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Capers

Contributor Ben Alkire
email: alkire@benzalco.com

Copyright © 1998. All Rights Reserved. Quotation from this document should cite and acknowledge the contributors.


  1. Common Names
  2. Scientific Names
  3. Culinary Uses
  4. Medicinal Uses
  5. Origin, Ecology and Habit
  6. Botany and Taxonomy
  7. Related Species & Genera
  8. Crop Culture
    1. Propagation
    2. Production Practices
    3. Harvesting
    4. Processing
    5. Cultivars
    6. Diseases and Pests
  9. Germplasm
    1. Collections
    2. Commercial Sources
  10. Key References
  11. Selected Experts


Common Names

English: caper, caperberry, caperbush
French: câprier, câpres, fabagelle, tapana
German: kapper, Kapernstrauch
Italian: cappero, capperone (fruit)
Spanish: alcaparro,caparra, t‡pana; alcaparr—n (berries)
Portuguese: alcaparra
Dutch: kappertjes
Russian: kapersy
Hungarian: kapricserje
Swedish: kapris
Finnish: kapris
Estonian: torkav, kappar
Egyptian: lussef
Bengali: kabra
Hindi: kiari, kobra
Punjabi: kabarra

Scientific Names

Species: Capparis spinosa L. (syn. Capparis rupestris)
also Capparis ovata Desf.
Family: Capparidaceae (or Capparaceae)

Culinary Uses

Capers of commerce are immature flower buds which have been pickled in vinegar or preserved in granular salt. Semi-mature fruits (caperberries) and young shoots with small leaves may also be pickled for use as a condiment.

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: methyl isothiocyanate (released from glucocapparin molecules) arising from crushed plant tissues .

Capers make an important contribution to the pantheon of classic Mediterranean flavors that include: olives, rucola (argula, or garden rocket), anchovies and artichokes.

Tender young shoots including immature small leaves may also be eaten as a vegetable, or pickled. More rarely, mature and semi-mature fruits are eaten as a cooked vegetable. Additionally, ash from burned caper roots has been used as a source of salt.

Medicinal Uses

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 use.

Origin

There is a strong association between the caperbush and oceans and seas. Capparis spinosa is said to be native to the Mediterranean basin, but its range stretches from the Atlantic coasts of the Canary Islands and Morocco to the Black Sea to the Crimea and Armenia, and eastward to the Caspian Sea and into Iran. Capers probably originated from dry regions in west or central Asia. Known and used for millennia, capers were mentioned by Dioscorides as being a marketable product of the ancient Greeks. Capers are also mentioned by the Roman scholar, Pliny the Elder.

Ecology and Habit

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 branches.

Botany and Taxonomy

Division: Anthophyta
Class: Magnoliopsida
SubClass: Dilleniidae
Order: Capparidales
Family: Capparidaceae (or alternatively Capparaceae)
Genus: Capparis
Species: spinosa

The genus Cleome (Spiderflower) is sometimes included in the Capparidaceae, but more modern interpretations place Cleome into its own family, the Cleomaceae. Phylogenists agree that the Brassicaceae (Cruciferae) and the Capparidaceae are closely related families.

C3 physiology has been recorded for the genus Capparis. Pollination is by insects. Mature fruits are dehiscent.

Related Species and Genera

According to George H. M. Lawrence (1951) the pantropical genus Capparis includes 350 species; including the following:

Capparis brevispina - Indian caper
Capparis decidua(Capparis aphylla) - Sodad, Kureel, Pasi, Ker. Used as a pot herb and pickle. (India, Arabia, North Africa)
Capparis cynophallophora (C. jamaicensis) Jamaica Caper Tree
Capparis flexuosa L. - Bay Leaf Caper
Capparis horrida (syn. C. zeylanica) Fruits are pickled. Also used as a rubefacient.(Tropical Asia and Malaysia)
Capparis mariana - formerly grown as a commercial crop in Guam.
Capparis micrantha - Melada, Caper Thorn. SE asia, Indonesia.
Capparis michellii - Aboriginal Pomegranate, Wild Orange (Australia)
Capparis montana (Aublet) Lemee (syn. Voyara montana) Tree from French Guiana
"The seeds resemble the seeds of an orange. They are enclosed in a gelatinous pulp which is sweet and good to eat." F. Aublet 1775.
Capparis mooni - from India
Capparis nobillis - Wild Lime (Australia)
Capparis ovata - Caper (Mediterranean)
C. pittieri edible fruit (Tropical America)
Capparis umbonata - native to Australia
Capparis sepiaria - Indian Caper (Asia and East African Coasts)
Capparis tomentosa - Kowangee. Cooked leaves are eaten in times of famine. (tropical Africa)

Capparis fascicularis and Capparis tumentosa ( tomentosa?) have been reported to have poisonous fruits.

