Shepherds purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) is considered one of the most prolific weeds in the world. It can be found in almost all places. Most articles write about how to control or forage this plant, not really on how to grow it.
This herb is edible with a peppery flavor that is not too strong or bitter. It can be used in stir fries and salads. Chinese cuisine uses it quite often. In Asia it is grown as a food crop, while it’s a wild plant in North America and Europe. Harvest young basal leaves anytime. Leaves are better after flowering for eating. Dip them in boiling water for a minute then throw out the water. While leaves may not smell great, they don’t taste like they smell.
Shepherd’s purse has medicinal benefits; use leaves before flowering to help with digestion. Roots are edible as well, just like seeds which could be used as a grain. Eat the whole seed stalk while green or dry and crush the seeds.
Shepherds Purse Plant Information
Shepards purse is part of the mustard family (Brassicaceae) that includes over 3000 species. This herb is quite resistant to frost and is one of the first to appear in the spring. It will come up pretty much everywhere from gardens, lawns, grain fields, vegetable plots, vineyards, etc.
Cotyledons (the embryo within the seed of the plant) are egg shaped or rounded with a green to purple seedling stem. The first two leaves come out opposite each other, with untoothed margins. These leaves are unbranched, while the following leaves start to arrange in a basal rosette. The rest of the leaves can be toothed to deeply lobed, with hairs on the lower leaf along the main vein. Upper leaves are smoother or lightly haired.
Mature plants have slender stems that sometimes branch to the top. There is a flowering stem which produces flowers continuously from the spring until early summer. This straight stem reaches a height of 10 to 60 centimeters.
If a plant over-summers or comes out in the fall there can be a round of flowers in the fall. Small flowers appear in clusters on a long spike. Seedpods form at the bottom, while new flowers appear at the top. Flowers look quite delicate in shades of white and pink with green sepals. Heart shaped seed pods come at the end of each branch. Flowers and seed pods can open between early spring to late fall.
These plants live in nutrient poor areas. They obtain their nutrients in a very unusual way since moisten seeds release a substance that entraps and digests insects. These insects provide nutrients that feed the plant. Scientist call this type of plants protocarnivores.
Shepherds Purse Growing Conditions
Shepherds Purse grows in gravel parking lots and in cracks in the pavement. It can survive in horrible conditions in the worst soil. Although it grows bigger when the soil is good. Soil can have a pH between 5.0 and 8.0. Those who want to harvest roots should plant them in soft, loamy soil. Adding compost manure will help increase the size of basal leaves.
This herb prefers full sun, but will grow fine in partially shaded areas. Water it regularly in the first couple of weeks, then wait until the soil is dry to water. Shepherds purse can be grown in USDA zones 4 through 7.
How does Shepherds Purse Reproduce?
Shepherds Purse is a winter annual or summer annual broad leafed plant. This herb propagates itself by seed which measures between 4 to 8 millimeters long and wide. It gets its name from the resemblance of its seed pods to purses carried by shepherds in Europe and Asia Minor.
Each seed pod is small and heart shaped divided in two chambers that contain about 20 small seeds. Plants can produce about 38,000 seeds which can live for up to 20 years. These seeds are carried by the elements and on animals including birds. They will germinate once they come in contact with soil.
Seeds ripen over time from the base upwards, so it is hard to know when you can harvest them. Rub with your hands the little purses of seeds over the soil where you want to plant them and give the area a layer of mulch and water. For even distribution you can mix the seeds in a bucket of damp potting soil and spread it over the garden. You can store seeds for further use. It is also possible to purchase shepherds purse seeds online.
This plant can go from seed to sprouting and creating big basal leaves to flowering and producing seeds a few times per season. Do not try to transplant this plant since it will die. It is better to grow it by seed. Shepherd’s Purse can go from germination to producing seeds in three to four weeks.
How to Control Shepherds Purse
There are some things you can do in your fields so it’s easier to control this weed. Make sure that the seeds you are planting are weed free. Cultivate and plant at optimal times. Also use fertilizer which is appropriate for the crop you are trying to grow.
I would not recommend using chemicals since this plant is already immune to Group 2 herbicides in five countries including Canada. Shepherds purse is also resistant to Group 5 herbicides in Europe and parts of the United States. Post-emergent herbicides (that contain 2, 4-D and MCCP) may work if instructions are followed.
If you use chemicals it is best to do it early spring before the plant has a chance of flowering. Late fall is another good time to apply chemicals since it provides a favorable environment for herbicide translocation. However, this will not guarantee you that the plant won’t produce seedlings in the spring. Herbicides can kill other garden plants you may want to keep.
The root system of shepherds purse has a thin, branched taproot with fibrous secondary roots. Seedlings are quite small and it is very easy to control at this stage. Manual weeding and mechanical cultivation help during this stage. When pulling young plants by hand, make sure not to disturb the soil deeply as this will bring dormant seeds to the surface. Root system will come up intact when soil is moist.
Animal grazing also helps since this weed is quite nutritious for many animals including chickens. Dense planting and organic mulching can control this weed. Clean the field after shoulder season crops and rotate with warm season crops. Mowing does not help control this weed since it grows too close to the ground.
Shepherds Purse Look-Alikes
Some plants are similar to Shepherds Purse in their early, basal rosette stage. Once they mature it is easier to tell them apart. Thankfully, none of the look-alikes are toxic, but you won’t get the medicinal benefits of Shepherds Purse if that’s what you are looking for.
Dandelion: has a basal rosette growing from the taproot. Leaves are hairless with margins that are sharply toothed. Dandelion has medicinal benefits as well.
Cat’s Ear: this plant shows up after to hide from the summer heat. It looks quite similar in the basal rosette stage, but it doesn’t have sharply toothed margins or rounded, lobed margins.
Wild Lettuce: can be identified because they have a single ridge of spines along the underside of each leaf.
Chicory: is hard to identify in the spring because they look like so many other greens, including dandelion and wild lettuce. It is easier to recognize once it matures since it has blue-purple flowers that look like daisies.
Hawkweed: grows in a basal rosette from a taproot but does not have lobed or toothed leaves. Upper and lower leaf surface is covered with long bristly hairs.
Pepperweed: this annual grows from a single taproot and is also part of the mustard family and cousin to Shepherds Purse. It is the plant that is the most similar, with white flowers forming in clusters and seed pods. This plant grows throughout America and was cultivated by the Incas. Roots can be used as a substitute for horseradish.