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Success planting caper seeds: plant for a super arid climate

 
Rebecca Norman
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Capers thrive without water. They are famous for growing in some of the most arid and hostile environments, around the Mediterranean, in the Arabian peninsula, and in the Himalayas.

I've been collecting wild capers here for the past several years, but they are rather few and far between, so I want to plant some. I've had some success at germinating the seeds.

This climate is extremely arid, with a cold winter and medium-hot summer, and rarely enough precipitation to soak the ground. Very few plants grow unless they are irrigated or growing next to a stream or river. But capers (Capparis spinosa) are one of the few. You'll see a vast barren sandy hillside, and then bursting out from under a boulder will be a sprawling 6 foot wide bright-dark green plant with fragrant pretty flowers. I collect the flower buds and "berries," salt and ferment them to make capers in the Italian or Greek method. The roots appear to go down all the way to Missoula from here, and when road building cuts a hillside you might see ten feet of woody taproot and it hasn't ended.

I did a little googling about how to grow them, and they supposedly sprout soon if fresh, or if dried have to be stratified. I guess in this cold winter climate, they just like to be stratified, because I plant them fresh, water the pots (plastic bags), and keep some in the greenhouse and some outside, and they only ever sprout the next spring, or even the following spring (after two winters). I expose them to temperatures maybe 10˚below freezing by keeping their containers outside until December or January, and then bring them into our solar greenhouse to escape the coldest part of winter. In the greenhouse they sprout in March; outside they sprout in May.

I have only planted three outside, but I did it too late in summer after the sun had become roasting hot, so only one survived. But now I've got four more of last year's seedlings in pots and more than a dozen new seedlings just starting now.
Caper seedling 6959 cropped.JPG
[Thumbnail for Caper seedling 6959 cropped.JPG]
Very new seedlings
Caper seedling 7023 cropped.JPG
[Thumbnail for Caper seedling 7023 cropped.JPG]
A week later
 
Rebecca Norman
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How to collect and use capers

In my experience from 2006 to 2013 in Ladakh at 11,000 feet, the season was something like this, though individual plants are on dramatically different schedules, varying by up to a month in their dates:
• May for collecting tender shoots as a green vegetable.
• Late May through June for buds (the capers used in Italian food).
• June to early July for caper-berries (a snack somewhat like olives but seedless, or can be used as a vegetable).
• Sometime in July all the caper-berries — even the small ones — start to ripen, the seeds harden and eventually the flesh inside turns bright pink. Stop collecting them well before this. You want them when the inside looks like a young zucchini or courgette, smooth and white with no visible seeds.
• Even in mid-July, some plants still have buds. However, there seem to be more insects on the plants, so stop at this point.
• September for collecting and planting seeds.
• Winter for taking a walk to cut or stomp back the dead white canes.

Collecting caper buds and berries
Roll a bud off the stem between your fingertips to collect it without the stem. If a bud does not come easily off the stem, it probably has insect damage, so throw it away.
The caper-berries stems are firmly attached so cut them off with a knife back at home. Caper-berries sold in the West have stems on, but for home consumption, this just wastes space in the jar.
The caper bush has tiny thorns. Long sleeves help. If you’re planning ahead in winter, take a walk to cut or stomp out the dry thorny canes.
If you collect all the buds off a plant, it cannot produce fruits until it has produced more buds to become flowers. If you want only buds, keep picking them every week or so, to keep the plant producing them.

Fermenting capers
Materials:
• Caper buds and/or caper-berries
• Salt
• A glass, ceramic or plastic container (Metal would rust)
I found several different methods on the internet, but all say that the flavor of capers develops when they are fermented in salt, salt-brine, or plain water. After fermentation, the processing for storage and sale can be drying, or in salt, salt-brine, or vinegar-water.

During fermentation, you will notice a strong sharp smell. This is developed by lactobacillus bacteria acting on the bitter flavonoids, and making the distinctive piquant caper flavour. Lactic acid is created and other bacteria disappear.

I am happy with the salt method that I learned from wild food mentors Cata and Blanca:
Pick over the capers in good light to remove stems and buggy ones. Larger berries can be cut in half for later drying, or kept whole for attractive packing in vinegar.

