How to Grow and Use Capers

Capparis spinosa

I’m always interested in growing plants that offer a solid ROI. And while plants that offer a lovely flower or an unusual leaf shape in exchange for my work in cultivating them are nice, even better is a plant that rewards with something I can put on the dinner table.

Close up of two caper blooms with several unopened flower buds.

And the caper bush fits this bill to a T. Edible flower buds that can be grown for food or beauty? I’m in!

The tragic dichotomy of growing this plant, however, is that in order to harvest its delicious fruit, you rob the plant of its equally spectacular fragrant and white to light pink blooms, which are 2 to 3 inches across and feature numerous, dramatically long purple-pink stamens.

The flowers last about 16 hours, but open successively.

Close up of a single bloom of the Capparis spinosa flower, or caper bush.

The solution is to plant twice as many shrubs as you might otherwise need. Let half bloom, and harvest the capers from the other half. Or you can let the flowers bloom, after which they will produce a caper berry.

Let’s learn more about growing this plant, which is also called Flinders rose.

What are Capers?

Capers are the edible flower bud of the many-branched caper bush, which also produces edible berries. Both are pickled before they are eaten, as they are very bitter when raw. Other parts of C. spinosa are used in medicines and cosmetics.

Close up of a white, ceramic bowl full of pickled caper flower buds.

Olive-shaped C. spinosa berries are larger than caper buds, which are more roundish. Both, when pickled, have a piquant, tangy flavor, though the flavor of the buds is more intense. The berries are also starchier.

A woman's hands holding a white ceramic bowl full of freshly harvested green caper buds.

These pickled bits of goodness are typically used as a seasoning or condiment. They are especially delicious with fish and other oily or rich foods. The berries are sometimes served in cocktails.

Cultivation and History

Native to the Mediterranean, C. spinosa plants require dry heat and lots of sun to grow. They will not survive temperatures below 18°F. In their native environment, they are evergreen. In the caper bush diaspora, however, they may lose their leaves over winter.

Close up of the fresh buds of the caper plant, Capparis spinosa aka Flinders rose

In parts of the country where it gets cold, it’s best to grow C. spinosa in a container and let it overwinter indoors.

Caper bushes can grow three to five feet high and spread four or five feet wide. They like well-drained, rocky soil similar to that favored by another beloved Mediterranean food plant, olive trees.

They like masonry so much, they can be seen growing on the stone walls of ancient buildings throughout Italy!

Caper plant flowering on an ancient wall in Rome, Italy.

Cultivation in the US isn’t rampant, although gardeners in the southwest and in parts of California have had some success.

The climate where I live in Central Texas is often compared to that of the Mediterranean, but local experts that I consulted are unaware of a booming caper bush-growing phenomenon in our area. I might just have to start one!

Propagation

C. spinosa can be tricky to propagate, but here’s some information on the most commonly used methods:

Close up of a caper bush flower and buds growing near an old brick wall.

From Seed

Seeds are best sown when fresh. If this is not possible, the seeds require cold stratification to germinate, and even with the best care, germination can be sporadic and lengthy — as long as three months.

If seeds are not fresh, follow these steps:

  1. Drop seeds into a quart jar filled with warm water (110°F-115°F).
  2. Allow seeds to soak for 12 hours – no need to maintain the water temperature. It’ll cool to room temperature, and that’s fine.
  3. Remove seeds from water, wrap in a moist towel, place in a plastic bag, and refrigerate for 65-70 days.
  4. Remove from the refrigerator and soak again, as in step 2.
  5. Prepare 6-inch clay pots or a deep planting tray with a mix consisting of 50 percent planting mix, and 25 percent each of perlite and sand.
  6. Plant the seeds ¼ to ½ inch deep; water well and keep in a warm (70°F-85°F) place in part or full sun.
  7. Keep soil moist during the germination period, which should start within 3-4 weeks, and continue for as long as three months. Keep in mind that all seeds may not germinate at the same time.
  8. If seedlings become too crowded in the growing container, use scissors to cut off the smaller, weaker seedlings. Don’t pull them up, or you risk damaging the root systems of the healthier seedlings.
  9. When seedlings are 3-5 inches tall, transplant each to a one-gallon container filled with the same planting mix as used for the seeds. Take care not to disturb their root systems.
  10. Water well immediately and cover each container with a plastic bag. If it’s spring or summer, place the container in a shady spot. If it’s winter, put the container in a warm (70°F-85°F) area.
  11. After one week, cut off the top of the plastic bag so the seedlings will be gradually exposed to the natural environment.
  12. Enlarge the opening after another 10 days.
  13. After another week, remove the plastic bags and place the plants in a shaded area.
  14. If transplanting to the ground, do so in early spring after the last frost. If planting in a larger container, do so when your plant is 6-8 inches tall and appears healthy.

