By Ruthie Hayes
Latin: Capsella bursa-pastoris
Family: Brassicaceae or Cruciferae (mustard family)
Folk names: witch’s pouches, poverty weed, blind weed, mother’s heart, shepherd’s sprout, casewort, pickpurse, pickpocket, St. James weed, St. James wort, beggar’s tick, blindweed, shepherd’s bag, shepherd’s scrip, shepherd’s pouch, rattle pouches, case weed, shovel weed, pepper-and-salt, sanguinary, lady’s purse, clappedepouch (Irish), hirtentaschelkraut (German), Patushya Sumka (Russian).
Energetics: warm/cool, dry
Properties: vulnerary, astringent, styptic, antihemorrhagic, anti-inflammatory, diuretic
Taste: pungent, salty, slightly diffusive
Parts used: entire plant, in seed
Tissue state: depression, excitation
Key uses: stops bleeding & discharge, wound healing; urinary, reproductive
History, Herblore & Tradition
The genus means “little box” and the species name means “purse of the shepherd.” It’s a very old plant, as the seeds were found in the excavation of Catal Huyuk, a neolithic settlement in what is now Turkey. This old world plant was a well-known remedy in Greek and Roman medicine and was used well into the Middle Ages. Once it came to North America, it was used by the colonists and Native Americans for diarrhea, dysentery, stomach cramps, worms, and as a food plant. Colonists in Philadelphia cultivated the plant and sold the young leaves as spring greens. The seeds have a peppery taste and were added to foods as a spice. The seeds were also roasted and ground into a meal for baking a Native American bread called pinole. Colonists who let their cattle graze on shepherd’s purse discovered that it gave their milk an off flavor, but chickens’ eggs are fortified when the herb is given as forage.
A fresh decoction or tincture was a remedy for blood in the urine (Ellingwood), hemorrhoids, and nose bleeds. For nose bleeds, a piece of flannel was soaked in an infusion of the herb and inserted in the nostril. In fact, shepherd’s purse is indicated for many kinds of hemorrhage, particularly uterine. In cases of dark, old, clotting flow, or in general excessive menstruation, shepherd’s purse is the herb of choice. It’s often paired with yarrow for it’s like ability and its normalizing effect on the circulation. Together, they cover a lot of ground when it comes to uterine hemorrhage. Shepherd’s purse is for the darker, older blood, and yarrow is for bright, red active flow, while both herbs have astringent, tonifying actions.
It was Dr. Johann Gottfried Rademacher who discovered the use of shepherd’s purse for kidney stones. He treated a woman who had blood in her urine and had edema in her lower extremities. With a dose of 30 drops, 5x/day, all of her symptoms were relieved (Wood).
As a poultice, shepherd’s purse was applied to rheumatic joints, bruises, strains, and wounds. Culpeper stated, “If bound to the wrists or the soles of the feet, it helps the jaundice. The herb made into poultices, helps inflammation and St. Anthony’s Fire. The juice dropped into the ears, heals the pains, noise and matterings thereof (tinnitus). A good ointment may be made of it for all wounds, especially wounds in the head.”
Folk medicine in the Russian tradition also indicated shepherd’s purse for gastrointestinal disturbances such as diarrhea, gastritis, gallbladder and liver issues, as well as bladder and lung problems.
Maude Grieve says shepherd’s purse is “one of the best specifics for stopping haemorrhages of all kinds – of the stomach, the lungs, or the uterus, and more especially bleeding from the kidneys.” During World War I, shepherd’s purse became the hemostatic herb of choice when hydrastis and ergot became scarce. It was also used for excessive lochia and catarrh of the bladder (mucus in the urine). In cases of dropsy, it was used as a diuretic, increasing the output of the kidneys.
Midwives have used shepherd’s purse for centuries to stimulate uterine contractions during active labor. Post-partum, it was used to aid in expelling the placenta and bringing the uterus back down to size and to decrease the lochia in the weeks following.
I found a passage in “The Pharmacology of the Newer Materia Medica” (1892) that suggested that for nosebleeds that are resistant to other treatment, simply holding a handful of shepherd’s purse in the hand on the side of the bleeding would stop it.