Related Economic Genera:
Crateva religiosa (syn. Crataeva religiosa) - Garlic Pear (Tropical Africa and Asia)
Crateva tapia - Tapia, Zapotilla Amarillo (Tropical America)
Polensia - an ornamental flower
Polanisia dodecandra Clammy-weed
Cleome hasslerana (syn. C. spinosa) - Spider Flower

Isomeris arboria - "California Caper" or Bladderpod indigenous to Southern California, USA and Baja Norte, Mexico. Grows well in arid conditions and is a prolific producer of seeds (3mm dia) and fruit which contains glucosinolates. Dried seeds are rich in fatty acid oil and protein, each comprising over 40% in seed weight.

Crop Status

Locally, capers are collected from wild plants within their natural range. European sources are Spain (Almeria, Grenada and Balearic Islands), France (Provence), and Italy (especially Sicily and the Aeolian island of Salina and the Mediterranean island of Pantelleria). Capers are also cultivated in Dalmatia and Greece. Other areas of production include Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Asia minor, Cyprus and the Levant, the coastal areas of the Black Sea, and Iran.

Areas with intensive caper cultivation production include Spain (2,600 hectares) and Italy (1000 hectares). Statistics for France, Greece, North African countries and Asia are not reported.


In Colombia, it has been reported that buds of one species of Cassia, pickled in sour vinegar with cloves, have been falsely sold as capers.

Crop Culture

Propagation

Plants are grown from seed and by vegetative cuttings.

From seed:
Caper seeds are miniscule and are slow to nurture into transplantable seedlings. Fresh caper seeds germinate readily - but only in low percentages. Dried seeds become dormant and are notably difficult to germinate and therefore require extra measures to grow. Dried seeds should be initially immersed in warm water (40°C or 105°F ) and then let soak for 1 day. Seeds should be wrapped in a moist cloth, placed in a sealed glass jar and kept in the refrigerator for 2 - 3 months. After refrigeration, soak the seeds again in warm water overnight. Plant the seeds about 1 cm deep in a loose well drained soil media. Young caper plants can be grown in a greenhouse (preferable minimum temperature of 10°C or 50°F).

Stem Cuttings:
Collect cuttings in February, March or April. Use stems from the basal portions, greater than 1 cm diameter and 8 cm in length with 6-10 buds. Use a loose well drained media with bottom heat. A dip in a IBA solution of 1.5 to 3.0 ppm is recommended (15 seconds). A 70% rooting percentage would be considered good.

Production Practices

Transplanting is carried out during the wet winter and spring periods, and first-year plants are mulched with stones.

In Italy, plants are spaced 2 to 2.5 meters apart (depending on the roughness of the topography; about 2,000 plants per hectare). A full yield is expected in 3 to 4 years. Plants are pruned back in winter to remove dead wood and watersprouts. Pruning is crucial to high production. Heavy branch pruning is necessary, as flower buds arise on one year old branches. Three year old plants will yield 1 to 3 kilograms of caper flower buds per plant.

Grown from seed, in California caperbushes reportedly begin to flower in the fourth year, however Italian sources report some flowering from first year transplants.

Caper plantings will last 20 to 30 years.

Harvesting

The unopened flower buds should be picked on a dry days. Harvesting is carried out regularly throughout the growing season. In Southern Italy, caper flower buds are collected by hand about every 8 to 12 days, resulting in 9 -12 harvest times per season.

Processing

Capers are preserved either in vinegar or under layers of salt in a jar. Raw capers are bland flavored and need to be cured to develop their piquant flavor. In Italy, capers are graded on a scale from '7' to '16', which indicates their size in millimeters. Mechanized screens are used to sort the various sized capers after being hand-picked from the hillsides.

In French speaking countries, capers are graded using the terms 'Nonpareilles' and 'Surfines'. Capers under a centimeter diameter are considered more valuable than the larger Capucines and Communes (up to one and a half centimeters of diameters).

Capers in vinegar are traditionally packaged in tall narrow glass bottles.

Caper fruits (caperberry, capperone, or taperone) may be used in making caper flavored sauces, or sometimes pickled for eating like small gherkins.

Cultivars and Varieties

Varieties have been selected for spinelessness, round firm buds, and flavor. High-yielding caper plants and types with short and uniform flowering periods have not been developed.

'senza spina' Italian selection or form without stipular spines.
'spinosa comune' - Italian form with stipular spines
'inermis' - without stipular spines.
'josephine' - one of the better Mediterranean selections
'aculeata'
'dolce di Filicudi e Alicudi' - From the Aeolian Archipelago
'nuciddara' or 'nucidda'
'nocellana'- spineless, with globose buds, mustard-green color, and strong aroma
'testa di lucertola'
'tondino' - grown on the island of Pantelleria

Diseases and Pests

Viruses:

Viruses are transmitted by mechanical inoculation; by grafting, and vegetative propagation of cultivated varieties. Certain insect pests may also be vectors.
Two viruses: Caper Latent Carlavirus, and Caper Vein Yellowing Virus have been reported in Puglia, Italy

Fungi:
Albugo capparidis De By
Aschochyta capparidis (Cast.) Sacc.
Botrytis - gray mold
Camarosporium suseganense Sacc. et Speg.
Cercospora capparidis Sacc.
Cloeosporium hians Peck et Sacc.
Hendersonia rupestrisSacc. et Speg.
Leptosphaeria capparidisPass.
Phoma capparidinaPass.
Phoma capparidisPass.
Phyllosticta capparidisSacc. et Speg.
Septoria capparidisSacc.

