Capparis spinosa – Capers

Capparis spinosa

When we changed the name of this occasionally updated string of musings from SurviveLA to Homegrown Revolution to make it more national, as the publisher of our upcoming book the Urban Homestead requested, we had one big challenge. While Mrs. Homegrown Revolution hails from the snowy mountains of Colorado, Mr. Homegrown Revolution has never lived anywhere else other than sunny Southern California. And neither of us have tended plants outside of this Mediterranean climate, one of the rarest types of climatic zones on the planet.

But if we’ve learned anything universal about growing food it has been to work with nature rather than against her, or as we prefer to say–don’t fuck with nature. For those of you who live where it gets cold, fucking with nature means trying to grow a fig tree. For us it meant trying to grow a lawn, a foolish water-wasting mistake we made in our pre-SurviveLA days. Working with nature means finding plants that belong in a climate similar to your part of the world. We’re not native plant fascists and will gladly source plants from other similar climates, but we don’t believe in nursing sickly plants that can’t take our heat, or need lots of water.

This season we’ve pledge not to be tempted by the allure of the seed catalogs. We’re going to grow edible and useful plants that thrive in Mediterranean places. Thankfully that includes a lot of interesting options, some of which we already have–figs, artichoke, grapes, prickly pear cactus, rosemary, thyme and lavender.

One new addition that we’re planting from seed is Capparis spinosa, commonly known as capers. Every year we make faux capers from nasturtium seed pods, but this year we thought we would start the real thing. The caper bush is an attractive plant that tolerates bad soil and dry conditions, in short perfect for the front slope of our little hilltop compound.

But nature could still screw with us. Capers are notoriously difficult to start from seeds (which we ordered from Trade Winds Fruit). According to Purdue University’s Center for New Crops and Plant Products,

“Caper seeds are minuscule and are slow to nurture into transplantable seedlings. Fresh caper seeds germinate readily – but only in low percentages. Dried seeds become dormant and are notably difficult to germinate and therefore require extra measures to grow. Dried seeds should be initially immersed in warm water (40°C or 105°F ) and then let soak for 1 day. Seeds should be wrapped in a moist cloth, placed in a sealed glass jar and kept in the refrigerator for 2 – 3 months. After refrigeration, soak the seeds again in warm water overnight.”

We’ll also need to wait a few years before we have a crop. But if our capers manage to establish we’ll be letting nature work for us.

UPDATE
It looks like we may be fucked, so to speak (sorry for the potty talk–too many cocktails tonight perhaps). Homegrown Revolution reader Brian writes:

“you are brave. but potentially foolish. this thing is one of the toughest plants i’ve ever grown in the south bay. i eventually ordered a tiny little plant, i think from papa geno. anyway, good luck with the seed, i know i wasted 2 years on them before i caved and went for the cutting. even now, this thing is fickle. so far, my little plant is on year 3, ( so, year 5 of my project ), is about a foot in diameter, and i get about 15 flowers a summer. about enough for one dinner of puttanesca. still, i persist! go forth and conquer!”

UPDATE II

Brian was right! Many months later I have an inch tall, very weak seedling. Lesson: plant first, blog later!

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6 Comments

  1. you are brave. but potentially foolish. this thing is one of the toughest plants i’ve ever grown in the south bay. i eventually ordered a tiny little plant, i think from papa geno. anyway, good luck with the seed, i know i wasted 2 years on them before i caved and went for the cutting. even now, this thing is fickle. so far, my little plant is on year 3, ( so, year 5 of my project ), is about a foot in diameter, and i get about 15 flowers a summer. about enough for one dinner of puttanesca. still, i persist! go forth and conquer!

  2. Yes you are brave, but hail the brave. Without efforts like yours we wouldnt improve and learn. My first 400 seeds from an old pod, I got 1 plant. Now I grow capers, and get about 80% germination but only from freshh seed and I only grow from my best plants, so the seedlings have a chance of being decent producers.

    If you do get some seedlings, then keep them damp for thr first year, transfer 2 a larger pot for the next spring, put outside to harden off then plant out, and again keep damp. The plants are only very tough and hardy when larger, they need moisture when small.
    Cheers and good luck, Barry

    Porter.Barry NOSPAM@ saugov.sa.gov.au

  3. I’d love to hear an update on your brave caper adventure. Did it work? I’m trying to grow them in New Mexico, very Mediterranean aside from our freezing winters. And no sea. But I can dream. I’m hoping to build some sort of mini greenhouse/insulation around the plants. Have you ever heard of anyone having success with this?

  4. Sofia,

    Another update for you–total failure! The seedling finally perished on me. However, while visiting the Papaya Tree Nursery here in Southern California I noticed that he was selling potted caper plants that were about two feet tall and very beautiful. Papaya Tree does not do mail order and I can’t say if capers would grow in New Mexico. But I think Brian is right–this is tough one to get started.

  5. I soaked my seeds in warm water on the gas stove pilot light cover for a week. I then scarified them with a nail file and soaked them for a week before planting them in sterile seed starting mix. I placed them outside in the April sun. I transplanted two strong seedlings into gallon pots and they are rapidly turning into bushes and just loving the scorching Scottsdale, Arizona heat.

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