Dr. G. F. Parks (a 19th century eclectic physician) recognized the mental profile of women for whom shepherd’s purse is indicated. “It works best in those women that are of a high-strung, ambitious nature, who generally do the work of two or three ordinary women.” (Wood)
In magick, the herb is used as a protective charm (not ingested) for pregnant mothers.
Botany & Ecology
Shepherd’s purse is an herbaceous annual plant that grows weedy in a variety of conditions and soils. It thrives in moist, fertile soils or dry, sandy areas in lawns, barnyards, roadsides, and waste areas. Shepherd’s purse first forms a rosette of deeply lobed leaves up to 6” long (photo from oregonstate.edu). The central stalk that emerges has smaller, clasping leaves on it and bears the characteristic “purse” shaped seed pods. The pods are triangular or heart-shaped, flattened, and are bisected by a septum to form two symmetrical chambers holding up to 20 seeds. The tiny white four-petaled flowers are borne at the end of the stalk in clusters, as is characteristic for brassicas. Also like many of its brassica cousins, it likes the cool of early spring and fall. During the heat of summer here in zone 6b it dies completely back, but can be seen blooming year-round where winters and summers are milder. The plant can get to be up to 2’ in height. Shepherd’s purse is considered to be a noxious weed in parts of Canada and is listed as invasive in 7 US states. This herb readily spreads by seed, especially in open, disturbed soils. Because of the fine covering of hairs, the seeds are spread by human and animal foot traffic, machinery tires, wind, rain, birds, and in hay bales. A seed can remain viable and dormant in the soil for up to 20 years.
Today, shepherd’s purse is still one of the first herbs reached for in cases of uterine hemorrhage. This is due in part to the herb’s vitamin K content and its role in blood clotting. The German Commission E and the British Pharmacopoeia list shepherd’s purse as an accepted remedy for menorrhagia and metrorrhagia. Heavy bleeding and clotting with pain during or between periods is a common complaint among women with uterine fibroids and endometriosis, and many herbalists will recommend a formula with shepherd’s purse to alleviate these symptoms. Midwives also continue using shepherd’s purse in its traditional way as a uterotonic and oxytocic herb for women in labor. It’s used in the birthing process to stimulate and strengthen uterine contractions, deliver the placenta, and to expel the lochia post partum, which can take up to six weeks or more. As an astringent, it’s also used as a remedy for uterine prolapse and poor pelvic tone with incontinence. It has also been used to prevent miscarriage, although most herbalists will not recommend its use during pregnancy.
Richo Cech says of the herb, “Shepherd’s purse is a vasoconstrictor with an affinity for the smooth muscles of the uterus and gastrointestinal tract.” His main uses of the herb internally are for menorrhagia and diarrhea. Externally, he recommends an infusion of the herb applied as a compress to stop bloody noses and actively bleeding wounds. In his opinion, the tincture loses much of its effectiveness after a year.
Austrian herbalist Maria Treben uses shepherd’s purse like cabbage when it comes to relieving the pain and discomfort of engorgement in nursing mothers. She applies the steamed herb to the breast as a compress, between two cloths. Like other modern herbalists, she also uses it to regulate menstrual flow for women of all ages. She has also resurrected the old use of the herb for cases of muscular atrophy with great success. For muscular atrophy of any kind, she massages the tincture topically as a liniment on the affected area and lady’s mantle tea internally, sometimes with a few drops of shepherd’s purse tincture. Henriette Kress also indicates shepherd’s purse for “indigestion from atony” (a malfunctioning or weak lower esophageal sphincter). For when the muscles of the uterus, bladder or GI tract are weak, or when muscles have prolapsed (uterus, hernia), we should think of shepherd’s purse.
In homeopathy, the herb is used as a remedy for nosebleeds and urinary stones.
Studies have been done on shepherd’s purse for its hemostatic, and choleretic actions, but they are in Russian and haven’t been translated into English. Human studies are non-existent in support of the clinical and traditional uses of shepherd’s purse. Reviews have been published on the many actions of Capsella bursa-pastoris, but the original research is difficult to access.
A brief Japanese study from 1968 concluded that an ethanol extract of Capsella bursa-pastoris had an oxytocic effect on isolated rat uterus. However, specifics were not given on how many times they were able to replicate this effect.
Promising in vitro studies have been done to show that certain constituents of shepherd’s purse have antioxidant and antibacterial activity. This study also concluded that the herb also inhibited acetylcholinesterase, an important component of Alzheimer’s Disease, showing potential as an adjunct treatment for the disease.
