Dear Readers, Shepherd’s Purse is one of the smallest, most inoffensive plants that you’re likely to see growing at the edge of a wall or next to a bollard. I first wrote about in 2014 when I was just starting to blog, and at the time it didn’t seem odd to me that this isn’t considered a native plant – as described below, it’s technically an archaeophyte, thought to have arrived in the UK before 1500. And yet, other small ‘weedy’ plants such as chickweed are accorded full native status. It’s all very puzzling, but greater botanical brains than mine have come to their own conclusions.
What is in no doubt is that Shepherd’s Purse is a very widespread ‘weed’ indeed. In Stace and Crawley’s ‘Alien Plants’, Shepherd’s Purse appears on the top 30 alien plants in London, suburban Bedfordshire and rural East Sutherland, one of only 5 plants to appear in all three lists (the others, in case you’re interested, are Buddleia, Sycamore, American Willowherb and Ground Elder). One reason is that it is an annual that will happily inbreed, giving rise to a whole range of microspecies (30 are listed in Druce’s Plant List of 1998, for example). This is important as the flowers of Shepherd’s Purse don’t attract a whole lot of pollinators, so sometimes the seeds for next year have been self-pollinated. No wonder the plant is so successful.
So, let’s see what I said about the plant eight whole years ago.
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.