Capsella bursa-pastoris (PROTA)

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Plant Resources of Tropical Africa
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Capsella bursa-pastoris (L.) Medik.

Protologue: Pfl.-Gatt. 1: 85 (1792).
Family: Brassicaceae (Cruciferae)
Chromosome number: 2n = 16, 32

Vernacular names

  • Shepherd’s purse, shepherd’s heart, pepper and salt, lady’s purse, mother’s heart, rattle pouches (En).
  • Bourse à pasteur, bourse à berger, boursette (Fr).
  • Bolsa de pastor (Po).

Origin and geographic distribution

Capsella bursa-pastoris probably originated in the eastern Mediterranean area. It is more common in temperate zones than in the tropics. It currently has a worldwide distribution avoiding only the tropical lowlands. In tropical Africa it occurs at higher altitudes.


Capsella bursa-pastoris is a prominent medicinal plant in Europe and the Mediterranean region, as well as in Latin America and Asia. The aerial parts have been used since antiquity as a haemostatic to treat internal and external haemorrhages, while a hot and bitter infusion is taken as an emmenagogue, diaphoretic, tonic, antiscorbutic, astringent, antidiarrhoeal and diuretic. It is also used in gynaecology to regulate menstruation as it constricts the blood vessels. In Ethiopia the plant is known as an abortifacient. In Rwanda ground leaves are applied as a dressing for dislocations and sprains, while the fumes of a leaf infusion in hot water are inhaled to treat colds. Mashed seeds, slightly grilled, are mixed with beer and taken to treat impotence. Indications and uses approved by Commission E are those for nosebleed, premenstrual syndrome, and wounds and burns. The species is not to be used during pregnancy. No health hazards are known with proper therapeutic dosage.

The young leaves are sometimes cooked and eaten as a vegetable; they are used fresh in salads in Rwanda and Madagascar and also in Europe and the Americas. It is even a salad crop in China. The seeds, containing 35% fatty oil, are edible as well, raw in salads, or cooked in soup. The fruits can be used as a peppery seasoning for soups and stews. One of the chemical constituents of the plant, luteolin, is a natural colouring agent (yellow or yellowish green). Capsella bursa-pastoris is grazed by livestock. Cows produce yellowish milk and chicken produce yellowish green egg yolks when they have eaten large amounts of the plant. It is also said to influence the taste of milk and eggs.

Production and international trade

Although extracts of Capsella bursa-pastoris are widely used and traded as phytopharmaceuticals, no information is available on the amounts involved or the centres of production.


Capsella bursa-pastoris contains flavonoids (including rutin, luteolin, luteolin-7-galactoside and luteolin-7-rutinoside), acids (e.g. bursic acid, fumaric acid and citric acid) and amines (e.g. acetylcholine, histamine and tyramine). The presence of tyramine and histamine might be due to fungal infection. The leaves of Capsella bursa-pastoris are rich in iron, calcium, nitrate and vitamin A, thiamin, riboflavin, phylloquinone and ascorbic acid. Cardioactive steroids are present presumably only in the seeds.

In pharmacological studies, Capsella bursa-pastoris has shown anti-inflammatory and diuretic actions. Intraperitoneal administration of a plant extract to rats blocked the formation of stress-induced ulcers and reduced recovery time. Antineoplastic, central nervous system depressant, and hypotensive effects have also been observed, and in-vitro tests have shown smooth-muscle stimulant effects. An extract of the whole plant produced a fall in blood pressure in dogs and rabbits, accompanied by cardiac acceleration, and caused dilatation of the blood vessels in rabbits. This effect has been ascribed to acetylcholine. The toxic symptoms in mice with Ehrlich tumour that had been given mitomycin C were reduced by the administration of fumaric acid from Capsella bursa-pastoris.

A glucosyl flavone close to luteolin extracted from Capsella bursa-pastoris showed excellent antioxidative activity. Two glycine- and histidine-rich peptides, shepherin I and II, exhibited antimicrobial action against gram-negative bacteria and fungi.

A case of nitrite poisoning in pigs in South Africa has been attributed to ingestion of Capsella bursa-pastoris.


