An herbaceous weed naturalized from the Mediterranean, shepherd’s purse is widespread and abundant in North America, primarily where humans have invaded and where the soil has been disturbed. It also grows in more stable soil, like lawns, vacant lots, old fields, and landscape beds.
Shepherd’s Purse has many common names, such as Shepherd’s heart, Shepherd’s pounce, Toywort, Bolsa de Pastor and Pickpocket.
Maybe you’re wondering why this matters. What’s so important about shepherd’s purse, after all? It’s just a weed, isn’t it?
Well, yes and no. It is a weed, but it’s a very useful one. This little plant isn’t just tasty and nutritious; it also has some very useful medicinal qualities. Learning to recognize, harvest and use it is worthwhile for any prepper.
Identifying Shepherd’s Purse
Shepherd’s purse loves moisture, loose fertile soil, and cold weather. That being said, as long as the seeds have enough moisture to germinate and the plant can get established it can grow just about anywhere, even in poor soil, hot weather, and dry conditions.
What you’re looking for is a plant that looks a little like a small dandelion, but with a cluster of small flowers instead of one large one.
Luckily there are some reliable ways to identify it. First, shepherd’s purse leaves are consistently smaller than dandelion, cat’s ear, and sow thistle. Second, they are very regular in design.
Look at the leaves of the plants. Note how consistent in shape the shepherd’s purse leaves are to each other.
There is a tapered leaf stem (petiole) leading to regular lobes on each side of the leaf. The top third of the leaf is larger than the middle or the lower third.
Looking closely at the leaves – you might need a hand magnifier – you’ll also see tiny hair-like spines along the edges.
Older plants will grow a flower stem from the center of the leaf cluster. This stem will have a cluster of flowers at the top and probably leaves growing along its length.
Once flowers are fertilized they turn into green, heart-shaped seed pods; the stem will keep growing and a new cluster of flowers forms at the tip.
Older plants can be recognized by the distinctive pods growing along their length.
New flower stems can also branch out from the main one.
Harvesting the Plant
The best time to gather shepherd’s purse for food is early spring and late fall. At these times of year the cooler, wetter weather means each plant keeps producing leaves for longer before it starts to push up a flower stem.
If you harvest in summer you’ll find that the plants switch to producing a flower stem earlier. If there’s enough rain summer plants can still produce a good crop of leaves, but it’s more of a gamble in warmer weather.
Related: September Crops for a Fall Harvest
If you find shepherd’s purse growing near you, mark the spot – it’s a useful food source. Most parts of the plant – the leaves, buds, flowers and the tips of leafy stems – can be eaten, and they’re very nutritious. Shepherd’s purse is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, iron, and zinc.
It also has Vitamin C and manganese levels that are just as good as most cultivated vegetables.
Shepherd’s purse is tasty, too. If you get young leaves and stems from lush plants that are growing fast in a good location, they make an ideal salad green you can use in place of lettuce or spinach. Just trim the base from larger leaves to remove the stem, which can be chewy.
The actual taste ranges from mild to quite peppery depending on the conditions the plant grew in.
You can also boil shepherd’s purse just like any other greens and use them as a side, or add them to soups and stews.
Like many plants, shepherd’s purse isn’t just a good food source; it’s also a useful addition to your medicine cabinet.
In fact, it’s been used in both western and eastern medicine for centuries and is still popular among herbalists. Traditionally, shepherd’s purse has had several uses:
- It may help relieve diarrhea.
- Relief of cystitis symptoms.
- Calming stomach disorders.
- Treating sore throats.
- An effective laxative.
- Remedy for urinary tract infections.
These are all useful properties, but they’re all just extra benefits on top of what shepherd’s purse is really good at – stopping bleeding.
This plant can be used to help heal wounds, stop bleeding from minor cuts, or treat menstrual bleeding and internal hemorrhaging. Scientists think this is because it contains a protein that mimics oxytocin, which stimulates the contraction of blood vessels.
To treat internal bleeding, shepherd’s purse can be taken in several ways. Here are the ones you can make at home:
Shepherd’s Purse Tincture
Collect and chop enough stalks and leaves to loosely fill a small mason jar. Cover the plant with alcohol – you can use vodka, Everclear or pharma grade vegetable glycerine. Then cap the jar and leave it in a warm place, out of direct sunlight, for four to six weeks. Finally, strain out the liquid and bottle it for future use.
This tincture can be taken internally – mix 20-30 drops into a glass of water twice a day. It can also be used to treat nosebleeds by dipping a cotton ball in it and inserting into the nostril.
Shepherd’s Purse Tea
Collect shepherd’s purse leaves, tie them in bunches and hang them up to dry. Once they’re dry, chop them roughly in a blender (a couple of seconds will do it) and store in an airtight container. Make the tea by infusing 1-2 teaspoons of the herb in hot water for ten to fifteen minutes. This can be drunk three to four times a day. If fresh plants are available they can also be chopped and used to make tea.
To treat external bleeding from small cuts and scrapes you can dip a cotton ball in the tincture and apply that directly to the wound.
In an emergency you can also put leaves directly on the wound; soldiers used shepherd’s purse this way in the First World War when supplies of other anti-bleeding drugs ran out.
Shepherd’s purse is a plant every prepper should be able to recognize and use. It’s both a nutritious food source and a valuable medicine.
Look for it growing wild in your area, and you could even consider growing it yourself – if you have a spare patch of moist soil turn it over well, collect or buy some shepherd’s purse seeds and create your own supply. In an emergency, you’ll be glad to have a guaranteed source of this useful plant.
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