closeup of beautiful caper buds and flower

Captivating Capers

Capers (Capparis spinose), the caper bush, also called Flinders rose, is a perennial plant that is known to have round, plump leaves and large fragrant white to light pink flowers. What the plant is best known for though are the edible (unripe/unopened) flower buds (capers) and the oblong fruit that is filled with many seeds (caper berries) that it produces. There are other Capparis species that are used for medicinal or cosmetic purposes. However, these other species are somewhat variable, usually resulting from hybrids, and not reliable to be true capers as we think of them.

This member of the Capparidaceae family, which is closely related to (in the same Order) the Brassicaceae family (which includes romanesco, kale, etc.) originates in the Mediterranean area. It has been used for culinary and medicinal purposes for thousands of years, often showing up in Roman and Greek culture. These little delicacies are harvested individually by hand and dried in the sun. Once dried they’re brined or pickled and sold according to size. The smaller the caper is, the more desired the texture and flavor is. The very smallest of the capers (>7mm) are categorized as non-pareil, which is French for “has no equal”. Even the leaves of the caper can be used. Once dried, they can be used as a substitute for rennet in the making of high quality cheeses.

Capers, which are usually eaten in small quantities, offer, in a 1 tablespoon (8 grams) serving, 2 calories, 0.5 grams of fat and protein, and 1 gram of carbohydrates. Capers give us Vitamins A, K-1, B-2 (riboflavin), B-3 (niacin), B-9 (folate), and the minerals non-heme iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium. Capers can also provide us with the flavonoids rutin and quercetin. These flavonoids help to reduce inflammation and help our body’s ability to fight cancer, heart disease, and cognitive decline.

If you want to grow these exotic delicacies you will need space dedicated just to them in your garden. They grow as bushes that can reach 3’ in height and 5’ in width. You can also plant caper bushes in pots that can be moved inside and outside as needed based on weather conditions. Capers prefer dry heat and full bright sun. Temperatures below 20°F will severely damage or kill them. Also note that it’s best to plant capers as seedlings since seeds are dormant and can be difficult to germinate. However, soaking seeds at room temperature for 24 hours and then keeping them in a wet towel, enclosed in a plastic bag for 8 weeks in the refrigerator, can help the germination success. Be sure to soak your seeds, once removed from the refrigerator, for 24 hours in warm water before planting.

As you go to plant capers, allow at least 6’ between plantings and plant 3-4 seeds together. After about a month you will see caper plants beginning to pop up. As your plant grows and begins producing buds keep an eye on them. As stated before, size matters. The smaller the better. You can let them grow larger than 7mm, they just won’t taste as pungent and delicious, but still very good. When harvesting your capers, remember they are delicate, so be gentle as you pick.

Bees on the caper plant in full bloom along the walls of the castle in the Tuscan site of Populonia

Once picked, you will need to soak your capers. After washing and rinsing them, place capers (about a cup) and 1 cup of water and 1 cup of apple cider vinegar, with 2 tablespoons of salt, in a glass bowl. Once combined, place caper mixture in glass jars and cover. Be sure capers are covered with the water/salt/vinegar mixture. Leave for 3 days. Taste on the 3rd day. If you like the flavor you can use them right away. If not, leave them for additional days, up to 1 week, and taste each day.

When your capers are ready to use, there are so many things you can do with them! Add them to salads, sauces, or any meat dish you think needs a little kick of flavor. One of my favorite things to do with capers is to making dressings and butters. These are simple recipes, but add such an exotic flare and remarkable taste to everyday dishes.

Caper Butter

Ingredients:
½ cup butter
Capers – start with 1 tablespoon and add more if you want a stronger taste. Too strong, just add more butter

Directions:
Place butter and capers in a food processer and blend
The butter is ready to go! Spread on your favorite bread, potatoes, or anything that goes well with butter, including steamed veggies!

Capers Vinaigrette

Ingredients:
2 tablespoons spicy brown mustard
3 tablespoons capers
1 tablespoon dried tarragon
¼ cup vinegar (your choice of variety, I like the fruity ones, such as raspberry blush)
¾ cup olive oil
Fresh ground pepper to taste

Directions:
Place all ingredients in a food processor and blend
Feel free to add more or less of any ingredient based on taste. If the mixture is too thick add a little more olive oil, slowly, a little at a time. Use on your favorite salad and enjoy!

Enchanting Capers

The wonderful, intense flavor of capers is one that will make any dish have flare, style, and zest! They are also beautiful in the garden with their wonderful sweet-smelling blooms. So, to boost your culinary creations, garden spaces, and nutritional profile up a few notches, add capers in your growing and dining repertoire!

References:

Choose My Plate.gov. US Department of Agriculture. SuperTracker. https://www.choosemyplate.gov/tools-supertracker

Mahr, Susan. November 4, 2016. University of Wisconsin. Master Gardener Program. Capers, Capparis spinosa. https://wimastergardener.org/article/capers-capparis-spinosa/

Natural Resource Conservation Service. USDA. Classification for Kingdom Plantae Down to Family Capparaceae. https://plants.usda.gov/java/ClassificationServlet?source=display&classid=Capparaceae

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