Insects pests:
Acalles barbarus Lucas - a weevil that attacks roots
Asphondylia capparis Rubs. - a dipterian (Cecidomyiidae) that disfigures flower buds.
Calocoris memoralis Sacc.
Cydia capparidana Zeller - a lepidopteran that disfigures flower buds.
Eurydema ventralis Kolen

Germplasm Collections

Istituto di Coltivazioni Arboree - University of Palermo, Italia

Istituto di Coltivazioni Arboree- Universita 'di Napoli, Frederico II, Italy

National Council of Research, Germplasm Institute
Istituto di Agronomia Generale e Coltivazioni Erbacee
Via Amendola 165/A
70125 Bari, ITALIA

Instituto de Agricultura Sostenible
Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas
Alameda del Obispo, Apartado 4084
14080 Cordoba Spain
tel: 9-57-49-92-00, fax: 9-49-92-52

Commercial Seed and Plant Sources

Pacific Tree Farms
4301 Lynwood Drive
Chula Vista California
tel: 619-422-2400
- sells caper plants in containers

Richters
PO Box 26
Goodwood Ontario
ON LOC 1AO
416-640-6677
- sells seeds

Park Seed Company
Cokesbury Rd
Greenwood South Carolina 29647-0001
- sells seeds

San Marcos Growers (Wholesale inquiries only)
P.O. Box 6827
Santa Barbara, CA 93160
Phone, Fax and E-mail:
Phone:(805) 683-1561
Fax:(805) 964-1329
E-Mail:sales@smgrowers.com

Source of Salted Capers (from Pantelleria, Italy):

Gaeta Imports
141 John St.
Babylon, NY 11702
1-800-669-2681

Sandeman Seeds
E-mail: Sandemanseed@btinternet.com
The Croft, Sutton
Pulborough, West Sussex RH20 1PL
United Kingdom
Tel: 44 (0)1789 869315
Fax: 44 (0)1789 869400

XARMA Pty. Ltd. (source of improved capper clones)
PO Box 37
Eagle Heights
Queensland 4271 AUSTRALIA
Tel: +61 7 5545 4078
Email: rfossard@onthenet.com.au
Internet: http://www.xarma.com.au/capers.htm

Key Caper References

The Caper Bush. Robert E. Bond. In: The Herbalist. 1990. v56 pp77-85.

Caper. Demetrios G. Kontaxis In: Specialty and Minor Crops Handbook 1997. Pub. 3346. The Small Farm Center, UC DANR. Oakland, CA

Cornucopia - A Sourcebook for Edible Plants. Stephen Facciola. 1991 Kampong Publications.

Caper. In: Herbs - An Indexed Bibliography. 1971-1980. Simon, J.E., A.F. Chadwick and L.E. Craker. 1984. Archon Books, 770 pp., Hamden, CT.

Mediterranean Gardening - Capers

In vitro propagation of caper (Capparis spinosa L.) G. Ancora and L. Cuozzo. In: XXVIII Conv. Ann. Ital. Gen Agr., 1984. Bracciano, 82-83

Germination of caper (Capparis spinosa L.) seeds. J. Hort. Sci. 1983; 58, 267-270.

The caper culture in Italy. G. Barbera and R. Di Lorenzo. Acta Horticulturae 144, 1984. Spice, Medicinals, Aromatics.

The species of Capparis in the Mediterranean and the near eastern countries. M. Zohary. Bull. Res. Counc. Israel, 1969. 8D, 49-64.

Sturtevant's Edible Plants of the World. E.L. Sturtevant. U.P. Hedrick (Ed.) 1972. Dover. New York. (first Published in 1919)

The genus Capparis (Capparaceae) from the Indus to the Pacific. M. Jacobs. Blumea 1965. 12(3): 385-541

CAPPARACEAE - Botanical Dermatology Database (BoDD). Edited by Richard J. Schmidt, BoDD is an electronic incarnation of BOTANICAL DERMATOLOGY by J. Mitchell & A. Rook (Greengrass, Vancouver, 1979). It may eventually appear in printed form as Mitchell & Rook's BOTANICAL DERMATOLOGY, 2nd edition.

Allergic contact dermatitis from Capparis spinosa L. applied as wet compresses. Contact Dermatitis. 1991. 24(5):382

Contact dermatitis from plants of the caper family, Capparidaceae. J.C. Mitchell. British Journal of Dermatology. 1974. 91:13-20.

Selected Experts


Ron de Fossard, XARMA Pty. Ltd.
PO Box 37
Eagle Heights
Queensland 4271 AUSTRALIA
Tel and Fax: +61 7 5545 4078
Email: rfossard@onthenet.com.au
Internet: http://www.xarma.com.au

Contributors: Matilde Paino D'Urzo and Ben Alkire, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 47907-1165, U.S.A. and Tony Aiello, Director of Horticulture, Morris Arboretum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Copyright © 1998. All Rights Reserved. Quotation from this document should cite and acknowledge the contributors.


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Last update June 28, 2000 bha