  • Slender, erect, annual or short-lived perennial herb up to 70 cm tall, with a taproot; stem simple or branched, angled and striate, almost glabrous to hairy.
  • Leaves alternate, basal ones in a rosette; stipules absent; petiole short; blade very variable, from undivided and coarsely toothed to pinnatipartite, oblanceolate in outline, 3–15 cm long, base attenuate, apex rounded to acute; stem leaves few, sessile, amplexicaul, blade smaller than basal leaves, usually undivided, oblong.
  • Inflorescence a terminal raceme up to 20 cm long.
  • Flowers bisexual, regular, 4-merous; pedicel c. 6 mm long, elongating in fruit, up to 20 mm long; sepals c. 1.5 mm long, green, mostly pubescent; petals spatulate, 2–3 mm long, clawed, white; stamens 6, 4 longer and 2 shorter; ovary superior, dorsiventrally flattened, style c. 0.5 mm long.
  • Fruit a heart-shaped silique, 5–10 mm × 2.5–8 mm, dehiscing by 2 net-veined valves, many-seeded.
  • Seeds oblong, 0.5–1 × 0.5 mm, reddish to yellowish brown, with 2 longitudinal grooves, mucilaginous when wet.
  • Seedling with epigeal germination.

Other botanical information

Capsella comprises about 5 species, most of them from Europe. Capsella bursa-pastoris is extremely variable. The oldest record of Capsella bursa-pastoris in East Africa is from 1932 at 2600 m altitude.

Growth and development

Capsella bursa-pastoris is a pioneer of disturbed localities and hence an opportunist species. In open localities it has a high growth rate and spreads easily, but when perennial grasses appear in the succession, it declines in abundance and disappears. It can withstand a high degree of trampling by animals. Heavy trampling may lead to rosettes with more leaves, but also to smaller plants that flower later and produce fewer seeds. Flowers are usually self-pollinated. Capsella bursa-pastoris is easily dispersed by wind and rain. It flowers and fruits all year round, unless the temperature drops below 5°C.


Capsella bursa-pastoris occurs in both urban and rural wasteland, in cultivated land and roadsides. The reported altitudinal range in Africa is 1600–2500(–3000) m. Capsella bursa-pastoris is found on soils ranging from clay to sandy loam with pH 5–8. It is especially frequent on fertile soils in areas of intense arable agriculture. It is more common in drier habitats than in wet ones. Its reproductive and vegetative potential is quite low in waterlogged soil, and it does not survive in extremely wet conditions. It can survive frost.

Propagation and planting

The number of seeds per fruit and fruits per plant is very variable and depends on the position of the fruit on the infructescence and on habitat. Seeds remain viable for many years in the soil. They germinate at 5–30°C. Freshly matured seeds are dormant. Dormancy is easily broken by temperatures below 15°C, followed by exposure to light. Temperatures of 25–30°C and alternating temperatures accelerate germination of non-dormant seeds. Seed stored at ambient temperatures and humidity starts to lose viability after 6 months.

Diseases and pests

Capsella bursa-pastoris is an alternative host of several fungal diseases and insect pests of other Brassicaceae species. Since it often acts as a host to fungi like Albugo candida and Peronospora parasitica the presence of mycotoxins (health hazard chemicals secreted by the toxic mold) is possible. It is also host to a wide variety of plant viruses, especially seed-borne viruses.


Capsella bursa-pastoris is collected from the wild, although bringing it into cultivation has been recommended to obtain higher yields. The plants can be dried rapidly in the shade at temperatures not higher than 45°C. They can be used fresh or dried, although the dried plants quickly lose their effectiveness and should not be stored for more than a year. The pungent taste is also lost by drying. During storage, Capsella bursa-pastoris should be protected from light and moisture.


Seed production of Capsella bursa-pastoris under greenhouse conditions was estimated at 11,300–58,500 seeds/plant, but can be as high as 90,000 seeds/plant.


The many uses of Capsella bursa-pastoris in traditional medicine warrant more research attention. Its restriction in Africa to higher altitudes is a limiting factor for widespread use, both as a medicinal plant and as a vegetable.

