Grow Capers And How to Use Them: 2019

mediterranean-caper
photo credit: gourmetsleuth

About

The caper pictured above lives in my garden close to my front fence. It is a joy to watch grow year after year. The plant is beautiful and you'd never expect to see such a beautiful flower on this low-growing bush. My father-in-law wrote this article based on his experience learning about and growing capers in his garden in Los Altos, California.

How'd you like to grow something as exotic as the Caper-bush right in your own garden or planter? Here's something that Greek and Roman gourmets used in cooking thousands of years ago!

What Are Capers?

You know what capers are, — those tiny zingy pickled green things you find in those little vials on the deli shelf.  You probably didn't realize that they're actually the flower buds of a plant known as Capparis spinosa, but now that everyone seems to be into either herbs or exotic plants, why not try your skill with this beautiful flowering plant that's a little bit of both? When I included slides of capers growing in my backyard at a recent showing sponsored by San Francisco's Strybing Arboretum Society, I was deluged with phone and mail requests for information about them.  They may not be the fastest plants to grow from seed, but once established, they'll hang in there until they're Senior Citizens. My Caper-bush is now in its late teens and is budding and growing more each year.  It tends to be deciduous, leafing out anew each spring, and it has nicely survived winters as low as fifteen degrees.

Where Do Capers Grow?

an unfurled caper flowerLike so many other herbs, Capers grow wild along the Mediter­ranean Sea, and since my wife is a native of Malta, that tiny island in the middle of that sea, I was determined to raise not only Capers, but the Carobs and Jujubes she remembered, as well. Then, about ten years ago, during one of those see Europe in three weeks" tours, we decided to sneak away for a few days to visit Malta. Sure enough, Caper-bushes could be seen everywhere, tenaciously growing from the nooks and crannies of stone buildings and walls, some now acknowl­edged to be the oldest known to man. They are not only attractive two-to-three-foot plants, but have very pretty two-inch pink-and-white flowers, resembling the cleome, a close relative. Much-used in native cuisine, we saw boys peddling freshly-picked bags of buds to restaurants along the roadsides. Now, doesn't that whet your appetite to grow something that few people have seen, let along grown?

Grow A Caper From Seed

Seeds of Capparis spinosa used to be difficult to find but thanks to the internet they are readily available online, see sources at the end of this article. Furthermore, seeds are not as fast or as easily germinated as radish seeds, certainly, but indoors I have found that sprouting begins in three weeks to a month and may continue for three to four months. Here's the method I've used with good success with these, as with most other seeds. The picture below shows a matured caper bud which has burst open and shows the little seeds.

mature caper bud burst open showing seeds

Plant The Seeds

Simply get one of those little plastic tubs that once contained cottage cheese, ricotta or ice cream. Make sure it is clean, so as not to promote mold or fungus. Fill to about half-way with 50/50 mix of vermiculite and perlite, both sterile planting mediums, and moisten well with water. Do not saturate. Sprinkle some of the mustard-like caper seeds on the surface of the mix. Mist them with water from one of those plastic squeeze bottles to assure that the seed coverings are moist. Immediately place transparent plastic-wrap over the container opening, held tightly in place by a rubber band. You may want a label with date, and this can easily be provided by a piece of masking tape. That's all there's to it. Easy; no? No watering,  just peek at the tub from time to time, to see if any sprouting is taking place. As to location, a well-lit window sill is your best bet, which means a southern exposure, if possible, and screened from the hot sun, if too severe. You should see the first germination in about 3 weeks, although some seeds may not sprout for several months. Fortunately, the seedlings can tolerate high humid­ity, but as they grow, puncturing the plastic covering with a pin here and there to provide aeration is advisable. Under these condi­tions, the spindly plants can "stay put" for a few months while they're growing first permanent leaves, prior to transplanting. You can increase the perforations and "harden up" the little plants by gradually uncovering the container, but watch carefully that they do not dry out and shrivel their leaves at that stage.

Transplant The Seeds

Next comes the critical transplanting. You'll find that even these delicate-looking seedlings have some pretty strong-intentioned roots. Taking care not to injure plantlets or roots, transfer into 2 or 2 1/2-inch pots of any good planter mix, preferably lightened by 25% perlite. Soak-down well and place pots on pebbles in saucers or pans containing a bit of water to provide a humid condition around the plants as they become accustomed to their new environment. The other alterna­tive would be to start out by planting your seeds in some of those specially prepared self-contained, self-sustaining starter pellets made of peat moss. These only need to be soaked in water before planting your seeds. Just follow instructions included, adding water later, as needed, but plant's roots will not have to be dis­turbed for transplanting, as entire planting pellets, including plants, can he set out with their roots intact. I've used both methods successfully. Take your pick. Once on their own, Capers definitely are not one of those plants that demand lots of water; in fact they thrive with little water.

