(Capsella bursa-pastoris)

Shepherd's Purse in Flower
Shepherd's Purse

Note the deeply toothed basal leaves, and the stalkless upper leaves clasping the stem.

DESCRIPTION: Shepherdís purse begins with a basal rosette (circle of bottom leaves) of deeply toothed leaves up to 9 inches across, broader toward the tip, like the dandelionís, but without white, milky sap, and with more blunt teeth pointing outward, not toward the leafís base. The slender, white taproot contrasts with dandelionís stout, beige one.

The little-branched, slender, erect flower stalk grows up to 2‡ feet tall in mid-spring, with smaller, alternate (singly configured), stalkless leaves clasping the stem with 2 small, pointed lobes.

The tiny, white, 4-petaled flowers, whose petals form a cross, like related mustards, alternate around the tip of the stalk.

The flowers give way to long-stemmed, flattened, triangular, 2-parted seedpods º inch long that supposedly resemble the purses of ancient shepherds. If you ever run into an ancient shepherd while collecting shepherdís purse, let me know if itís true. Although shepherdís purse has no poisonous look-alikes, be sure that the ancient shepherd doesnít view your botanical studies of his purse as the work of a pickpocket or crook, and bop you one on the noggin with the crook of his staff!
Shepherd's Basal Rosette
Shepherd's Purse Basal Rosette

The teeth point outward or upward, not downward, like the dandelion's.

HABITAT: Shepherdís purse grows on disturbed soil, in unmowed meadows and lawns, and along roadsides and trails.

Mature Shepherd's Purse

SEASON: Eat this annualís tender, young basal leaves in March and early April, before the plant flowers. Sometimes edible new leaves come up in late fall too. Either theyíre fooled by short nights (which stimulate germination), similar to early spring, or they just havenít read the other field guides that list this as a springtime-only plant.

Shepherd's Purse Flowers & Seeds
FOOD USES: Uncharacteristically mild for a mustard green, the leaves benefit from plenty of seasonings. Add them raw to salads; simmer in soups, stews, and sauces; or sautÈ or steam them. They cook in about 10 minutes, and shrink by about 75%. I find the seedpods and the tiny, spherical seeds inside the mature pods to be without flavor, although they are reputedly peppery.

NUTRITION: Shepherdís purse leaves provide vitamins C, A, and K; some protein; the minerals sulfur, calcium, iron, potassium, and sodium; the flavonoid rutin; and the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.

MEDICINAL USES: Used to reduce fertility (and to strengthen uterine contraction during childbirth) in China, itís supposed to be an astringent, making tissue contract and stopping all manner of bleeding, from external scratches and nosebleeds to internal hemorrhages.

Itís reputed to be good for diarrhea (an astringent would tighten loose bowels), and to act as a diuretic for kidney disease. I havenít seen these claims confirmed or refuted, but it didnít work on my paper cut, so I wouldnít use it for more serious conditions without proof.