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Caper questions; where do capers come from? Can you grow the plants? How?

Where do capers come from? Can you grow the plants? How?

Most people have tasted capers, but few have seen them growing or knowwhat they are. These tiny, pungent spheres are actually the pickled flower buds of an attractive shrub (Capparis spinosa) that is common in the Mediterranean region but oddly rare in this country.

The caper shrub has long branches that sprawl over the ground, trail down walls or slopes, or arch gracefully to form 3- to 5-foot mounds up to 10 feet across. Nearly round 2-inch leaves are dark green and fleshy. Most fall in winter, when the shrub is dormant. Temperatures in the midteens will not harm the plant, although branches may freeze nearly to the ground. From spring to fall, buds form in each leaf joint. If not harvested for pickling, these open into attractive 2- to 3 -inch flowers with four crepe-like white petals. Each flower lasts only half a day.

To harvest, pick over plants every day and remove buds. Small buds are considered best in flavor. A 3-foot-wide plant will probably yield 25 buds a day throughout warm weather, though production may slow for a few days, then resume,

The easiest way to pickle the buds is to drop them into a jar partially filled with vinegar and let them steep in the refrigerator for at least two weeks or until the flavor seems right (raw capers are unpalatable). Add salt to the vinegar to taste. Another technique calls for drying the capers first, then pickling. You can also mix caper buds with salt overnight, then put them in vinegar.

Plants are easy to grow in any welldrained soil, even the poorest and rockiest. Once established, they need little water (only natural rainfall near the coast) and appreciate full sun. To grow capers ftom seed, sow in pots of planting mix indoors or in a warm outdoor location. Cover seed to three times its depth, water well, then wait. Germination is slow and irregular. Seedlings may appear in three weeks or much later. Growth is also tentative at first but speeds up as plants age. The first crop of buds is slight, usually appearing the second year after sowing. If you can get fresh seed from a friend's plant, germination time is shorter. Or buy seeds from Park Seed Co., Greenwood, S.C. 29647. The following suppliers can ship plants: Carman's Nursery, 16201 Mozart Ave., Los Gatos, Calif. 95030; and Pacific Tree Farms, 4301 Lynwood Dr., Chula Vista, Calif. 92010.
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Sunset
Date:Jul 1, 1989
Words:417
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