Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Capers


This caper plant is growing in a 17-inch diameter terra cotta pot. It's one of my best producing pot-bound plants and it has beautiful pink flowers if I allow it to bloom.


I grew this plant and a few other ones from seeds that I got from a member of the Seed Savers Exchange who lives in Siena, Italy. There is a fair amount of variation in the plants from this seed source and this plant is unusual because it has pink flowers. My other Sienese caper plants are also in large pots but they are in a colder part of the garden and haven't grown as much as this plant yet.


The buds on this plant also produce a fair amount of nectar before they open. The droplets you see on the buds shown below are nectar.


My most productive plants are a Croatian strain from the island of Hvar. These are growing atop a wall that has another wall rising above about a foot behind it. It's a very sunny and protected spot.


The buds on the Hvar capers are larger than the Sienese capers.


These plants don't go fully dormant and the most protected branches start blooming very early. The flowers on the Hvar capers are typically white with purple stamens and have a lovely soft fragrance.


Here's the caper buds that I picked today. These are the Hvar and Sienese buds mixed together.


I netted 1 ounce of buds without the stems.




Today's picking of raw buds are shown above and the buds from last week are shown below floating in the brine that they are curing in. Raw caper buds are bitter and horrible tasting, they must be cured to make them tasty. You can see some spots that are developing on the buds below, that's a good sign, they are rutin crystals that form when mustard oil is released during the curing process.



Here's the method that I've developed for curing capers. I make a brine of 8 ounces filtered water and 1 1/4 ounce kosher salt for 2 to 2 1/2 ounces of buds (that's the most I harvested at one time last year). I keep the capers at 55F for 4 weeks and change the brine weekly. They can also be kept in the refrigerator during the curing process but that will take longer since the colder temperature will slow things down. At the end of the curing period I drain the buds and either pack them in coarse salt or dry them. You can read about my experiments on the post that I updated with each caper harvest last year, although I did get lazy about documenting the details towards the end, but you can still get an idea of what I did. You can find a link to that post on my side bar.

Below are shown some salt packed capers from my harvest last year (I can't believe I made them last this long). They keep for a long time in the refrigerator. I usually rinse the salt off and soak them in fresh water to remove even more salt before using them.


This final photo is of the last of my dried capers from last year. I experimented with sun drying and found that the capers turned brown like the ones below. When I dried them in a warm shaded spot or indoors they stayed greener. Either way, green or brown, they are equally delicious. The dried capers keep well at room temperature. I like to chop the dried ones without rinsing them and incorporate them into dishes to add a salty capery flavor. They are also quite delicious eaten out of hand, although I find them too salty to eat more than a few. Another wonderful way to eat them is deep fried, oh yum.

32 comments:

  1. Although I live in Croatia and have visited Hvar numerous times, I never thought of taking one or two plants with me to try to grow them here. I think that they might survive if I keep them indoors during winter. I have to try this.

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  2. Lovely plants! I potted on my seedlings last week, so I have a little way to go before I will be getting a harvest ;)

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  3. They are so lovely! I'll get some to grow next year, I promise to try.

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  4. Very informative post. If I ever have the pleasure of growing caper plants, I will use this as a reference for curing them. Am I right to assume that the pink flowers produce the pinkish buds?

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  5. How interesting! Thanks for sharing this great information Michelle. I wonder if they can grown successfully here...though I'm sure being inside 7 months out of the year would probably be stressful on them.

    I have an unrelated question for you though...My piracicaba broccoli is starting to bud. How big does the main on usually get before you should cut if off?

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  6. What a fascinating plant, I love the flowers. I'm glad you posted pictures of it, I don't think they would grow well/at all in our area but I sure do wish they could.

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  7. While I enjoy eating capers - I previously knew nothing about their propogation until I started reading your blog! Very interesting!

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  8. These look super interesting! I don't know anything about capers, but the process looks fascinating! From looking at your blog, you've got to have a HUGE garden! And with such variety! I'm looking forward to see what else is in store for your season! Thanks again for following my blog!

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  9. vrtlarica, It would probably be best to start from seed unless you can start with plants that were grown in pots.

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    Emma, Another caper sprouting success story! I can't wait to see your first harvest. :)

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    Stefaneener, You will be growing your own plants next year, I promise. I'll send you fresh seeds this fall and you can try again. Or, if you just can't wait and you feel like enjoying a day in Monterey you can liberate me of a few of my extra plants - they would love a new home.

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    Ottawa Gardener, Yes, the pinkish buds are from the plant with the pink flowers.