When paired with Glycyrrhiza glabra, shepherd’s purse had good antibacterial effect against several oral pathogens in vitro. This study suggests that these two herbs in a mouthwash could prevent common problems such as cavities and oral infections. This study also supports our traditional view of licorice as a synergist in herbal formula.
Using whole, minced shepherd’s purse root, researchers in Korea have recently concluded that the herb could be used for the bioremediation of toxic organic compounds in soil.
Although only the abstract is available, it’s interesting to note that a study had shown a constituent in shepherd’s purse had a significant inhibitory effect on tumors in mice.
Flavonoids, polypeptides, choline, acetylcholine, histamine, tyramine, vitamin A, ascorbic acid, proteins, linoleic acid, omega 3’s, fumarates, tannins.
Dosages & Applications
As a tincture: the tincture must be made with fresh herb, as dried loses much of its medicinal properties. The entire plant is tinctured, including the root. For heavy menstrual bleeding, dosages range from 1-60 drops 3x/day. For hemorrhage, take half to three-quarters teaspoon of the tincture every 2-3 minutes. For this purpose, it is often combined with yarrow, mistletoe, or cayenne.
As a compress for engorged breasts: steam 2 handfuls of the fresh herb in a sieve and place between cloth. (Maria Treben)
As a sitz bath for hemorrhoids: brew a strong tea and add it to a shallow, lukewarm bath.
As a tea: for bleeding (kidney, uterine [menstrual & postpartum], nosebleeds, wounds) infuse 1oz fresh herb in 12oz water, reduce to a half pint, and drink cold 2-3x/day. Drink this infusion 8-10 days before period for excessive menstrual flow.
Warnings and Contraindications
Because of its oxytocic effect on the uterus, shepherd’s purse should be avoided during pregnancy, except in the last weeks or during active labor, and then only under the supervision of an experienced midwife or medical professional.
My Experience of Shepherd’s Purse
Last spring, I went to my local herb store that is owned and run by an Amish woman and her daughters, for a remedy for a friend who was having unbearably heavy periods. Mrs. King went right for the shepherd’s purse tincture and a tea blend she put together for me to give to my friend. I also had a pretty incredible revelation about the signature of this plant while writing this monograph. It occurred to me that the shape of the seed pod is a signature for the uterus- especially in my case because I have a bicornuate uterus (a uterus with a septum down the middle that makes it look more like a heart than an upside-down pear. (seed pod photo from iewf.org) I also have the kind of symptoms that this herb is indicated for, but on an “every-other” cycle, so maybe one side of my uterus needs it more than the other? I’ll have to do some experimenting on myself.
Earlier this spring, shepherd’s purse was popping up in my consciousness and I felt pulled to make a medicine with it. Never having taken any real notice to the plant before, I didn’t know where to start looking. As is so often the case when a new herb starts filling my thoughts and I put my intention towards working with it, it manifests itself when and where I’m not even looking for it. I had taken my boys to see the new calves on the farm in April and as we were standing by the barnyard, I looked down and the shape of the seed pods caught my eye. My first thought was “How the heck did you know I was looking for you?!”, immediately followed by “duh, they ALWAYS know, Ruthie.” I took this as permission to harvest and went home with enough to make a pint of tincture (pictured below). I couldn’t get to it until the next day, so the herb sat for 24 hours. I gave it a rough chop and made a blended 1:2 tincture at 40%. I checked on it every day for the first week, shaking and smelling it. I started to notice an odor that I could only describe as “funk” and thought it had something to do with letting it wilt for 24 hours. For months, I thought I was making a less-than effective tincture and wasted good alcohol and herb in the process. In doing research for this monograph, I discovered that other herbalists have picked up on this peculiar odor as well. Matt Wood describes the smell as “urinous or seaweedy”, and Richo Cech describes it as “broccoli soup forgotten for days at the back of the kitchen counter.” I think both of these descriptions are pretty accurate, so I will refine my official description of the tincture to be “warm funky broccoli piss”. I think that sums it up nicely. At least I know I didn’t screw up my tincture! I think it’s also interesting to note that the finished tincture has a ‘warmness’ to its scent, and the old herbals instruct you to macerate the tincture in a warm place.