Around April each year, I watch a nearby fallowed field for signs of growth. Tiny rosettes of leaves appear on the surface of the soil, which last fall had grown a crop of enormous tobacco plants. The land is not my own, but I don’t think the farmer minds if I harvest leaves from a plant that most people in North America seem to regard as a minor weed. Eventually the farmer will plough the weeds under, but for now they are a bountiful supply of fresh greens.

East Asian Fondness for Shepherd’s Purse

Shepherd’s purse, Capsella bursa-pastoris, is one of my favorite wild greens. Chinese call it jicai 薺菜 and grow it commercially. In Chinese markets, one can sometimes find steamed buns made with it (jicaibao 薺菜包), which are delicious. The Book of Poetry (Shijing 詩經) refers to it as being sweet relative to other greens, and indeed, I find it mild and pleasant.

The mention of it in the Book of Poetry means that Chinese have been eating this spring green for at least three thousand years! Some ancient texts refer to foraging it when on the move (步中採薺). It was likely a friend of travelers, who in premodern times would have needed to forage some of their food.

It would also have been one of the first vegetables of spring, promoting wellbeing after a long winter without fresh vegetables.

The Chinese recipe collection Benxin zhai shushi pu 本心齋蔬食譜 (Vegetable Recipes from Benxin’s Studio) from the Northern Song period (960-1127) refers to it as “sweet shepherd’s purse” (甘薺) and says that “Heaven’s giving life to this thing is for the benefit of recluses and hermits.” It provided for rural dwellers living far from town markets.

The Japanese also eat it. They call it nazuna or penpengusa and use it in a traditional spring congee of seven herbs, nanakusa gayu 七草がゆ. In Korea, people collect the whole plant while it is small and tender, wash it thoroughly, and cook it with the roots still attached.

Shepherd’s purse is such a humble plant, yet East Asians praise its virtues.


When the plants are very small, the harvesting is fiddly. I like to wait until the growth is about as long as my hand and the plants are starting to produce shoots. Tender flower stocks rise upward. These can be tested for tenderness by bending the stem and looking for where it will snap off easily.

The real treasure, however, is found in the whorl of leaves at the base. One can always pick off individual leaves, but that is not very efficient. Try reaching your fingers through the whorl at the base. You will notice side shoots coming off of the main whorl of leaves. Snap these off and you will have a tender shoot with many leaves attached. These are more substantial than individual leaves.

The plant will keep sending out these side shoots if conditions are good. Rains help. When warmer temperatures and hot sun arrives, the plants harden up. Rather than putting energy into new growth, the plants send resources toward seed production. This creates a sea of wispy seed heads, comprised of tiny hearts. These little capsules dry out, splitting open when one wades through them, spilling tiny seeds. Next year’s crop has been sown.


Several years ago I was living in Tokyo and found shepherd’s purse growing in grass by a river. The plants were tiny and tough, but I collected some seeds and planted them at home. Nothing happened. Finally, as winter started showing signs of warming, the seeds began to sprout. Like the seeds of many temperate plants, these need to overwinter before they will germinate.

Tolerant of chilly weather, the plants thrived in the late-winter sun on my balcony. Whereas the parents had been small and tough, these plants grew long, tender leaves. When grown in rich soil and without the intense competition of the riverbank community, shepherd’s purse transforms itself. From hardscrabble hobo, it becomes a generous and elegant gentleman. As with people, so it is with plants, too.


As for other wild greens, I like to wash my harvest gently in a large bowl of cold water, then transfer it to a strainer. I drain the bowl and rinse away any dirt, then repeat the process. After two or three such rinses, I shake the leaves, tapping the strainer onto my hand over the sink. A salad spinner also works. After picking out any unwanted plant material, the leaves are ready for use. If I am not using them immediately, I refrigerate them, covered tightly.

Cook shepherd’s purse greens as you would cook other small, mild greens. They can be eaten raw, but I usually cook them. There are plenty of options. I have used them in soups, braised them as a side dish, and made them into a pizza topping. Sautéed and then mixed with scrambled eggs, they make a delicious filling for Chinese-style dumplings (Ch: jiaozi, Jp: gyōza).


When foraging, always make sure you have your identification right before you eat anything. Shepherd’s purse is a mustard family plant that is easy to identify, especially once the little heart-shaped pods appear. There is another similar plant in the mustard family called peppergrass, with smaller and more densely clustered seed pods. It is also edible. This is not a high-risk forage, but be careful.

In the field where I collect shepherd’s purse, there is another plant with small leaf whorls that looks similar when young: yellow cress, Rorippa palustris. This plant is also edible, but not as good. Another mustard. Have you noticed how many edible plants are from the mustard family?

A distant relative of broccoli and kale, shepherd’s purse is a hard-core survivalist who knows how to take care of itself. It will likely still be here long after we are gone. Stature is not the only measure of greatness.

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