Mix them with a coating of salt, not a huge amount, just a light coating, mixed so that it coats them all lightly. Store them in a glass or plastic container with a loose cover in a warm place such as a high shelf in a comfortable room.

The salt will start to draw moisture out of the capers almost immediately. Within 24 hours, brine (salt water) will cover the bottom quarter of the capers. Shake them once or twice a day to cover them with brine. If you want to reduce shrinkage, add water to just cover them.

After 1 to 3 days, a shockingly strong mustardy smell may knock you over when you open the lid. Drain the brine out and rinse the capers. Add some more salt. Again, leave it for a few days, shaking occasionally.

After they’ve fermented for a total of 4 to 8 days (depending on temperature), they may still have a trace of bitterness, but it disappears in when you dry them or pack in vinegar.

Drying fermented capers
Drying works well in Ladakh: low-tech and low-cost. After 4 to 8 days of fermentation in salt, spread the capers out in a single layer in a dryer, outside or in a well-ventilated Ladakhi “glass-room.” Rinse them if they are very salty, because the salt becomes more concentrated. In Ladakh, they dry in two or three days. Caper-berries take more time to dry than buds do, and will dry faster if you’ve cut them in half. Be sure not to let rain re-moisten them while they are drying. Some years my dried caper buds turn yellowish and don’t taste as good, and I haven’t figured out why: maybe I shouldn’t have rinsed out the salt?
Enjoy dried capers-buds as a condiment on top of any kind of food, soup or pasta, fry them with onions beforehand, or soak them.
Dried caper-berries can be boiled in with pasta or soup to soften them. They work as a dried vegetable in winter. If they are very salty, they can replace some of the salt in the dish.

Storing fermented capers in salt

Italians prefer to store fermented capers in salt. The salt has to be rinsed off before use, or used as a part of the salt of the recipe.
Some years I have had excellent results from salting the moist fermented capers again and simply keeping them in a closed jar. The excess salt seems to prevent further fermentation, and they keep an excellent caper flavour without vinegar. Some years mine turn yellowish and lose flavor; I don't know why.

Packing fermented capers in vinegar
I aimed for a product like the commercial bottled capers sold in the West, and this method work with buds and both small and large caper-berries.
We got best results by fermenting capers with salt as described above, and packing in vinegar. Since they lost volume, this made fewer jars than fermenting in brine, and were stronger flavored and efficient for home use. The buds look good, but the berries can get wrinkly.
Fermenting the capers in a salt brine doesn’t lose as much volume, so is better for berries in vinegar as it keeps them plump, not wrinkled.
I simply packed the capers in jars, poured in a mix of 50-50 water and white vinegar, closed the jars airtight and simmer the closed jars for 5 minutes.
They stay good for at least two years (that's the longest any sat around here).

Capers shoots as a vegetable
In Ladakh, the young shoots and leaves of the caper plant are used as a green vegetable in spring, and are richer and more delicious than other green leafy vegetables.
The season for this is May. When the plants start to mature, the shoots become tough.
Collect the ends of the stems, about 15 cm (6 inches), while they are still young and tender. Don’t separate leaves from stems: just grab the whole stem with leaves. Thick stems are good. New thorns soften and disappear under processing and cooking. Remove any leaves that have insect eggs (in Ladakh we find bright orange cabbage butterfly eggs on the underside of some leaves). Collect plenty, because like any leafy veg they will shrink under processing and cooking, and most people will like them and want more. We find that 1 kg of fresh shoots feeds about 8 to 10 people for breakfast, with chapattis.

Throw the shoots into a pot of boiling water, bring back up to the boil, and boil for about 5 minutes. A bitter smell fills the kitchen. Drain the water, and if a faster process is desired, add fresh water and boil again.

Now they need to be kept for at least 24 hours in water. The common method in Ladakh is to put them in a clean sack, tie the top, and keep under running water. If clean running water is not available, it works to just soak them, draining and adding fresh water once in a while if you get around to it. After 24 hours, taste to see if the bitterness is gone, and keep them in water for another day if necessary.

