Capers are one of those foods that so many of us think about growing, but never get around to. I’m suggesting you give it a go because a caper bush is easy to take care of, the fruits are super-yummy, and they’re a great ingredient to have on hand.
Yes, you could buy a jar of capers from the supermarket, but that’s not the same as growing, processing, and eating your own. There is a satisfying feeling only those who grow their own food really know.
So, get your green thumbs out and give this simple, yet tasty plant a chance to end up in your recipes.
What Are Capers?
The capers that you eat on lox and in pasta dishes are the edible immature flower buds of the caper bush (Capparis spinosa). But that’s not the only reason to keep this plant around. It makes a beautiful ornamental, as well.
The plant is native to the Mediterranean and loves the dry heat and sun of the area.
In its native area, the caper bush is an evergreen. The bush may lose its leaves over the winter period or cooler months in chillier regions. It can’t survive below USDA Growing Zone 8.
In modern times, capers are used for food, but have a rich history of medicinal usage. Said to reduce flatulence, capers were used to alleviate the symptoms of arthritis and were mentioned in the writings about ancient Greek markets.
Varieties of Caper Bush
You often find caper bushes sold as a generic bush under the species name, but over the years varieties have been developed that don’t have thorns. There aren’t a lot of varieties available in the US, but some more common ones you may find are:
This is a newer Italian variety that is becoming quite common. It doesn’t have thorns, which is a huge advantage come harvest time.
This is a popular Italian variety that has thorns, but the preserved caper has a very delicious, earthy flavor so it is prized despite its thorns.
‘Josephine’ is a popular Mediterranean variety known for its prolific production of flower buds.
A thorn-less variety that produces capers with a strong, earthy aroma, this variety is popular for use in recipes where the caper flavor is dominant. The foliage is a lighter, mustard-green color.
This is a thorn-less variety that grows to a compact three feet tall. It has bigger flower buds than some of its contemporaries, meaning larger capers for preserving.
Planting and Propagating Caper Bush
I highly recommend buying a plant from a nursery if you’re able to. The main reason for this is propagating caper bush is a little hit-and-miss, but always fun to try. Also, it will take around two to three years to flower. Store-bought plants are generally this age already.
You can start growing capers from seeds, cuttings, or from seedlings.
If you have fresh seeds direct from a caper bush, sow into a good quality seed-raising soil and keep it moist. Read how to get prepared for planting bushes (and trees).
If you have dried seeds from a packet, you need to go through a longer process to get germination.
- Put warm water in a jar. Aim for about 115ºF but not hotter.
- Place the seeds in the water and allow the water to come back to room temperature. Soak for 12 hours.
- Remove the seeds and wrap them in a moist paper towel. Place this in a plastic bag and put it in the freezer for about 70 days.
- When you’re ready to sow, remove the seeds from the freezer and soak them in warm water again.
- Make a mixture of 25 percent sand, 25 percent perlite, and 50 percent seed raising mix.
- Sow the seeds in pots, planting about 1/2 an inch deep.
- Keep the soil moist with a spray bottle and place the pots in a warm area with full to partial sun. The temperature should be around 80ºF.
- In about 3 weeks, you should see germination. Let the plants grow bigger.
Once the seedlings are about five inches tall, transplant them into bigger containers. Be careful of the roots. Caper bush roots are sensitive when young.
Cover the container with a plastic bag and keep the temperature to about 85ºF, in a nice, sunny position.
In one week, cut a hole in the top of the plastic bag. In ten days rip the hole wider and in another week, remove the bag completely. This is to harden the plant off to outside temperatures.
Transplant outside in spring well after the last frost.
Cuttings are a good compromise between growing from seed or buying a caper plant. Its cheap and you don’t have to fiddle with finicky germination, but the plant will reach maturity faster than with seeds.
- Take four to six-inch cuttings with healthy leaves.
- Remove the bottom third of the leaves and dip the stem into some rooting hormone.
- Make a hole with your finger or a pencil in seed-raising soil and plant the cutting.
- Water well and keep in a warm, sunny location.
- In about six weeks, gently pull on the cutting. If there is resistance, the roots are forming. Transplant when you are ready.
How to Care for Caper Bush
Grow capers in USDA Growing Zones 8 to 11. Your caper bush should survive as a perennial that can be cut back by a third at the end of each season after a few years.
