Now that spring is here, I find it exhilarating to go for a walk each day and see all of my plant friends popping out of the ground or opening their leaves. Things happen so fast at this time of year that, if we don’t get out for a day or two, we can miss so much. Watching the waves of spring wildflowers come and go is one of my favourite experiences. It starts in late March or early April with coltsfoot, which grows in wet areas. Then, one after another, beginning with the hepaticas in early April, the woodland flowers come into bloom. Most of the woodland wildflowers bloom in April and May because that is when they have access to the best light. By mid-May the forest leaf canopy significantly reduces the amount of sunlight available to plants that grow close to the ground. That means they have a lot less energy available to grow and flower and do other things that plants do.
Plants that grow in open areas have a lot more light available. They tend to grow more slowly and flower later, coltsfoot being the exception. Generally, the first major wave of flowering plants that grow in open areas tend to be members of the Mustard family. These herbs don’t grow as tall as many of the species that they share their habitat with, so they grow relatively quickly and flower before the grasses and other taller herbs overtake them and capture most of the sunlight.
Many Mustard family herbs are used medicinally. Like all herbs they contain a diversity of important chemical constituents. However, what is unique about these herbs is a group of aromatic sulfur-containing constituents called glucosinolates. These constituents give members of this family their characteristic odour and flavour. They also tend to make Mustard family herbs somewhat pungent and are partly responsible for the cancer-preventing properties of vegetables from this family, such as cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and many others.
On the down side, glucosinolates mildly interfere with the ability of our thyroid to produce its hormones. For most people this isn’t an issue, but it can be for those who suffer from hypothyroid, particularly if they aren’t getting enough iodine in their diet. This generally hasn’t been common since they began adding iodine to salt as most North Americans eat way too much of it. However, those who tend eat a natural diet are more likely to use sea salt or rock salt. Although these sources of salt do contain iodine, it isn’t enough to meet the daily requirements of most people. That’s why most of the manufacturers of sea salt are now offering an iodized option.
Many of our most popular vegetables are from the Mustard family. Aside from being nutritious, they also provide some of the medicinal benefits common to the herbs from this plant family, although in a milder form. The benefits of eating these vegetables outweigh the disadvantages, even for people with hypothyroid. For those who suffer from this condition it’s best not to consume Mustard family vegetables more than three to four times per week. This is particularly true if you like to eat them raw, since their thyroid suppressing properties are considerably reduced when they’re cooked. Unfortunately, their ability to prevent some types of cancer and many of their medicinal properties are also significantly reduced when cooked. For this reason it is best to use medicinal preparations of Mustard family herbs that are made from the fresh plant. This isn’t as important when using preparations made from the seed, such as black mustard (Brassica nigra), since the outer protective layer of the seed helps to protect its constituents when they are dried.
There are many medicinal herbs from the Mustard family that grow wild in Ontario. One of my favourites is shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris). This is a relatively inconspicuous herb and one of the first members of this family to flower. In our area it tends to begin flowering in late April or early May.
Shepherd’s purse is an alien species that has naturalized throughout most of Ontario. This species is believed to have originated in southern Europe, but it’s difficult to pin down its origins because it is very adaptable. This plant spread so quickly along early migration and trade routes that it now grows throughout most of the world.
FORAGING AND HARVESTING SHEPHERD’S PURSE
In Ontario, shepherd’s purse tends to occur in inhabited areas. It prefers disturbed locations and can be found growing in gardens, lawns, ditches, vacant lots, cultivated and abandoned farm fields. As a result, it is sometimes difficult to find it growing in areas that are free enough of contamination to be suitable for harvesting for medicinal purposes. Since I live in a rural area, the way I have dealt with this is by letting shepherd’s purse grow as a “weed” in my garden. Every year when it comes into flower, I weed out about three quarters of the plants, remove the roots and any of the older yellowing basal leaves, and use them to make a fresh herb tincture. The remaining plants I let grow to reseed and provide the following year’s harvest.
The best time to harvest shepherd’s purse is about a week after it begins to flower. In Ontario this is usually in the first or second week of May. At that time it will be about eight to ten inches tall. It has a basal rosette of narrow, deeply lobed leaves that look somewhat like small, very thin dandelion leaves. Each plant produces several stalks with small white flowers that, like other members of this family, have four petals. By the time we harvest it some of the flowers will have been fertilized. The stalks will have flowers near the end and somewhat triangular seed pods lower down. If rubbed, all parts of the plant have a subtle aroma that smells a bit like a cross between mustard and garlic. It is best to harvest shepherd’s purse before it reaches its maximum height. At that time the plant is mostly stalk, which is the least potent part.
If you are harvesting it by weeding it out of your garden, dig up the plant and remove its roots, any yellow, brown or discoloured basal leaves, and the lower three quarters of the flowering stalks. Remove and use any leaves, pods or flowers from the discarded portion of the stalks.