From Cuttings

  1. Collect 3- to 4-inch cuttings from stems of the plant that are at least ¼ inch wide.
  2. Insert a pencil into a container of potting mix. Remove the pencil, creati a hole.
  3. Immerse the cut ends into a rooting medium for 15 seconds, and then carefully insert into the holes you created with the pencil.

Keep in mind that your young plant won’t produce flowers for two to three years.

How to Grow

  1. If planting outdoors, choose a site that has very good drainage and no flooding.
  2. Water C. spinosa frequently during its first two years of life. After that, the plant is fairly drought tolerant.
  3. Fertilize with 21-0-0 or 16-16-16 two to three times during spring and summer.
  4. Don’t prune your young plant for the first three years. Thereafter, prune to the ground in November or December.

Growing Tips

  • Good drainage is critical.
  • Water for two years, then let it be.
  • Fertilize when plant is young.

Cultivars to Select

In the US, you won’t find a huge variety of caper bushes for sale. One thing to look for is whether the variety you are considering has thorns, as is typical of the plant, or is one of the more newly developed spineless varieties.

Outsidepride Capparis Spinosa Seeds

‘Senza spina,’ for example, is an Italian spineless variety, whereas ‘spinosa comune’ is an Italian type that does have thorns.

If you’re looking for a live plant, you might be able to find them in the spring at your local nursery.

If you’re feeling adventurous and would like to try growing from seed, consider this packet of 100 seeds from Outsidepride via Amazon.

Managing Pests and Disease

Insects

In the US, you may see weevils, which can be treated by sprinkling diatomaceous earth around the base of your plants.

As of this writing, other insect pests that may affect capers are limited to the Mediterranean. Growers in Italy, Malta, South Africa, Spain, Argentina, and Turkey may be bothered by shield bugs such as Bagrada hilaras, which has been also spotted in California and Arizona. Check out this article to find out how to get rid of these pests.

A number of species of flies, too, are known to bother plants growing in Italy, Malta, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Pakistan, Tunisia, Jordan, and Indonesia. For these pests, try fly paper or insecticidal soap to get rid of them.

Other pests may include butterfly and moth caterpillars which can be treated with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) or beneficial nematodes.

Disease

These bushes may be troubled by fungal infections, which can be treated with a fungicide.

Cucumber mosaic virus (CMV) has been known to spread to caper bushes via aphid infestations, but thus far, this has been limited to the Anatolia region of southern Turkey.

Harvesting

The immature, tight flower buds are ready to pick when they are dark, olive green, and at least 6 millimeters wide (about 1/4 inch). You can also harvest them as they get larger, up to about 14 millimeters (a little over 1/2 inch), after which they’ll start expanding into their flower form.

A pair of female hands picks caper buds and blooms from the vines.

The smaller they are, the more desirable, and therefore, the more expensive. Each size has been given a label, as follows:

  • Non-pareil: up to 7 mm
  • Surfines: 7-8 mm
  • Capucines: 8-9 mm
  • Capotes: 9-11 mm
  • Fines: 11-13 mm
  • Grusas: 14+ mm

Pick them by hand in the morning when they’ve reached the size you desire. If your plant has thorns, be sure to wear gloves to protect your hands.

Preserving

Alas, unlike many other garden fruits such as tomatoes, capers cannot be eaten raw.

Well, they can be, but they’re a bitter mouthful.

Top down view of a commercially harvested caper buds mixed with rock salt as part of the brining process.

Much like olives, you can preserve capers with salt or with vinegar. For either, you’ll start by carefully picking through your harvest, removing stems and loose debris. Rinse thoroughly in a colander. Soak the capers in clean water for three days, changing the water every day.

