Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Shepherd’s Purse is one of those straggly white-flowered weeds that grow at the bottom of walls, or in amongst the roots of city trees. It gets its name from its seed-pods, which are shaped like the leather pouches carried in medieval times, hung by draw-strings from the belt. The name also gives a clue to the length of time that it has been in the UK, for this little plant is a long way from home. It originated in Eastern Europe and Asia minor, but has been with us for a long time – it is considered to be an archaeophyte in the UK, which means that it came here prior to 1492. Plants which came along after this date are known as neophytes.
Like many so-called ‘weeds’, Shepherd’s Purse is an annual, and flowers almost all year round, the seed scattering far and wide from those heart-shaped seed pouches.
There can be several generations of Shepherd’s Purse in a year, and the seeds can also survive for a long time in the soil, making it an ideal plant for an urban environment. When conditions are right, it will proliferate. When times are hard, the seeds will wait for better times to arrive. Once you have noticed Shepherd’s Purse, you will see it everywhere, going about its modest business without any ostentation. Yet, it has been used in a variety of ways all over the world.
Shepherd’s Purse is a member of the cabbage family, and in many parts of the world it is actively grown as a food plant. It is increasing in popularity in this country as a foraged addition to salads, and in Japan is part of a ceremonial barley and rice gruel that is eaten on January 7th (for more details, have a look here). Although in cities it rarely reaches more than a few inches high, in rich soil, or when cultivated, it can grow into a more substantial plant, up to two feet high, with bigger, juicier leaves.
Shepherd’s Purse has also been used medicinally – a tea made from the plant is described as a ‘sovereign remedy’ against haemorrhage, especially of the kidneys. In Germany, the plant has been approved for use against nose-bleeds, pre-menstrual syndrome, wounds and burns. During the First World War, the herb was used in Germany to stop bleeding after other, more conventional remedies became unavailable.
Finally, the seeds of the plant are much loved by small birds, and I have watched sparrows hopping along the wall at the end of my street, pecking up the little ‘purses’.
This inoffensive, useful little plant is all around us, and yet, we have no respect whatsoever for it. This is the scene that greeted me a few days ago when I wandered up to the High Street:
Someone had decided to spray all the little weeds growing at the foot of the wall beside Kentucky Fried Chicken. I’m not sure whether it’s the council, or the staff from KFC. I suspect the former – Barnet Council ‘gardeners’ have a zero-tolerance policy towards anything that isn’t a rose bush or a petunia. All these micro-habitats gone. All those seeds poisoned. I just hope that the sparrows have the sense not to eat them.
My one consolation is that I doubt it will be long before the Shepherd’s Purse is back. There will be seeds in the soil, just waiting for the toxins to die down. In the battle between man and plant, my money is always on the plant.