Marianne CannonHow to grow (and preserve) capers

Capers are those little green ‘berries’ that you can buy either packed in salt or pickled in jars. Their sharp and distinctive, piquant flavour is an essential ingredient in many Mediterranean dishes. Spaghetti alla puttenesca is chockers with capers, or you could try caper butter on crusty bread, or capers as a stuffing for fish…yum! But did you know that they’re not actually a berry or even a fruit at all, but the unopened flower bud of the caper bush?

Capparis growing in northern Italy

Caper bush, Capparis spinosa, growing in northern Italy showing unopened flower buds ready for harvesting

Caper bush, Capparis spinosa (or also Capparis spinosa var rupestris and Capparis spinosa var inermis), produces these unopened flower buds, which have been used in cooking for over 5000 years. Cleopatra was said to have served them at feasts to win the love of both Mark Anthony and Julius Caesar. Now that’s a caper! They are also reputed to have medicinal properties , such as treating dermatitis.

Caper bush grows well in very dry conditions as they come from the Mediterranean, northern Africa and the Middle East, which means they prefer similar conditions to grapes, olives and pistachios. Morocco, Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey all have commercial caper growing industries. In Australia, capers are grown In both Western and South Australia such as on the dry rocky slopes above the Murray River with no extra irrigation. In the USA, caper bush thrives in coastal California, and they’re grown successfully in South Africa and New Zealand as well. (See seed/plant suppliers below.)

Salted capers Photo James F. Carter

Salted capers Photo James F. Carter

So why grow them yourself? Do you eat capers, or discreetly pick them out of the restaurant food you’ve ordered? Chances are that those little shrivelled up green things that you might not like are often inferior quality imported capers that haven’t been packed in the right medium. You also can’t buy organic capers so you might want home grown to avoid those additives you don’t want to eat. And because you’ve picked and pickled them fresh, they’ll have a much better and more intense flavour.

Caper bush, showing the long flowering stems

Caper bush, showing the long flowering stems and rounded leaves

Caper bush grows to only 1 metre (3ft) tall, and spreads to about 1.5m (5ft) wide. It has rounded grey-green leaves and a sprawling habit, so it also makes a good spill-over plant at the top of a wall, which is often how you see them being grown in Italy. They even grow out of crevices in rocks and building (including the Colosseum in Rome). They also make good espaliers, which means the flower buds are also easy to see and pick.

Some varieties have sharp spines but most of the commercial varieties are thornless. It’s a long-lived, low maintenance plant as it doesn’t need any supplementary watering after establishment and will grow on poor, stony or sandy soils. The deep root system can access water deeper in the soil than other surrounding plants, and caper bushes also have delicate roots right on the surface that pick up the morning dew. They do need FULL sun – that’s at least 6 hours of intense sunlight each day, and also well-drained soil. Commercial plantings are often on top of 200-300mm of mounded soil to ensure good drainage. You can add a bit of lime and compost at planting.

Caper bush likes hot summer temperatures and low humidity – apparently the leaves will sometimes develop odd pock marks on the surface if the humidity it too high. But it’s also very frost hardy, growing happily down to Zone 7. In cold climates (less than minus 10º C = 15º F) you can grow them in a pot and bring them inside during the winter. Caterpillars are the main pest threat, especially during summer.

Caper flower

Caper flower

The fragrant flowers (if you haven’t harvested all the buds) are very pretty, with long purple stamens but they only last for one day, like a hibiscus.

Pruning: caper bush is (mostly) winter dormant/semi-deciduous and this is the time to prune it right back to a stump, to encourage lots of new flowering shoots during the following summer and to make a much more attractive, compact bush.

Caper buds ready for harvesting

Tight caper buds ready for harvesting, and some that have already split, revealing the flower petals

Harvesting caper buds: you need to pick them when the bud is still nice and tight, which means early in the morning is the best time before the bud starts to unfurl in the heat of the day. The caper bush should continue to make new buds right through the warmer months. If you miss the ‘tight bud’ harvesting window, let them flower and go to seed, as these can also be pickled, and you can also eat the fresh new shoots.

