(By: Atlas des plantes de France. 1891)
(NOTE: If you are not interested in growing Shepherd's Purse, but just finding the plant and using it, try going to the Nature's Restaurant Online site. Shepherd’s Purse Leaves and Shepherd’s Purse Root.)
Shepherd's Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) is a wild food in North America, but in Asia it is grown as a food crop. As it is part of the mustard family, the leaves have a mild mustard/peppery taste.
Is the growing of this plant compatable with Natural farming, Ecoagriculture or Eco friendly agriculture, Ecological farming, Sustainable agriculture, Agroforestry or Agro-sylviculture and Permaculture: Though you can grow this plant using Natural farming, no-till garden methods, this plant likes to grow where the soil is disturbed. It is easy to grow using conventional growing methods where the soil is regularly turned. If you do grow using the no-till method, scratch the surface of the soil around the plant when in seed to help the seeds re-start new plants.
Seeds: Growing this plant from seed is very easy. Find one with brown (mature) seed pods, take them home and plant or save for later. This plant can go from seed, to sprouting, to big basal leaves, to flowering, to seed a few times per season, which is remarkable if you think about it. Because of this, you can have multiple crops per season, and always have young, fresh greens available.
Soil & Site: It is amazing where this plant can grow. If you see “weeds” growing in a well travelled area, like a path, it is sure to be there. I've seen it growing in well used gravel parking lots and coming up in cracks in pavement. In good soil it can be quite large, in the worst soil, it is small, but seems happier than most plants in the same conditions. The only plants that seem as tough or maybe a bit tougher are some grasses. If you are going to harvest the edible roots, make sure you plant the seeds in well worked, soft, loamy soil. It likes full sun, but will do fine in half sun, half shade. When preparing the soil, turn in some composted manure - this will make a difference in the size of the basal leaves.
Transplanting: Not worth the effort, you need to get deep to take it, and most of the time I've tried, it dies anyway. Besides, It is so easy and fast to get going by seed, and when you find the plant, most often there are ripe seed pods or purses lower on the stalk.
Planting: Break up (rub between hands) the little purses over the soil where you want them, tamp the area down, and put down a very fine layer of mulch and water. Each time you see mature seed heads on plants in your garden, just give the mature seed heads a good rub with both hands, and very shortly you will have new ones with fresh greens. You can buy seeds for this plant. If you want to make sure you get an even distribution of these in the area you plant to grow them, mix the seeds well into a bucket half filled with damp potting soil, then spread the soil over the garden area and lightly tamp down.
Maintenance: Nothing other than watering if really dry, and pulling up and replanting. Between plantings of this one, add some fertilizer or composted manure to the soil and you will get bigger basal leaves.
Harvesting: If you do this right and have multiple crops per season, you can always harvest young, basal leaves. Don't bother with the little leaves that grow on the stalk. By the way, when picking the leaves, you might notice they don't smell great. Don't worry about that, they don't taste like they smell. This is why they only make an OK salad green, as the smell can put you off eating them. Harvest the roots any time. One of the problems with this plant, is the seeds ripen over time from the base upwards, so timing a seed harvest is very difficult.
Using: Before the plant has gone to flower, the basal leaves make an OK salad green - not the best in taste, not horrible, but used this way they aid digestion. After the plant has gone to flower, the basal leaves cooked are good in basically anything where greens are needed. The best way to use them is to dip them in boiling water for about a minute, then use - pour away the water. It's part of the mustard family, and as you would expect, there is a peppery, mustard greens quality to it. Very nice, not too strong, no bitterness.
The roots are edible and can be added finely chopped up to stir-fry's or soups. Nothing great about them, but nothing wrong with them either. Don't use a lot, but that would be hard to do anyway, as the roots are very small.
You can also gather the seeds and use as a grain, but you would spend an awful lot of time to get a tiny amount. Can't see how it is worth the effort, but if you figure out a way to harvest a good amount of these, at least you know they are edible and useful as a grain.
- USDA Plant Hardiness Zone: 4-7 (More information on hardiness zones).
- Soil pH: 5.0-8.0
- Plant Size: Up to 60 cm (2 feet) tall or slightly more
- Duration: Annual. This plant is able to produce multiple generations in one season.
- Leaf Shape: Two kinds of leaves: There is a rosette of pinnately lobed (Pinnatisect) leaves right at the ground forming a circle around the root. On the stem there are alternate pointed leaves that partly grasp the stem (wrap around it, but not all the way)
- Leaf Phyllotaxis (Arrangement) on branch: rosette at base, alternate on stem.
- Leaf Size: up to 13 cm (5 inches) long and 2.5 cm (1 inch) wide
- Leaf Margin: rosette leaves at bottom are deeply lobed with some sawtooth near the tip. Leaves on stem are almost Entire with a few bumps.
- Flowers: very small (3 mm or 1/8 inch) four petalled white flower at the top of stem
- Fruit: flat, triangular seed pods on the ends of stems filled with very tiny yellowish to reddish brown seeds
- Habitat: A ruderal plant. Waste places, fields, disturbed soils. The seeds can remain viable in the soil for years, and when the ground is disturbed, the seed will sprout. Needs full or partial sun, will not grow in shaded woods.
- Recipe search on the web for using the greens here (Google search) and here (Bing search).
- Recipe search on the web for using the roots here (Google search) and here (Bing search).
- Pictures on the web here (Google images) and here (Bing images).
- Interactive USDA distribution map and plant profile here.
- The Biota of North America Program (BONAP) distribution map here. BONAP map color key here.
Sheppard's Purse looking straight down on basal leaves of plant. These leaves are in good shape for eating. Not easy to identify by leaves only. To be sure, look at the picture below of the stem with flowers and the triangular seed pods.
This is one stem with the flowers on top and seed pods lower down. There can be one to many stems like this coming from the center of the base where the basal leaves come out.
Shepherd's Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) illustration. This is one plant that illustrations are better than pictures. I have never tried to photograph a plant that was more difficult to get a good image of. Even the camera does not want to autofocus on the stem. (By: Deutschlands Flora in Abbildungen, printed in 1796)
Shepherd's Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) seeds. (Steve Hurst, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database)
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