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Spice Descriptions and Uses

Capers, caper, caperberry, caperbush

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 40C (105 F). However, caper is a cold tender plant and has a temperature hardiness range similar to the olive tree (-8C, 18F.)

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.

Description

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.