Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) is flowering now in the cracks between paving stones and alongside garden walls in my suburbia. It’s the little seed pods though, not the flowers, that have endeared them to me since childhood in more rural Buckinghamshire. A little plant with dozens of hearts on stalks. But the plant gets its Latin and common English name from the resemblance of these seed pods to the purses that hung from the belts of peasants in the Middle Ages. The French name is Bourse-à-pasteur, which also means a shepherd’s purse. And when the pod is ripe, it splits open and little seeds spill out, like coins. The Dutch painter, Pieter Breugel, included one in his The Peasant Dance, painted around 1567.
In his inspiring book, Weeds, Richard Mabey points out that the seeds are covered with a kind of gum, which, when moist, helps them to stick to the feet of birds, increasing their chances of dispersal. Also, according to Mabey, the resemblance of the seed pods to bladders meant that they were once thought to be an effective cure for urinary disorders – following the theory of plant ‘signatures’ put forward by the 17th-century Oxford botanist, William Coles.
In Flitting, written in 1832, the poet John Clare declares his love for the “poor persecuted weeds” which, he points out, will still remain “where old marble cities stood.” He composed the poem shortly after he, his wife and seven children moved to the village of Northborough (“this strange spot”). Although not far from his birthplace in the village of Helpston (“that old hut now left), he felt increasingly alienated, with bouts of severe depression. In the poem, simple weeds around his new home remind him of his beloved Helpston.
A farm worker himself, he wrote of shepherd’s purse:
E’en here my simple feelings nurse
A love for every simple weed
And e’en this little shepherd’s purse
Grieves me to cut it up – Indeed
I feel at times a love and joy
For every weed and every thing
A feeling kindred from a boy
A feeling brought with every spring.
And why – this ‘shepherd’s purse’ that grows
In this strange spot in days gone bye
Grew in the little garden rows
Of that old hut now left – and I
Feel what I never felt before
This weed an ancient neighbour here
And though I own the spot no more
Its every trifle makes it dear.