Capers—Capparis spinosa L.1

James M. Stephens 2

Capers are unopened flower buds produced on the caperbush. This shrubby perennial plant grows 3–5 feet high, with numerous branches, bearing a pair of hooked spines at the base of each leaf stalk. Leaves are alternate, round to ovate, thick, and glistening. Flowers are about 2 inches in diameter, white with numerous violet stamens, and very pleasing in appearance. Seeds are large, kidney shaped, and gray-brown in color. There is also a variety without spines, from which the crop is gathered more easily and without injury to the hands.

Caperbush is native to the Mediterranean region where the plant is still grown commercially. Little if any is grown in the United States, even in home gardens. Capers shipped to Britain and other European countries generally are grown in Spain and Africa. Southern Russia was a major exporter at one time. In Northern Africa the most commonly used caper is the Timbuctoo caper (C. sodala). A popular South African caper is C. corymbifera.

Use

Capers are picked daily since the youngest flowerbuds (about the size of peas) have the highest quality. Capers are valued in proportion to the smallness of their size. They are pickled in vinegar or sometimes in salted vinegar. Both the capers and the young berries are used in sauces and pickling, primarily in European dishes.

Culture

Little is known about the culture of capers in the United States or Florida. The literature indicates that the caperbush can be cultivated profitably only in the climate of the olive tree, where it is almost always planted in dry stony places, on embankments, and other difficult to use areas.

Caperbush can be propagated from seed, but finding a seed source is difficult. A search of the U.S. herb and vegetable seed catalogs reveals no mention of capers. Anyone in Florida who finds a start might have luck growing it in a large pot using crumbled brick or other coarse material.

Figure 1. Anatomy and life cycle of caper
Figure 1.  Anatomy and life cycle of caper
Credit: Otto Wilhelm Thomé 

Footnotes

1. This document is HS573, one of a series of the Horticultural Sciences Department, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date May 1994. Revised September 2015. Reviewed October 2018. Visit the EDIS website at https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.
2. James M. Stephens, professor emeritus, Horticultural Sciences Department; UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.

Publication #HS573

Date: 2018-10-28
Horticultural Sciences

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