The warmer the temperature, the better for your caper bush. If you can successfully grow olive trees, caper bushes should also flourish. Caper bushes have been known to grow in temperatures around 105ºF. They will die at temperatures around 18ºF.
Plant caper bushes in full sun. The more the better. Think of the Mediterranean environment. Try for a minimum of six hours of sunlight a day, but eight or more is better.
Warm, moist areas really these plants.
The soil must be well-draining. Caper bushes prefer a rocky type soil, and often grow wild between rocks and over stone walls. It’s a good idea to work some gravel into the soil around caper bushes. The pH should be around 7.5-8.0 pH.
The benefit of rocky, well-draining soil is the water doesn’t sit.
Water well while the plant is establishing itself, but as the plant matures, it becomes drought tolerant. Areas with around 13 inches of rain are good, but water if the bush starts to droop.
Space plants about 3 feet apart and fertilize them three times over the spring and summer. Use a balanced 16-16-16 fertilizer or similar.
Don’t prune your caper bush for the first three to four years while it’s maturing. After this, prune in December or late November. A good rule of thumb is only to prune once the plant has produced flower buds for harvesting for two years.
Companion Planting for Growing Caper Bushes
Anything that can handle growing in the dry, hot conditions that most Mediterranean herbs, ornamentals, and veggies love can thrive growing next to capers. Plant with:
- Pineapple Sage
Problems and Solutions for Growing Caper Bush
Being a hardy plant, caper bush is not bothered too much by pests and diseases, but of course, there are always things that will visit your plants given the chance.
Weevils are particularly destructive. The adults attack the foliage, and the larvae are known to attack the roots of plants. The best method to keep them away from your caper bush is to use diatomaceous earth and sprinkle it liberally around the base of the bush.
These bugs will suck the sap and life from a plant, especially if their population grows too big. If you are in an area where they are a problem, use regular sprays of neem oil.
Aphids are very common in any garden and the biggest problem other than being sapsuckers, is they cause other diseases to plants as well. Read our article here on how to spot and control aphids in your garden.
Cucumber Mosaic Virus
Although rare when growing capers, this virus can be present, usually along with an infestation of aphids, which spread the disease. Control your aphid population and keep the base of the bush free of weeds and garden waste to prevent it.
You will likely see yellow mottled foliage and distorted leaves with this virus. If it strikes, either pull the bush or learn to live with it. There is no cure.
Here’s the complete list of pests and diseases that may attack bushes including capers.
Harvesting and Storing Capers
When the immature flower heads are olive green and about 1/4 inch across, they are ready for harvesting. Anything above 1/2 inch and they may be expanding into their flower process. This depends on the variety that you’re growing, of course, since some naturally have larger berries than others.
Pick early in the morning so that the flower bud doesn’t start opening. It should be a tight, little bundle.
Some capers are small and others are larger, oval, or long shapes. You should be able to pick many times throughout the season. Smaller capers are considered more desirable on the market and the fruits are grouped by size:
- 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
Capers can be preserved in salt or brine. Some people say to sun dry them before preserving, and some people prefer to soak the capers in water for three days, changing the water each day.
Feel free to choose your preferred method or try them both and see which you like better. Then, preserve them using either the salt or brine method.
Use dry capers for this method.
- To a jar, add a thin layer of capers.
- Add a teaspoon of coarse sea salt.
- Repeat until the jar is full.
- Drain the liquid that appears daily and add another teaspoon of sea salt.
- In about a week the fluid should be gone, so transfer the capers and salt to a clean jar.
- Store in a dark place and rinse the salt off before use.
Brining is a classic method for preserving capers and the way most people are familiar with.
- Place a cup of capers in a large jar.
- In a jug mix a cup of apple cider vinegar, a cup of water, and two tablespoons of fine sea salt.
- Stir until the salt dissolves.
- Pour this over the capers and store it in the fridge for a month before sampling.
Everybody has their favorite recipe where capers are used. Now that you’re growing capers in your own yard, you can really experiment!
Just remember that capers can’t be eaten raw. They won’t hurt if you do eat them raw, but chances are you’ll be spitting them right back out because they’re incredibly bitter.
If you’re looking for ideas, here are some suggestions. These are the classic choices, but don’t be afraid to experiment.
- Classic Greek salad
- Fish dishes
- Pasta dishes
- Chicken piccata
- Pizza with bacon and anchovies,
- Add to cream cheese for smoked salmon dishes
- Dice and cook with roast vegetables