Capparis spinosa, or caper bush, is an useful and beautiful plant in the Caper Family, the Capparidaceae, which also includes Cleome and our native California bladderpod, Isomeris arboreus. The caper bush is a native Mediterranean plant with a
natural distribution from coastal regions of the entire Mediterranean Sea basin west to the Canary Islands and Morocco. It is thought however that its ancient habitat was the dry areas of Western or Central Asia. One reason for this speculation is the word "caper" itself, which comes from the Greek kápparis, whose origin is probably the Near or Middle East.
The caper bush grows as a low mounding shrub to 2-3 ft tall with arching red stems and dark green, semi-succulent round leaves. From May until September plants bear a profusion of flower buds, which are the edible capers of commerce. Left unpicked these buds form delicately scented pinkish-white flowers, adorned with long lavender stamens, that open at dawn and close late in the afternoon. Since the range of capers bush's habitat coincides with the region that has been the center of civilization for many millennia, little if any of its natural habitat has been undisturbed. The description of its habitat now usually includes locations where it is clinging to abandoned walls and castles or covering rock piles. There are several variants of the species. The true species of Capparis spinosa has stipular spines, as the specific epithet would imply. The varietal form that San Marcos Growers produces, C. spinosa var. inermis,
lacks these spines. Other Capparis spinosa varieties listed are var. aegyptia, var. canescens, var. galeata, var. mariana, var. rupestris (another without stipular spines). Additionally many selections have been named; these include 'Aculeata' , 'Dolce di Filicudi e Alicudi' (from the Aeolian Archipelago), 'Nocellana' (spineless, with globose buds, mustard-green color, and strong aroma), 'Nuciddara' or 'Nucidda', 'Senza Spina' (an Italian selection without stipular spines), 'Spinosa Comune' (an Italian form with stipular spines), 'Testa di Lucertola' and 'Tondino' (grown on the island of Pantelleria).
Capparis spinosa has a long history of being cultivated; capers were noted as being a marketable commodity for the ancient Greeks by Dioscorides and their use was mentioned by the Roman scholar, Pliny the Elder. In this several millennia of use a simple rule for cultivation of caper bush has developed, that is to give plants a similarly harsh condition as it would grow in naturally. Caper bushes thrive when planted in lean well drained soil in a hot sunny location with it little or no water. Although appreciative of some summer irrigation in well drained soil, a sure way to kill a caper bush is to over water it.
Tip growth can be damaged by temperatures in the mid 20's ° F but plants are root hardy down to at least 18 ° F. A simple rule of thumb is that the caper bush can be planted
where the olive tree grows. As an ornamental plant caper bushes can be an attractive loose groundcover, a specimen small shrub or can be used as an espalier, which
presents the flower buds well for picking. The caper bush is salt-tolerant and will flourish along shores within sea-spray zones. As flowers are born on first-year
branches, one can cut back plants back annually without sacrificing flowering and have a healthier and bushier plant.
The caper plant is well known for the culinary properties of the caper, the immature flower buds which have been pickled in vinegar or preserved in granular salt.
They have long been used in recipes of salads, pasta, meat, sauces and garnishes to add a pungent spicy flavor and aroma to food. To make capers, harvest flower blossoms
in the morning immediately before flowering, wash in salted water repeatedly until any sand or grit is removed, then dry and salt down or pickle in vinegar. The smaller
buds, called nonpareilles or surfines are less than one centimeter (~3/8 inch) in diameter and are considered a higher quality than the larger buds, called capucines or
communes. Additionally caperberries (cornichon de câpres), the semi-mature fruits, and young shoots with small leaves can be pickled for use as a condiments. The
tender young shoots also can be used as a vegetable.
The strong flavor of the caper, likened to a peppery mustard, is due to an enzymatic reaction with a mustard oil glycoside named glucocapparin (methyl glucosinolate) that
is released from plant tissues when crushed. This reaction liberates the very pungent methyl isothiocyanate that gives capers much of their flavor. An additional component
of the plant that gives it a unique flavor is rutin, the same bitter flavonoid glycosides found in Rue (Ruta sp.).
The caper had other uses prior to its use in cooking. The first recorded use of the caper bush was for medicinal purposes in 2000 BC by the Sumerians. The ancient Greeks
and Romans also used the plant for these purposes. It has been suggested that Capers have been used or are still being used in reducing flatulence, in the treatment of rheumatism,
anemia, arthritis and gout. Further medical uses include ingesting for improving liver functions, as diuretics, kidney disinfectants.
Synonyms of Capparis spinosa L.
C. aegyptia Lam. - C. spinosa var. aegyptia Boiss.
Other Common Names for Caper
C. baducca Blanco - C. spinosa var. mariana Schumann
C. cartilaginea Decne. - C. spinosa var. galeata Hook.f. & Thomson
C. galeata Fresen - C. spinosa var. galeata Hook.f. & Thomson
C. mariana Jacq. - C. spinosa var. mariana Schumann
C. ovata Desf.
English: caper, caperberry, caperbush
Estonian: Torkav, kappar
French: câprier, câpres, fabagelle, tapana
German: kapper, Kapernstrauch
Hindi: kiari, kobra
Italian: cappero, capperone (fruit)
Spanish: alcaparra, caparra, tápana; alcaparrón (caper: berries)
The following are valuable links for more information on capers. Much of the information on our site came from these sources.
Gernot Katzer's Caper Page
Caper Page at Center for New Crops & Plant Products, at Purdue University
Caper Page at Mediterranean Climate Gardening