When the bitterness is gone, drain the water out, chop them up, including the stems, and fry in butter or oil like spinach, with onions and salt. This vegetable is typically eaten with chapattis but is also excellent any other way. Yum!

Caper shoots can be dried for winter use. Throw fresh shoots out to dry in the sun or food dryer. Cut the long stems into shorter lengths for faster drying. When fully dry, store in a dry dark place. To use, boil 5 minutes and then soak in water for one day, changing the water a couple of times, then drain and fry. They are just as good as the fresh vegetable.

The exact same process, fresh or dried, is used for perennial pepperweed (Lepidium latifolium, Ladakhi shangsho). This is much more abundant and easier to collect than caper shoots, so we eat a lot of it in springtime.
 
Konstantinos Karoubas
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Rebecca I am impressed - what a thorough dissertation on the subject.

Last year winter I put about 50 caper seeds in the ground on my farm (northern Greece) and about 20 in clay seed balls with capers (see Masanobu Fukuoka San) - I will do the same again this year - if they are meant to grow they will grow almost by themselves.

Some plants and trees grow naturally on my land with almost no effort - I hope capers like to grow on my land.

I will read your post a few more times and post questions as they arise.

Thank You for this post.



Kostas
 
Rebecca Norman
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Thanks Kostas! I hope my post helps others who see capers growing around them and search the internet for "how to make capers" like I did. I mostly found "how to make caper sauce" and things like that.

In our insanely dry climate, I don't know if throwing caper seeds around would work unless there happened to be precipitation at the right time, which is not likely most years. So I want to get them started in containers (plastic bags) and then plant them out after one or two years into the desert. I'll water them deeply but rarely for a season or two, and hope that their roots will get down to what they need.
 
Rebecca Norman
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We collect buds from some large wild caper plants.
Caper collection in Ladakh.jpg
[Thumbnail for Caper collection in Ladakh.jpg]
 
Rebecca Norman
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Our first caper shoots meal of 2014, on April 27. See those stems? They're thick but not fibrous, and they have succulent nice texture.
Caper_shoots_cooked.jpg
[Thumbnail for Caper_shoots_cooked.jpg]
 
Konstantinos Karoubas
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This looks good Rebecca !!!

Thank You for sharing.

Cooking the caper shoots or saving them for the winter is something I will try this summer. They are an early summer plant for us here – in that time of the year all the other wild edibles have died off or are not useable – the shoots will provide free food for that period.

To me this is what permaculture is all about – getting good tasty healthy food without any effort or use of resources such as water, organic matter or labor – just collect and enjoy.

What do the shoots taste like – was it an enjoyable meal?

Kostas
 
Jennifer Wadsworth
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Rebecca - please, please consider submitting this to Permaculture News! http://permaculturenews.org/2010/08/18/get-paid-to-share-your-permaculture-passion-with-the-world/
 
Rebecca Norman
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Yes, it was a lovely meal! They taste great, mildly like capers, but not sour. And they have a nice texture, like buttery asparagus tips.

But don't wait too long to collect the shoots. They'll turn woody soon and the thorns will harden. When the shoots are only about 8 to 20 cm long and some of them still have that reddish color, that's when they're perfect.

My sister in law served them to 100 guests at a wedding yesterday and impressed everybody. Discussing them, she said that collecting the shoots makes regrowth so you can do it two or three times, and even later in the season you can collect just the soft tips, but only a small piece to avoid the woody stem.
 
Konstantinos Karoubas
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They taste great !!!

We prepared them like we do most of the wild plants here in Greece – after boiling and removing the bitter taste, we added salt, olive oil and lemon. They taste great and are a good side dish.

As mentioned previously they grow at a time of the year when the other wild plants are beginning to go to seed or harden up - free food for a few more weeks.

Thank You
Kostas
 
Rebecca Norman
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It's that time of year again, to collect caper shoots as a vegetable. Actually it's a bit late but around here still possible. I finally took some pictures to complete what Kostas kindly called my dissertation. Directions for what to collect and how to soak the bitterness out are in the long posts above.

If there are capers growing around you, try it, you'll love it!