To Preserve in Salt:

  1. Dry the fruit with a dish towel.
  2. Layer the capers in a small jar. Add several capers, then a teaspoon of coarse sea salt, and repeat. Screw on the jar’s lid and shake up to distribute the salt. Remove the lid and replace with one layer of a paper napkin or cheesecloth. Use a rubber band to secure the covering.
  3. Place the jar in a place where it will get airflow, but not in direct sunlight.
  4. Every day, drain the liquid that accumulates, and add another teaspoonful of salt.
  5. After about a week, or when the capers stop producing liquid, transfer to a clean jar and top with a lid.
  6. Store on a shelf in a cool, dark place for up to a year. Rinse the salt off before use.

To Pickle:

  1. To preserve one cup of capers, thoroughly mix a solution of 1 cup apple cider vinegar, 1 cup water, and 2 tablespoons coarse, non-iodized salt until salt dissolves.
  2. Place the capers in a jar, pour the solution over the top, screw on the lid, shake gently, and store in the refrigerator. They’ll be ready to eat after about one week, but will be even tastier after a month.

Three jars of homemade pickled capers on a white and red tablecloth.

Incidentally, the leaves are edible too, sometimes eaten raw but other times pickled.

Quick Reference Growing Chart

Plant Type: Perennial Flower Color: Multi-color blooms with purple, cream, yellow
Native To: Mediterranean Tolerance: Drought
Hardiness (USDA Zone): 8-11 Maintenance: Low
Season: Late spring, summer Soil Type: Rocky
Exposure: Full sun Soil pH: 7.5-8 is optimal, tolerates 6.1-8.5
Time to Maturity: 2 years Soil Drainage: Well-draining
Spacing: 2-3 feet Companion Planting: Sage
Planting Depth: 1/4-1/2 inch Uses: Edible landscaping, mass plantings, herb garden
Height: 2-3 feet Family: Caperaceae
Spread: 3-6 feet Genus: Capparis
Water: Low once established Species: C. spinosa
Attracts: Bees, butterflies, hummingbirds
Pests & Diseases: In N. America, weevils, butterfly and moth larvae, fungal infections

Recipes and Cooking Ideas

Now we get to the best part. The eating part. How about we start with a classic Greek salad? This one calls for chopped tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers, in addition to capers.

And for the main course, consider Homemade Einkorn Ravioli with Sundried Tomato, Capers and Ricotta.

Another main course option is Chicken Piccata, a classic use of these tasty orbs.

Or, Just Grow Nasturtiums

This plant is not widely grown in the US and I think we should change that, don’t you? Just look at those beautiful flowers! Why not add this beauty to your landscape and create a conversation piece? Your neighbors will be green with envy.

Close up of caper leaves and flower buds. No open blooms.

After this plant becomes established, it’s easy to care for, and drought tolerant. You can pick the flower buds or leave them. Just be sure to bring it indoors to overwinter, unless you live where temps don’t drop below 18°F.

Are you willing to take a chance on something new and interesting — on a plant that gives back in the form of tiny green globes of goodness?

Orange flowers of Nasturtium floridanum.
Nasturtium (shown above) may be a good temperate candidate to grow as a caper substitute in cooler climates.

Oh, I have to let you in on a secret, now that we’ve been through all this together. Nasturtium seeds are said to have a similar taste to that of capers. So if a caper bush isn’t in your future, consider growing nasturtiums instead.

Perhaps you’ve already grown a caper bush? Share your experience in the comments section below.

If you’re looking for other flowering plants with edible blossoms or buds, consider these:

© Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Product images via Outside Pride. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.

About Gretchen Heber

A former garden editor for a daily newspaper in Austin, Texas, Gretchen Heber goes through entirely too many pruners and garden gloves in a year’s time. She’s never met a succulent she didn’t like and gets really irritated every 3-4 years when Austin actually has a freeze cold enough to kill them. To Gretchen, nothing is more rewarding than a quick dash to the garden to pluck herbs to season the evening meal. And it’s definitely time for a happy dance when she’s able to beat the squirrels to the peaches, figs, or loquats.

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Norbert Feyling

I have several capers planted in full sun, in a light mix that drains well.  Here in Novato, California summer daytime temps are routinely in the 85-100 F range.  They get light, but regular water.  I have not fertilized.  The adjacent olive trees, roses and strawberries are doing fine.  My older plants do not grow and my new ones are dying back.  What the heck do I do?  I am unable to attach photos.
Norbert Feyling