Autumn is time to cut a caper..... actually, it is literally time to cut a caper. We mean that now is the time to prune your caper bushes back.
More on that later, but first we'll go into a bit more detail about the Caper Bush.
Capparis spinosa is a tender evergreen shrub, growing up to a metre tall and can be seen growing like a weed all over the Mediterranean, where it is now considered a native. The Caper Bush probably originated in the Middle East - the Sumerians in ancient Mesopotamia have the first recorded mention of its use for medicinal purposes in 2000 BC.
Capers can basically grow anywhere the olive tree grows, as the two plants like the same growing conditions .... lean, well-drained soil with plenty of heat and sun. They like dry conditions, with little water. They are salt-tolerant and grow well along the coast.
The plants can be seen growing wild in the most unlikely places all over the Mediterranean - happily growing wherever they can get a foothold - even half way up stone walls and on ruins and rubble.
From late Spring until Autumn, the caper plant bears masses of green buds - these are the little capers that are so popular as a pickled delicacy!
Capers are usually used in the kitchen - the flower buds and picked and pickled, but the bark, roots and flower buds of this plant have also been used medicinally. The flower buds are used to treat coughs, the bark to treat diarrhoea and rheumatism, and in South Africa the roots are used to treat everything from insanity to snake bites, chest pains, jaundice and malaria!
To grow Capers:Caper seeds, once dry, become dormant and can therefore germinate erratically - they can be up in 3 weeks, or may take 3 months!! You will need to be patient, but here are some things you can do to assist germination:
Soak your seed in hot water (about 40 ºC ) for a day. Stratify your seeds by placing them in a sealed container in the fridge for at least 2-3 weeks - or longer if the other people that you share the fridge with don't mind. You are just trying to convince your seeds that they have had a winter and it is now time to grow. After stratification, soak your seeds again in warm water overnight and then sow in seed raising mix and keep warm. Plant out when all danger of frost has passed. The seedlings can keel over from too much or too little watering - treat them with plenty of care.
The Caper Bush can be an attractive ornamental plant, forming a low mounding shrub. It can also be potted up as a container plant - doing this will allow you to move it to a protected place if you have cold winters. The Caper Bush tolerates cold down to about -7ºC but the growing tips are easily damaged by the slightest frost. If there is any frost damage, cut the damaged tips off in Spring.
Now (Autumn) is the time to prune your caper bush. The flower buds are borne on first-year branches, so prune your plant back annually in the autumn.
When we were researching this blog post, we stumbled upon a very keen amateur caper grower (who grows in the Northern hemisphere, so her growing season is different to ours). She has posted some great photos of her caper plants on her blog....she grows capers in pots and has some photos of her pruning experiences which are worth a look....
Pick your flower buds early in the morning. The smallest buds will have the best flavour, however they aren't particularly nice fresh - the flavour comes from pickling. Here's how to pickle your freshly harvested caper buds:
Remove the stem and place the capers on a plate or tray and cover with salt. Give the plate a bit of a shake around every time you think of it - do this for a couple of days. After two days, rinse them well in a colander under cold running water. Pack them into clean jars and add a few fennel seeds to each jar. You can also add a few of the immature flowers if you like - they will look pretty in the jar. Fill the jar with white wine vinegar and seal with a non-metallic lid. Leave for one month before use, and......
....voila! You have your own capers, grown and preserved at home. How cool is that??