To harvest shepherd’s purse in the wild, use the top 40-50% of the flowering stalk plus four to five good sized basal leaves for every stalk harvested. Strip any leaves, pods or flowers from the lower half of the stalk of the harvested portion and discard that portion of the stalk.
The medicinal potency of shepherd’s purse is significantly reduced when dried. It is best to make a tincture from the fresh herb or use the fresh plant to make a poultice if using it topically. To make a tincture, chop it up relatively fine, fill a wide-neck amber jar with the fresh herb and top it up with vodka. Keep it in a dark cupboard and shake it once or twice a day for the first week or two. Allow it to sit for at least three months. As long as it remains undisturbed it will maintain its potency for several years. When you are ready to use it you can press the herb with a ricer and filter it through a fine cotton cloth. Once it’s pressed and filtered, store it in a narrow-neck amber bottle and use it within three to six months.
MEDICINAL PROPERTIES OF SHEPHERD’S PURSE
Shepherd’s purse is best known for its effectiveness as a hemostatic – it can stop bleeding or oozing from wounds when applied locally, or internal hemorrhaging if used systemically. Keep in mind that anyone who is experiencing any significant internal bleeding should get to a hospital as soon as they can. Shepherd’s purse can be used in the interim while on the way, or for less serious bruising or other bleeding. This herb has a particular affinity for the uterus and is one of the most effective for the treatment of uterine hemorrhage. It is an excellent herb for hemorrhaging due to miscarriage, post-partum, or for excessive menstrual bleeding.
Because of the complexity of the actions of herbs, they sometimes seem to have contradictory properties. Even though shepherd’s purse is used to treat excessive menstrual bleeding, it is also a mild stimulant to the female reproductive system and can be used to bring on a period for women whose cycle is irregular or who haven’t had a period for some time, as long as they aren’t pregnant.
The action of shepherd’s purse on the circulatory system isn’t limited to bleeding. It is an excellent tonic for the blood vessels. It can be used to treat any condition characterized by weakness or inflammation of the blood vessels. This includes varicose veins, spider veins, hemorrhoids or a tendency to bruise easily. It is also of some benefit in the treatment of more serious vascular conditions such as arteriosclerosis. Shepherd’s purse benefits both high and low blood pressure and is an excellent herb to help improve peripheral circulation.
Shepherd’s purse is also used for digestive conditions. It improves digestion and appetite, reduces gas and bloating, liver congestion, and is beneficial for the treatment of both constipation and diarrhea. It heals and reduces inflammation of the mucous membranes of the digestive tract as well, making it useful for ulcers, gastritis, colitis and other inflammatory conditions.
Shepherd’s purse is of some benefit for the treatment of rheumatic conditions, especially gout, and infections and inflammation of the urinary tract. Although it can be useful for the treatment of uric acid stones, there is some confusion about whether or not it contains oxalic acid, in which case it could possibly aggravate oxalate stones. Therefore, if you suffer from urinary stones, it is best to avoid this herb unless you are certain what kind of stones you have.
When used systemically, the fresh herb tincture should be taken three times per day in 15-30 ml (.5-1 oz.) of water on an empty stomach, preferably about 10-20 minutes before meals. If you are using an over-the-counter product, use the recommended dose. If you make your own tincture, use about 3-4 ml per dose.
Topically, it is best to use shepherd’s purse in the form of a poultice, infused oil or ointment made from the fresh herb. Used this way it is great for wounds, bites and stings, rashes, bleeding or oozing, strains, sprains, bruises and other traumatic injuries. Poultices, compresses and ointments made from the dried herb are also somewhat effective for topical applications, but not as effective as preparations made from the fresh herb and significantly inferior for the treatment of strains, sprains and traumatic injuries.
For some people, shepherd’s purse can be mildly irritating to the mucous membranes of the digestive and urinary tracts. Therefore it is best to use it in combination with other herbs, and not for more than a few months at a time. This herb is also not recommended in pregnancy and should be used with caution by anyone with a history of urinary stones unless they are sure that they are not oxalate stones.
As always, when self-treating with herbs if you experience any unusual side effects or if your condition doesn’t improve, it is best to discontinue using the herb or herbal formulation and consult with a qualified herbalist or other natural health practitioner who has sufficient training and experience using Western herbs.
Now that I’ve discussed some of the more important information about the use of shepherd’s purse for medicinal purposes, I have one last tidbit: the flowers, green seed pods and leaves are great in salads and very high in potassium and vitamin C!
Getting out into Nature is one of the most enjoyable and healing pastimes. If you’ve been avoiding the outdoors through the winter because of the cold, now that it’s warmer there’s no excuse. Whether it’s to get out there and harvest some shepherd’s purse for food or medicine, or to see the flowers and listen to the birds, spring is calling! Enjoy!