Fields, Forests & Wetlands Foods of Eastern North America
A Complete Wild Food Guide
Shepherd's Purse Greens, Roots & Seeds
By: Carl Axel Magnus Lindman - Bilder ur Nordens Flora
Season: Spring, Summer & Early Fall
Urban, Rural or Both: Both - disturbed land
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. Even though it is grown as a food crop in Asia, I suggest eating this plant in moderation - as I do with anything really.
It is distinctive looking with the circle (rosette) of basal leaves (leaves at the base), with a single to a few stalks with sparse, little leaves, and the little triangular seed pods, that I guess look like purses a Shepherd would have used. I remember when I first started noticing them, they looked like spindly, sad things to me. They are easily overlooked. They are also very hard to photograph.
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. You can find it anywhere in my experience, and seems to always show up as one of the first plants where ground has been disturbed or dug over, or new topsoil has been added (A ruderal plant). The seeds lie dormant in the soil until they get a chance to sprout.
It is amazing where this plant can grow. If you see weeds growing in a well traveled 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.
Before the plant has gone to flower, the basal leaves make a very nice salad green. After the plant has gone to flower, the basal leaves cooked are good in basically anything where greens are needed.
It is grown and used in Korea as a root vegetable. Not bad at all, you don't get a lot per root, but since it is common, if you find a few, and the soil is light and loamy, it can be worth the effort. The taste is not particularly great, but certainly nothing bad about it. Good for a soup ingredient.
The seeds have been used for a long time as a traditional grain, but I have to say, they are quite a bit of work to gather, and it takes a long time to even get a tablespoon of them, however they taste good. You can eat them raw, put in soups, or with baked goods.
Just wait for the little seed pods to turn tan, and take the stem with pods, put in a bag and rub them with your hand inside the bag. Unfortunately, the seeds pods don't mature at the same time. They start maturing from the bottom and work their way up.
Growing this plant in your home garden:
For detailed growing instructions, go to my Wild Foods Home Garden website Shepherds Purse page.
- 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 (Leaf 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 here (Google search) and here (Bing search).
- Pictures on the web here (Google images) and here (Bing images).
- 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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