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    Thomas, You won't know how well they do there until you try. :)

    The Piracicaba broccoli produces a very small main head, usually just a couple of inches across on my plants. Unlike conventional broccoli, you can wait until the beads (flower buds) are fairly large before you harvest the head. Once the main head is cut then the side shoots should grow pretty quickly.

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    Mr. H., They wouldn't do well without winter protection where you garden. The general rule of thumb is that capers will grow where olives grow.

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    kitsapFG, It has been an interesting process for me also, lots of trial and error. I've always wondered how someone figured out how to turn those nasty tasting raw buds into something so delicious, they must have been very hungry.

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    Megan, I do have a lot of space but only a little bit is fenced off from the deer. I try to grow just a little bit of a variety of edibles and it helps that I can grow veggies year round. My latest challenge is to find edible crops that can be grown outside the enclosed garden space. Capers are one thing they don't like and I'm experimenting with some herbs now. I've discovered that sorrel is not deer proof . . .

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  10. I love the look of the caper flowers. They are just so beautiful.

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  11. Wow your capers look awesome! The flowers are so unique and beautiful! I now have 4 caper seedlings that should have purple flowers and 1 that should have white. It took a long time for the seeds to germinate (4 to 6 months!) and the seedlings grew so slowly at first. Mahalo for your great posts!

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  12. Michelle - I just noticed my caper seeds (pink) you sent last fall have finally sprouted! I was ecstatic, I had almost given up on them.

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  13. I would love love love to grow capers, they're delicious ! The plant is just so beautiful too, all parts - leaf, bud, bloom. Great post !

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  14. Fascinating. Delicious. And on top of delicious, beautiful.

    I don't know why more folks don't integrate food crops right into their landscaping; so many of our food plants are gorgeous.

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  15. Michelle, thanks a lot for this detailed post on capers. I think I a starting to get the caper bug. They should be pretty drought tolerant since they grow on steep slopes all over the Mediterranean, I wonder if I can just plant some plants in chaparral landscape and after a couple years of nurturing them just let them fend for themselves on whatever rainfall we get...

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  16. Blogger seemed to have a glitch in it's comment moderation function last night, a couple of comments disappeared when I clicked on them to moderate them. Actually I couldn't tell if they were phantom comments or real ones. So, my apologies if you posted a comment and you don't see it today, blogger ate it . . . Try again, moderation is turned off for now.

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  17. Daphne, the problem with harvesting the caper buds is that you lose all those beautiful flowers, so I like to let a few bloom so that I can enjoy them. And if some berries form I can pickle those and eat them, but I prefer the buds.

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    Tina, Yippee, more caper sprouts! I think most of the gardeners that I sent seeds to have gotten some of them to sprout. It does take a lot of patience. Now just remember not to disturb the roots of the seedlings too much.

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    Angela, my latest experiments with caper plants is figuring out how to grow them in the ground. So far the only plants doing well are the ones on top of the wall that I showed in my post. I've got a few other ones in the ground that are not growing, actually they have been shrinking. But I have one other experimental planting that seems to be doing ok, it grew this spring, but it is still far from being productive. (I''ll be posting about that one of these days). I suspect that capers will need some summer water here in California since our "Mediterranean" climate is actually drier in the summer than much of the Mediterranean region. I've found that my pot grown plants will drop their buds if the plants get too dry, so I water them regularly and the plants on the wall also get watered occasionally.

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  18. They are quite a nice looking plant. I wonder if they would grow here?

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  19. Thanks for such an informative post! The fragrance has tempted me to bring a caper plant home from the nursery, but I had no idea how to use the buds, & didn't know if they would be happy living in pots. Next time I see one I'll be sure to adopt it : )

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  20. Your capers doing well on a wall make a lot of sense to me. I am used to see them in Spain growing wild on very steep coastal slopes, similar to your wall scenario. You are right about our summers being dryer here in California, they would need some supplemental water. Also I am not directly on the coast, so it's ever a little dryer here.

    Again, thanks a lot for the inspiration.

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  21. Strange, blogger limbo has released the comments that disappeared the other night . . .

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  22. miss m, If you want to try growing some plants from seed I can send you some fresh seeds this fall. It would be a challenge to keep them happy since you would have to overwinter them inside but it might be worth a try.

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    christina, You're right, why is it that most gardeners keep anything edible relegated to the vegetable garden way out in back where no one can see it?

