In the Arboretum Today
By Alfredo Chiri

CAPER PLANT - Capparis spinosa - Capparaceae
Donated by: Fullerton Arboretum and planted in 1999 (r.f.-04)
Common names: Caperbush, caper, caperberry, cappero, lussef, tapana

The caper is a straggling spiny shrub three feet high. It is found in Mediterranean regions, the East Indies and the Orient. This species furnishes buds, which are a substitute for the capers utilized commercially, C. aphylla and C. horrida.

It is used as a caper in many areas of the world. The preserved buds have received wide distribution as a vegetable. Ancient Greeks knew the caper, and the renowned Phryne, at the first period of her residence in Athens, was a dealer in capers. The Greeks of the Crimea eat the sprouts, which resemble those of the asparagus, as well as the bud, shoot, and, in short, every edible part of the shrub.

About 1755 Henry Laurens imported capers into South Carolina. They were also raised successfully for two years in Louisiana before 1854, but the plants perished from frost.

Capers are immature flower buds that have been pickled in vinegar or preserved in raw salt. The young shoots with small leaves and the non-mature fruits can be pickled and used as a condiment. Capers are commonly used in pasta sauces, fish, meats and salads to add aroma and spicy flavor.

Full sun is the preferred environment for caper plants. Plants grow in zones which are considered semi-dry and will survive summertime temperatures in the range of 105 F and winter temperatures to 18 F.

In the wild, caper plants grow in between cracks and crevices of rocks or stonewalls having poor soils. Mature plants develop large root systems to penetrate deeply into the earth. The caper's vegetative growth covers soil surfaces, which in many cases is used to conserve soil water reserves.

Some leaf stipules may become spines. Flowers are born on first-year branches. Pollination is by insects, and mature fruits are dehiscent (natural bursting of the fruit to discharge its content).

Caper plants can be propagated from seeds or stem cuttings. Propagation from seeds is somewhat slow. The minuscule seeds are slow to mature. Fresh seeds will germinate readily, but dried seeds become dormant and
are difficult to germinate, requiring extra measures to grow. Stem cuttings are collected from February to April. The collected cuttings should be 3/8 of an inch thick and 6.5 inches long with 6 to 10 buds.

Plants are pruned back in winter to remove dead wood and watersprouts. Heavy branch pruning is necessary, as flowers arise on one-year-old branches. Caper plantings will last 20 to 30 years.