THE CAPER PLANT
By Harry Orme
As you enter the Herb Garden at the eastern entrance next to the Tea Room (just beyond the lions), one of the first plants encountered is the caper plant. It occurred to me that it would be interesting to do research on this welcoming plant and to share the information developed with our readers.
The caper is botanically classified as follows: Order, Capparidales; Family, Capparidaceae; Genus, Capparis; and Species, spinosa. Its various common names include: caper or caper-bush, caprier (French), kapper (German), cappero (Italian), and alcapparro (Spanish).
The caper’s origin is believed to be in the dry areas of western and central Asia. The use of capers has been recorded for thousands of years. Dry heat and intense sunlight are the plant’s preferred environment, and today it grows wild all over the Mediterranean. Native plants (uncultivated) grow spontaneously in the cracks and crevices of rocks and stone walls, hanging and draped over their rugged surfaces. Capers grow well in nutrient poor but well drained soil, and because they are salt tolerant, the plants may be found near beaches. They are small shrubs and may reach one meter (3.28 feet) in height. Capers are cultivated primarily in Spain, Italy, and France and to a lesser extent in Algeria, Iran, Greece, and Cyprus.
Plants may be grown from seed or vegetative cuttings, however the seeds are minuscule and can be difficult to germinate. Cuttings should be done in February, March, or April. During the winter season the plants must be pruned significantly.
Caper flowers are exquisite, fragile, and short-lived. The delicate, cream white petals and lively purple stamina average 4-5 centimeters (1 1/2 to 2 inches) and last only a few hours. Flowers are rarely seen in cultivated fields as the caper bud must be harvested prior to opening. (Note: Since we do not harvest the buds, we can enjoy the lovely flowers.) The beautiful flowers of wild caper bushes are a common sight in the countries surrounding the Mediterranean. Three year old mature plants should yield 1-3 kilograms (2.2 to 6.6 pounds) of flower buds.
The unopened buds are picked by hand early in the morning on dry days. Every eight to twelve days the buds are collected which results in nine to twelve harvests each season (late spring through summer.) The raw buds are quite bland and need to be cured to develop their piquant flavor. Capers are sorted by mechanical screens of varying fineness and then graded on a scale of 7 to 16, which indicates their size in millimeters. The buds are preserved either in vinegar, oil, or under layers of salt. Capers in vinegar are traditionally packed in tall narrow glass jars. Caper berries, which are the fruits of the caper bush are processed in the same way as buds. These olive to gherkin-shaped fruits have a very strong caper flavor, and their use is mostly restricted to the Spanish market.
Capers consist mostly of water (85%). Their dry matter contains bitter flavonoid (a plant pigment) glycosides (a derivated alcohol), and, in addition, a mustard oil glycoside named glucocapparin, from which the principle of capers, methyl isothiocyanate is liberated by enzymatic action. Among the flavonoids, rutin, a yellowish bio-flavonoid named after its occurrence in rue, is the most important. The white spots often seen covering the surface of the pickled buds are said to be rutin, which crystallized during the pickling.
As a gourmet cook, I have found capers to be essential in many Mediterranean dishes. They are mostly associated with Italian, Spanish, and Cypriot foods. Capers are added to tomato and wine sauces and blend well with poultry and fish. They harmonize with most Mediterranean herbs (basil, oregano, garlic, chervil, and tarragon) and are frequently combined with olives.
The cuisines of central and northern Europe, with their general preference for lightly flavored foods, have also come to utilize the caper. Although their main application is in cold dishes, many sauces, too, owe their special character to the addition of a few chopped capers which must be added as late as possible in the cooking as the capers’ aroma is quickly destroyed by high temperatures. The buds of several other pungent plants have been used as substitutes for capers, but now are quite rare. Nasturtium buds have some culinary merits but cannot compete with capers.
Like many herbs over the past centuries capers have been used to treat various ailments. They are said to reduce flatulence and to be an anti-rheumatic and a diuretic. They do contain considerable amounts of the anti-oxidant bioflavin rutin. As a physician, however, I recommend utilizing capers only as a food additive.
Harry W. Orme, M.D., Herb Garden Docent
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