When To Transplant

Keep the seedlings in a sunny location, and as with most plants, weak solutions of liquid fertilizer at monthly intervals will be helpful. They are not fast-growing, hut when, after a few months, their roots are becoming pot-bound, move to a larger size pot.  If your winters are too severe, you'd best be prepared to leave them in pots or other containers, only keeping them outdoors in late spring and summer.

The bushes tend to have a compact spreading habit, with whips up to two feet in length, so they are ideal for growing in tubs. When devoid of leaves in mid-winter, only the maroon-colored stems remain. When the tender new growth begins in spring, it often falls prey to a hungry horde of slugs and snails, so keep a sharp lookout for these tiny flea-beetles, such as attack egg-plant and pepper plants, may perforate the leaves in summer, and if so, you'll probably have to control them by spraying.

Since it is the tiny flower buds, borne in the leaf axils, that are the capers of commerce, eventually you'll be picking them, and you'll miss those pretty flowers. You epicureans need only; drop the buds into vials of salt and/or vinegar and, Presto! Within a few weeks you'll have your own gourmet's delight. They'll keep in­definitely, and add a lot of spice to your dining.

Almost everyone looks forward to cutting capers at some time, so why not give it a try? You could be cutting your own!

This article was contributed by Charles Holtz; member Garden Writers Association Of America, Inc.

The Difference Between Capers and Caperberries

caper buds various sizes from buds to berries 

I took this picture today, August, 2019 so you can see the variety of bud sizes we seen on our caper grown here in California. The little unopened flower buds are what we use to pickle to make "capers".  If those little buds are allowed to open, then they produce a large (in comparison)fruit which which is know as a caperberry (caper berry).  You can pickle these just like the caper buds although the taste is not the same.  Typically you see these used in cocktails.  In Italy the caper berries are battered and deep fried.

How Do You Harvest Capers?

Harvesting capers is a continual process which takes place between May through about September, depending on your climate. Most caper bushes can be harvested after 2-3 years.

  • Harvest on dry days only; don't pick them in damp or wet weather.
  • Pick early in the morning so the buds will be tightly closed.
  • You can pull them off the vine with your fingers; I prefer trimming them off with a small pair of sharp gardening scissor.  Either way you'll end up with a stem which needs to trimmed off before you brine them.
  • Plan to harvest capers every week to week and a half.

Fun Fact about Grow Capers And How to Use Them: 2019

Nutrition Information For Grow Capers And How to Use Them: 2019

Serving Size
1 tbsp, drained
 
Calories
2
Calories from Fat
0
 
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 0g
0%
Saturated Fat 0g
0%
Cholesterol 0mg
0%
Sodium 255mg
10%
Potassium
3g
0%
Total Carbohydrate 0g
0%
Dietary Fiber 0g
0%
Sugars 0g
Protein 0g
0%
 
Vitamin A  0% Vitamin C  0%
Calcium  0% Iron  0%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.

Need A Substitute For Capers?

You can check out the substitutes for capers to learn about alternatives to capers in your recipes here in our culinary dictionary of ingredient substitutions.

How To Pickle Your Capers

This is a very easy process.  Pick your capers and place them in a colander and rinse them with cool water.  Make sure to pick the buds before they start to open. Per half cup of caper buds measure out 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup white vinegar as well as 1 tablespoon of salt.

Mix the vinegar, water and salt in a measuring up with a pouring spout.

Place the capers in a jar large enough to fit the capers with some brine.  Pour the brine over the capers making sure they are covered completely in the brine.  Cover the jar with a clean tight-fitting lid.  Allow the capers to sit at least 3 days then start tasting them. Once they are pickled to your taste; store them refrigerated indefinitely.

capers-brined 

Recipes That Feature Capers

There are some pretty well-know recipes that feature capers; here are a few:

Veal or Chicken Picatta - Thinly sliced veal or chicken is sauteed with capers, lemon, butter and parsley.

Muffaletta Sandwich -  a big Italian sandwich made with meats, cheese and an olive and caper spread.

Tartar Sauce - A very famous simple sauce typically used on fish.

Are All Capers Edible?

The edible capers are the Capparis spinosa.  There are other types of capers which are not edible for example the Hawaiian Capparis sandwichiana.  The plant looks almost identical to the spinosa caper but the flowers are even larger and a beautiful light yellow.  You can see these out by the lava flows in Maui and even more so on the Big Island. 

hawaiian caper flower

Caper Seed Sources & Growing Information

Eden Brothers - These beauties will grow up to 40" tall.

Ucdavis.edu - Capers A New Crop For California

Rarexoticseeds.com - Sells caper seeds in packet sizes of 15 to 2000 seeds.

author

Barbara Bowman graduated with degree in Foods and Nutrition from San Jose State University. As CEO of GourmetSleuth.com she spends most waking hours writing, cooking, eating, gardening and traveling.