Caper (Capparis spinosa).
Flower and buds.
Caper - Capparis spinosa
Capparis spinosa, the caper bush, also called Flinders rose, is a perennial
winter-deciduous plant that bears rounded, fleshy leaves and large white to
pinkish-white flowers. The plant is best known for the edible flower buds (capers), often used as a
seasoning, and the fruit (caper berry), both of which are usually consumed
pickled. Other species of Capparis are also picked along with C. spinosa for their buds or
fruits. Other parts of Capparis plants are used in the manufacture of medicines and
Capparis spinosa is present in almost all the circum-Mediterranean countries, and is included in the floristic composition of most of
them, but whether it is indigenous to this region is uncertain. Although the flora of the Mediterranean region has considerable
endemism, the caper bush could have originated in the tropics or in the dry areas of Western or Central
Asia, and later been naturalized to the Mediterranean basin. Capers can today be found growing wild all over Mediterranean, and are frequently cultivated
(e.g., in France, Spain, Italy and Algeria; furthermore, Iran, Cyprus and Greece produce significant
Caper and its relatives in several European tongues can be traced back to Classical Latin capparis
“caper”. Latin capparis, in turn, was borrowed from Greek kapparis (êÜððáñéò), whose origin
(as that of the plant) is unknown but probably West or Central Asia. Another theory links kapparis to the name of the island Cyprus
(Kypros, Êýðñïò), where capers grow abundantly.
The caper bush (Capparis spinosa) has been introduced as a specialized culture in some European countries in the last four
decades. The economic importance of the caper plant led to a significant increase in both the area under cultivation and production levels during the late 1980s. The main production areas are in harsh environments found in
Morocco, the southeastern Iberian peninsula, Turkey, and the Italian islands of Pantelleria and
Salina. This species has developed special mechanisms to survive in the Mediterranean
conditions, and introduction in semiarid lands may help to prevent the disruption of the equilibrium of those fragile
Dry heat and intense sunlight make the preferred environment for caper
plants. Plants are productive in zones having 350 mm annual precipitation (falling mostly in winter and spring
months) and easily survive summertime temperatures higher than 40° C (105° F).
However, caper is a cold tender plant and has a temperature hardiness range similar to the olive tree (-8° C, 18° F.)
Where native, plants grow spontaneously in cracks and crevices of rocks and stone
walls. Plants grow well in nutrient poor sharply-drained gravelly soils. Mature plants develop large extensive root systems that penetrate deeply into the
earth. Capers are salt-tolerant and flourish along shores within sea-spray zones.
Caper plants are small shrubs, and may reach about one meter
upright. However, uncultivated caper plants are more often seen hanging, draped and sprawling as they scramble over soil and
rocks. The caper's vegetative canopy covers soil surfaces which helps to conserve soil water
reserves. Leaf stipules may be formed into spines. Flowers are born on first-year
The shrubby plant is many-branched, with alternate leaves, thick and shiny, round to ovate in
shape. The flowers are complete, sweetly fragrant, showy, with four sepals, and four white to
pinkish-white petals, many long violet-colored stamens, and a single stigma usually rising well above the
The beauty of caper flowers is as fragile and short-lived as that of poppy
flowers, which are proverbial for their quick wilting: The delicate, cream–white petals and lively purple staminal persist only a few
hours. Moreover, the flowers are rarely seen in caper gardens as the caper bud must be harvested before it
opens. Nevertheless, the flowers of wild caper bushes are a common sight in all countries surrounding the Mediterranean
Sea, extending even to the Sahara in North Africa and the dry regions of Central
Asia, where the plant is thought to have originated.
The salted and pickled caper bud (also called simply capers) is often used as a seasoning or garnish. Capers are a common ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine, especially Cypriot, Italian and Maltese. The mature fruit of the caper shrub are also prepared similarly, and marketed as caper
Capers have a sharp piquant flavor and add pungency, a peculiar aroma and saltiness to comestibles such as pasta
sauces, pizza, fish, meats and salads. The flavor of caper may be described as being similar to that of mustard and black
pepper. In fact, the caper strong flavor comes from mustard oil.
Buds, to be harvested in the morning time immediately before
flowering. The buds, when ready to pick, are a dark olive green and about the size of a fresh kernel of corn. They are picked, then pickled in salt, or a salt and vinegar solution, and
drained. They are never dried. Less often, capers are
preserved by packing in coarse salt. These must be rinsed before usage. Intense flavor is developed as mustard oil (glucocapparin) is released from each caper bud. This enzymatic reaction also leads to the formation of rutin often seen as crystallized white spots on the surfaces of individual caper
Capers are a distinctive ingredient in Italian cuisine, especially in Sicilian and southern Italian cooking. They are commonly used in salads, pasta salads, pizzas, meat dishes and pasta sauces. Examples of uses in Italian cuisine are chicken piccata and spaghetti alla
puttanesca. Capers are also known for being one of the ingredients of tartar sauce. They are also often served with cold smoked salmon or cured salmon dishes (especially lox and cream cheese). Capers are also sometimes substituted for olives to garnish a
martini. If the caper bud is not picked, it flowers and produces a fruit called a caper berry. The fruit can be pickled and then served as a Greek
mezze. Caper leaves, which are hard to find outside of Greece, are used particularly in salads and fish dishes. They are pickled or boiled and preserved in jars with brine -- like caper
buds. Dried caper leaves are also used as a substitute for rennet in the manufacturing of
Caper root bark and leaves may have some anticarcinogenic activity. In fact, the hydrolysis products of indol-3-ylmethyl glucosinolates have anticarcinogenic
effects. Although the consumption of capers is low in comparison with the intake of other major dietary sources of glucosinolates
(white cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower) it may contribute to the daily dose of natural anticarcinogens that reduces cancer
risk. Glucosinolates are also known to possess goitrogenic (anti-thyroid)
activity. Also, rutin and quercetin may contribute to cancer prevention.
Selenium, present in capers at high concentrations in comparison with other vegetable
products, has also been associated with the prevention of some forms of cancer.
Capers are said to reduce flatulence and to be anti-rheumatic in
effect. In ayurvedeic medicine capers (Capers=Himsra) are recorded as hepatic stimulants and
protectors, improving liver function. Capers have reported uses for
arteriosclerosis, as diuretics, kidney disinfectants, vermifuges and tonics. Infusions and decoctions from caper root bark have been traditionally used for
dropsy, anemia, arthritis and gout. Capers contain considerable amounts of the
anti-oxidant bioflavinoid rutin. Caper extracts and pulps have been used in
cosmetics, but there has been reported contact dermatitis and sensitivity from their
In Greek popular medicine, a herbal tea made of caper root and young shoots is considered beneficial against
rheumatism. Dioscoride (MM 2.204t) also provides instructions on the use of
sprouts, roots, leaves and seeds in the treatment of strangury and inflammation.
The caper was used in ancient Greece as a carminative. It is represented in archaeological levels in the form of carbonised seeds and rarely as flower buds and fruits from archaic and Classical antiquity
contexts. Athenaeus in Deipnosophistae pays a lot of attention to the caper, as do Pliny
(NH XIX, XLVIII.163) and Theophrastus.