Pickled capers

Pickled capers

How to pickle capers: traditionally you just soak them in salt water for a day, then you wash off the salt and store them in white wine vinegar. Alternatively you can age them in coarse salt, stirring occasionally, for a couple of weeks, draining off any liquid. Then you wash off that salt and store them in fresh, dry salt. When you want to use them, just soak the caper buds and wash off all the salt as it’s only there as a preservative. A good brining solution is 40g (1¼oz) of salt to 250ml (8oz) water.

Being flower buds, they’re low in calories at only 23kCal per 100g. They’re high in anti-oxidants and contain good amounts of vitamins A, K, niacin and riboflavin plus minerals like calcium, iron and copper.

Capparis fruit Photo by Clematis

Capparis fruit Photo by Clematis

Where to buy caper bush: Although you can try germinating seed, it’s very difficult unless the seed is super fresh, after which it requires both soaking and stratification (= a couple of months in the fridge). Cuttings taken from 1 year old wood are the most likely to succeed.

In Australia you can order them online from Caper Plants, or Diggers will sometimes have seed. In the USA, contact San Marcos Growers for a retailer near you, or buy online from Easy to Grow Bulbs.com. In the UK, buy caper seed from Chiltern Seeds. In New Zealand, try Country Trading Co for caper seeds. In South Africa, you should be able to get caper seeds from Seeds for Africa.

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Marianne Cannon

About Marianne Cannon

Marianne Cannon has been broadcasting as Real World Gardener on radio 2RRR 88.5fm in Sydney, since September 2009, and the program is now syndicated to radio stations around Australia. It's about growing your own, the abc of plants, and how to create sustainable gardens to fit into today's environment. Not just a show about plants; it has a strong green and ecological bent, with co-presenters addressing issues such as native animals and plants, water conservation, composting, reducing waste, protecting native species and more.

11 thoughts on “How to grow (and preserve) capers

  1. Hi Marianne, we have been producing award winning caper products since 2006, your pickling comments are a bit off to get really good flavour from the capers. If I can get an email address Ill send you our little screed we have written about growing and pickling capers. Also we produce about 1000 caper seedlings a year, for commercial and home gardeners. Cheers, Barry Porter. Kolophon Capers, Riverland, SA

    • Melissa Clarken on said:

      Hi Barry
      I would be interested in purchasing some plants can you please advise cost and what size the plants are. I live in the Murray district of sa.
      Thank you
      Kind regards
      Melissa

      • Hi Melissa, yes we have plants for sale, we are in the Riverland, (Berri area and travel a lot so can deliver) $8 each, give me a ring, phone number on Kolophoncapers website, and we can organise a number and delivery. Its planting time now and all the plants are shooting, cheers, Barry

  2. bob sands on said:

    i think i would like to try to grow the caper and if all works out i will grow more to harvest and sell. i have 14 acres in the riverland not far from manum and a large shed to wash and prepare them just need a litle help on growing and washing and preparation for sale and of course need to get some good young plants to start me off

    • Email us direct or ring in a couple of days on my mobile, all details on Kolophon Capers Website. Cheers, Barry

  3. Katrina on said:

    Hi Barry
    I would like to grow a few plants in my little house garden. Do you know of a supplier around the blue mountains who sell me a small amount of seedlings?
    Cheers Katrina

    • Hi Katrina, if you are in the blue mountains, they will probably grow alright as long as you have a hot north facing site for them. They will go dormant in winter. We do sell plants by mail order, give us a call on mobile or an email direct and Ill give you details and our caper growing info sheet. All contact details are on our website, Kolophoncapers.

  4. Branka Gregor on said:

    Hi Barry,
    we love capers!! Want to try and grow here beachside on KI (home use only) but the soil is very sandy. Will this be a problem? Can I plant now (Feb). How old does a plant have to be before fruit is produced. Thanks Regards B

  5. Anne on said:

    Hello just read your article on capers, I was reminded to look them up as I have just seen them growing out of the walls of the Coliseum in Rome, as you mention in your article. I think they might like to grow in a large terracotta pot and be brought in out of the rain in the winter, in the soggy SW of the UK.

    • Hello Anne,

      Even though they’re recommended to grow here in the NSW Blue Mountains which on occasion does snow there, I think your plant might struggle a bit.
      Still there’s no harm in giving it a go. Regards Marianne

      • They need heat in the growing season. We are in the Riverland SA, 100km further South caper plants are 3 weeks later in harvest and 10-15% less productive. However for a home person, plenty of sun with a reflective sun facing wall behind will help in higher latitudes

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