Caper shoot perfect for eating.jpg
[Thumbnail for Caper shoot perfect for eating.jpg]
Caper shoots collected.jpg
[Thumbnail for Caper shoots collected.jpg]
Caper shoots .jpg
[Thumbnail for Caper shoots .jpg]
 
Rebecca Norman
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Ooh, collected caper shoots for vegetables and buds for pickling this week. Yay!
Collecting caper buds in Ladakh 2016May09.jpg
[Thumbnail for Collecting caper buds in Ladakh 2016May09.jpg]
Caper growing in extreme desert in Ladakh.JPG
[Thumbnail for Caper growing in extreme desert in Ladakh.JPG]
 
leila hamaya
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great info on this thread!

i just recently started growing capers...a long way to go but i have sprouts!!
capers.jpg
[Thumbnail for capers.jpg]
 
Rebecca Norman
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Oh Leila, I'm so glad to see that you're growing capers too, but those seedlings look badly leggy. Get them into direct sun pronto!

Here are two photos I should have included in above posts:
My Caper seedlings Sept14 smfile.jpg
[Thumbnail for My Caper seedlings Sept14 smfile.jpg]
Sown Sept, sprouted April, got like this by the next Sept.
Caper to salt ratio smfile.jpg
[Thumbnail for Caper to salt ratio smfile.jpg]
Mix about one big spoonful of salt with 400ml jar of capers to ferment
 
Konstantinos Karoubas
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Hello Rebecca and Leila,

Glad to hear about capers; I am still working on growing them.

Last year I tried to grow them from root cuttings, but failed - Knowing how hardy the plant is I did not water enough and they wilted away.

This year I am trying again, but I have them in pots close to the water source and I water them every couple of days.

When I cut the roots from the mother plants, for the 1st time I saw its root system closely - the main root is about 5cm thick, and I am sure they go very deep in the soil - that's how they survive!!!

I hope this year I have better luck - have you tried growing from root cuttings, any advice (watering and transplant times etc)?

Here are some photos.

I will also try growing them from fresh seeds this year - do you collect and plant the seeds as soon as the capers open up ? Just plant them in soil and water?

Kostas
A1.jpg
[Thumbnail for A1.jpg]
Plant A1
A2.jpg
[Thumbnail for A2.jpg]
Plant A2
A3.jpg
[Thumbnail for A3.jpg]
Plant A3
 
leila hamaya
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Rebecca Norman wrote:Oh Leila, I'm so glad to see that you're growing capers too, but those seedlings look badly leggy. Get them into direct sun pronto!



yes they are quite! oops. well i think the soil i used settled down lower -more than usual, err something. then i didnt want to bury them, i read they need to be on the surface of the soil to sprout. the pots that i left outside to over winter havent sprouted yet, maybe not warm enough yet, in the shady areas i have the stuff i am starting...

got some more coming up in other pots, i planted over a hundred, so far 12 or more sprouts in several pots...and totally, i should get them outside, and think i will fill up the pots a bit with sand/rocks...now that they sprouted up good.
 
Rebecca Norman
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Hi Leila, I hope those caper seedlings are thriving now out in the sun!

Kostas, yes, I go and collect the seed pods at the time when a lot of them are burst open and showing the pink insides. Here, that's in September. I've planted seeds from dried up burst pods, from pods that are still green and closed, from pods that are infested with bugs, and even a piece of fox scat (faeces) that was next to a caper plant and was bright pink with black seeds in it. All of them germinated to some extent as long as I planted them in autumn and watered over the winter and spring. Yes, I planted them in plain soil dug from the same kind of area of desert where capers grow around here.

In my extremely arid climate, it turns out that watering them is necessary; I tried a lazier approach this past winter and didn't get any germination

I haven't tried root cuttings. I tried stem cuttings one time but had no success, maybe because of my dry climate (and no tech such as misting)
 
Ganado Mage
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Rebecca
Really nice thread,  I know you posted it long ago and I just now found it.  I make 'fake capers' out of Nasturtium but not the same as real capers.

Thank you for posting the lovely pictures and recipes.
warm regard,
G
 
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