, Haemostatic, Hypotensive, Urinary Anti-Microbial, Uterine Stimulant

Uses:

“Perhaps the most important cruciferous plant of medicinal use” (Barker)

Stops Bleeding & Reduces Congestion of Blood

  • Shepherd’s Purse has been used as a powerful haemostatic herb for centuries, with evidence of its use found at Neolithic sites. It was used for both internal & external bleeding, and was common as a vulnerary on First World War battlefields.
  • It is indicated to stop bleeding of all kinds – from nosebleeds to blood in the urine. In the 19th Century its use as a styptic was questioned as it doesn’t have a high tannin content, and at that time tannins were the known mechanism for plants to stop bleeding. Shepherd’s Purse’s action is different and complex – it is a stimulant which pushes blood to the extremities and constricts blood vessels while encouraging the coagulation of blood through clotting factors
  • It is an effective venous and uterine decongestant, addressing venous blood stagnation and uterus blood congestion. It restores veins and capillaries, and is especially indicated where muscle tone is poor e.g. the uterus doesn’t expel blood quickly enough so it sits and forms dark clots.
  • It can be used to relieve heavy and erratic periods and pain associated with heavy menstrual flow or menopausal flooding.

Tones Prolapses

  • Moves the uterus and bladder back into place after prolapse.
  • It is also indicated for toning haemorrhoids which are weakened, lax blood vessels

Kidney & Bladder Irritation

  • Shepherd’s Purse is useful for when there is weak expulsion of urine: deposits and sediments are present, or urine is dark, heavy, cloudy, pussy or bloody.
  • A gentle diuretic to alleviate water retention due to kidney problems

Cardiovascular Tonic:

  • As a sympathetic nervous system stimulant, Shepherd’s Purse is a stimulating tonic to the cardiovascular system, pushing blood to the extremities, reducing blood pressure and increasing perfusion to the heart muscle

Childbirth

  • Stimulates uterine contractions and reduces postpartum bleeding.

External Use:

  • Can safely support rheumatic aches & pains and bruising.

History & Folklore:

  • The plant’s seeds are said to resemble heart-shaped satchels worn on men’s belt, or a European shepherd’s purse – traditionally made out of a goat scrotum.

Preparations & Dosages:

Its haemostatic properties are said to be lost when dried, so use the fresh plant.

Infusion dose is up to 5g per cup (except in a first aid situation when treatment should continue until bleeding stops). For menstrual bleeding, drink a cup of infusion every 2-3 hours just before and during the period.

Tincture dose is 1:5 in 25% alcohol, 1-2ml three times a day, not to exceed 5ml per dose.

Cautions & Contraindications:  

Shepherd’s Purse can stimulate uterine contractions so it should be avoided during pregnancy. If taken in therapeutic doses over longer periods it can depress thyroid function. This is because the break-down products of glucosinolates in the Brassica family can inhibit the uptake of iodine by the thyroid. Large and persistent doses can cause heart palpitations.

References:

Thomas Bartram (1998) Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine

Julian Barker (2001) The Medicinal Flora of Britain and Northwest Europe

Anne McIntyre (2010) The Complete Herbal Tutor

Peter Holmes (2007) The Energetics of Western Herbs

Matthew Wood (2008) The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants

Julie Bruton Seal (2008) Hedgerow Medicine: Harvest & Make Your Own Herbal Remedies

Frances Rose (2006) The Wild Flower Key

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