Major references

  • Aksoy, A., Dixon, J.M. & Hale, W.H.G., 1998. Biological flora of the British Isles No 199: Capsella bursa-pastoris (L.) Medikus (Thlaspi bursa-pastoris L., Bursa bursa-pastoris (L.) Shull, Bursa pastoris (L.) Weber). Journal of Ecology 86(1): 171–186.
  • Burkill, H.M., 1985. The useful plants of West Tropical Africa. 2nd Edition. Volume 1, Families A–D. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. 960 pp.
  • Duke, J.A., 1992. Handbook of phytochemical constituents of GRAS herbs and other economic plants. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida, United States. 654 pp.
  • Fleming, T. (Editor), 1998. PDR for herbal medicines. Medical Economics Company, Montvale, New Jersey, United States. 1244 pp.
  • Holm, L.G., Plucknett, D.L., Pancho, J.V. & Herberger, J.P., 1977. The world’s worst weeds. Distribution and biology. University Press of Hawaii, Honolulu, United States. 609 pp.
  • Neuffer, B. & Linde, M., 1999. Capsella bursa-pastoris – colonisation and adaptation: a globe-trotter conquers the world. In: van Raamsdonk, L.W.D. & den Nijs, J.C.M. (Editors). Plant evolution in man-made habitats. Proceedings of the 7th international symposium of the International Organization of Plant Biosystematics, 1–15 August 1998, Amsterdam, Netherlands. pp 49–72.
  • Plants for a future, 1996–2002. Capsella bursa-pastoris. [Internet]. Plants for a future - a resource centre for edible and other useful plants. Devon, United Kingdom. pfaf/D_search.html. 10 June, 2004.

Other references

  • Watt, J.M. & Breyer-Brandwijk, M.G., 1962. The medicinal and poisonous plants of southern and eastern Africa. 2nd Edition. E. and S. Livingstone, London, United Kingdom. 1457 pp.
  • Hong, J.I., Kweon, M.H., Ra, K.S., Sung, H.C. & Yang, H.C., 1995. Free radical scavenging activities and inhibitory effects on xanthine oxidase by ethanol extract from Capsella bursa-pastoris. Agricultural Chemistry and Biotechnology 38(6): 590–595.
  • Jansen, P.C.M., 1981. Spices, condiments and medicinal plants in Ethiopia, their taxonomy and agricultural significance. Agricultural Research Reports 906. Centre for Agricultural Publishing and Documentation, Wageningen, Netherlands. 327 pp.
  • Jonsell, B., 1982. Cruciferae. In: Polhill, R.M. (Editor). Flora of Tropical East Africa. A.A. Balkema, Rotterdam, Netherlands. pp. 15–17.
  • Kuroda, K. & Akao, M., 1977. Inhibitory effect of fumaric acid and dicarboxylic acids on gastric ulceration in rats. Archives Internationales de Pharmacodynamie et de Thérapie 226(2): 324–330.
  • Kuroda, K. & Akao, M., 1980. Reduction by fumaric-acid of side effects of mitomycin C. Biochemical Pharmacology 29(20): 2839-2844.
  • Kuroda, K. & Kaku, T., 1969. Pharmacological and chemical studies on the alcohol extract of Capsella bursa-pastoris. Life Science 8(3): 151–155.
  • Marais, W., 1980. Crucifères. In: Bosser, J., Cadet, T., Julien, H.R. & Marais, W. (Editors). Flore des Mascareignes. Familles 31–50. The Sugar Industry Research Institute, Mauritius, l’Office de la Recherche Scientifique Outre-Mer, Paris, France & Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. 25 pp.
  • Neuwinger, H.D., 2000. African traditional medicine: a dictionary of plant use and applications. Medpharm Scientific, Stuttgart, Germany. 589 pp.
  • Pieroni, A., Nebel, S., Quave, C., Münz, H. & Heinrich, M., 2002. Ethnopharmacology of liakra: traditional weedy vegetables of the Arbëreshë of the Vulture area in southern Italy. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 81: 165–185.
  • Wiese, W.J. & Joubert, J.P., 2001. Suspected nitrite poisoning in pigs caused by Capsella bursa-pastoris (L.) Medik. (‘herderstassie’, shepherd’s purse). Journal of the South African Veterinary Association 72: 170–171.

Sources of illustration

  • Holm, L.G., Plucknett, D.L., Pancho, J.V. & Herberger, J.P., 1977. The world’s worst weeds. Distribution and biology. University Press of Hawaii, Honolulu, United States. 609 pp.


  • I. Vandebroek, Institute of Economic Botany, The New York Botanical Garden, Kazimiroff Boulevard and 200 Street, Bronx, New York 10458, United States

Correct citation of this article

Vandebroek, I., 2006. Capsella bursa-pastoris (L.) Medik. In: Schmelzer, G.H. & Gurib-Fakim, A. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. Accessed 28 January 2022.