Shepherds Purse

(Capsella bursa-pastoris) Yorkshire children would open a seed vessel. If the seed inside is yellow, you will be rich, but if it is green, you will be poor (Opie & Tatem). Another children's game, if it can be called a game, was played with the seed pod. They hold it out to their companions, inviting them to "take a haud o' that". It immediately cracks, and there follows a triumophant shout, "You've broken your mother's heart" (Dyer. 1889), or, in Middlesex, "You've picked your mother's heart out" (Vickery. 1995). The plant actually bears the name Pick-your-mother's-heart-out (Grigson. 1955), while names like Mother-die and Mother's Heart (Vickery. 1985; J D Robertson) are relatively common. Pickpurse is a name used by Gerard, and Pickpocket is quite common (Jones & Dillon; Tynan & Maitland, etc.,). These and others like them are usually the result of the barren soil in which the plant thrives; in a sense, it robs the farmer by stealing the goodness of his land. There is a rhyme fom Northamptonshire:

Pickpocket, penny nail,

Put the rogue in jail (A E Baker).

Then there is Pickpocket-to-London, from Yorkshire:

Pick-pocket to London,

You'll never go to London (Grigson, 1955).

From Scotland, Rifle-the-ladies'-purse (Grigson. 1955).

Clappedepouch (Prior), or Rattlepouch (Grieve. 1931) are both allusions to the licenced begging of lepers, who stood at crossroads, with a bell and clapper. They could receive their alms in a cup or basin at the end of a long pole, likened in these names to the purses of Shepherd's Purse in this context (Prior). St James's Wort is another name for this plant (see Grigson. 1955; Vesey-Fitzgerald), deriving, according to Tynan & Maitland, from the leather pouch carried by the poorer pilgrims en route to the shrine of St James at Compostella. All these purses, pouches, pounces, bags, scrips, belonging to shepherds, gentlemen, poor men, or ladies are descriptive names, the shape of the seed vessels suggesting the names.

Shepherd's Purse belongs to the cress family, and it is perfectly edible, and was at one time eaten as a potherb. It tastes something like cress, and when dried, the leaves make a peppery flavouring for soups and sauces (Loewenfeld). Apparently, it was specially grown (in good soil, so that it was very much bigger) in America, as a green vegetable (C P Johnson). It is, too, a great medicinal herb, still used to stop bleeding. A 17th century physician, Symcott by name, was treating a pregnant woman for blood. Then "a beggar woman told me that she would recover if she took shepherd's purse in her broth". She was cured (Beier). It is still being recommended for similar purposes. The powdered plant mixed with the normal diet has been used to inhibit the oestrous cycle (Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk). Langham had a different method of achieving the same end: "nothing is better to stop the flowers, than to make a fomentation or moyst-bath thereof, and to sit over it close, and to drinke of the same classified in red wine". Mrs Leyel called it "the great specific for haemorrhages of all kinds". Such old names as Stanche and Sanguinary tend to confirm her claim.

All this is far from the total of its virtues. Gypsies, for instance, use a leaf infusion as an ingredient of medicines that are employed in the treatment of oedema, jaundice, as well as kidney and liver complaints. As an ointment, it is good for erysipelas (Vesey-Fitzgerald), and North American Indians used it as a cure for another skin problem, poison-ivy rash (H H Smith. 1923). The Cheyenne also took a cold infusion of the powdered leaves for a headache (Youngken). It has even been used for malaria in Europe, while O Suilleabhain quotes its use as an Irish remedy for rickets.

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