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    Dan, Your winters are too cold to grow capers outside, but you could try overwintering them in a protected spot that doesn't get colder than the low 20'sF.

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    ShimmeringShack, Oh yes, do give in to the temptation the next time you see a plant at the nursery. Actually, I'm amazed that you even saw a plant at the nursery, I've never seen them for sale anywhere but online.

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    Angela, you're welcome. I would love to hear about your caper growing experiments, keep us posted . . .


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  23. Capers are SOOOO cool! We usually buy them in the big jars from Costco and use them in everything.

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  24. The caper flowers are so pretty, thanks for the informative post.

    How many months for the seeds to germinate? I have a pack of caper seeds to sow this fall, I'm afraid I'll lose my patience before they sprout.

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  25. Thank you for the detailed descriptions of brining capers! I can't wait to harvest some!...if I can ever get the seeds to sprout. One set of instructions-- mix sand and seed together and place them in a freezer bag and hold them in the freezer for 2 weeks did not work. Another set of instructions said to soak seeds in hot water overnight and then wrap them in a towel and refrigerate for 30 days! That only made the seeds mildew.... Any suggestions? Thanks. How big do your plants get? I'm thinking of planting in a raised bed but I think the plants like to be potbound. June

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  26. John, I love them too, and if you've never tasted salt packed capers you are in for a treat, seek them out if you've not had them before.

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    Mac, Caper seeds take months to germinate, it doesn't seem to matter if I sow them in September or November, they all seem to germinate when the outdoor temps start to warm up here in late February or March. I have forced some to germinate in late January by bringing the sown seed containers indoors and putting them on heat mats and under lights, but the plants started strictly outside always seem to catch up.

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    June, The only way that I've ever been able to get caper seeds to sprout is to sow the seeds in the fall in 6-packs and leave them outside through the winter. The cold winter weather gives them the chilling they need to break dormancy. I think the best alternative would be to sow them in 6-packs and put the packs in the refrigerator, the towel method always seems to make the seeds mold. I don't think 30 days of chilling is enough, 75 to 90 days is probably better. It also helps to start with fresh seeds, caper seeds seem to lose viability quickly and it also seems harder to break dormancy the older they get.

    Capers do really well in pots and the plant size seems to be determined by the pot size, the larger the pot the larger the plant. I'm experimenting with growing them in a raised bed in the ground, I'm using large stones to create the bed and I'm also mulching the plants with small stones, it seems to be working so far. Caper plants are supposed to be able to grow to 5 or more feet across if they are happy, but my plants have only gotten to about 2 to 2/12 feet across.

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  27. It's lovely to see your caper plants. I'm so excited that we have small plants of each variety from the seeds you sent me. I know I must be patient though, as they're slow growing in the first year or so.

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  28. chaiselongue, I am so pleased that you are having such success with growing the capers. It's going to be fun to watch them "grow up" in your garden.

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  29. I am not sure why everyone in a mediterranean climate isn't growing capers. I went to a great talk in Adelaide, South Australia by a man who grows capers for a living.
    Great to have found your blog. Now I live in Cygnet, Tasmania..... very nearly the bottom of the world but a fabulous place.

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  30. The Late Night GardenerApril 21, 2012 at 7:16 PM

    I just moved from Pacific Grove to Fresno...Of course I brought my capers with me!!! Right now they are enjoying life in my sunken tub/jacuzzi. It has perfect lighting and temperature (oh, and 'no,' the tub isn't full of water :D ).... I'm not certain when I should bring them out for their "Grand Reveal." I got by originals from cuttings from a neighbor...since then, here in Fresno, EVERYONE I ask regarding capers tells me the same thing: they are an ocean crustacean (!). No luck whatsoever in purchasing new 'babies' here......
    Any suggestions? Sorry I haven't read your blog thoroughly yet...perhaps the answer is there.....I'd just really like to get some semi-mature plants somewhere......
    Thank you,
    The Late Night Gardener

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    1. LOL, a crustacean! I don't know of any local sources for you, but there is a wholesale nursery that sells capers, San Marco Growers (smgrowers.com). They have a "find a retailer" function on their website that may help you to find a local retail nursery that orders from them.

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  31. Dear Michelle, What a fascinating site. We live in the Southern Cape, in olive growing, Mediterranean-climate country. I have been trying for ages to buy fresh seeds but with no luck. Would it be at all possible to post me some seeds? I would appreciate it so much! If you want whatever for postage I would be more than happy to compensate you. Best wishes and happy growing. Gail (gailirisneke@global.co.za)

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