Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
September, 2012
Regional Report

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Capers (Capparis spinosa) grow well in Northern California. The buds of the small white flowers are used for culinary purposes -- if you can find them.

The Caper Caper

Years ago, while I was still working as a gardener at Sunset Magazine, Dick Dunmire, one of the original editors of the Sunset Western Garden Book, asked if I would house sit while he and his wife went away on their annual two week vacation. My husband and I were living in a small apartment at the time and we both felt that a couple of weeks spent in Los Altos would be very agreeable. "Are you sure?" he queried? "My garden is worse than Albert Wilson's." Albert Wilson was the long-time host of Dig it With Albert, a popular gardening show on local television. I had never seen Albert's garden and so didn't hear the implied warning. Dick went on to explain that because he was more scientific by nature rather than a landscape gardener he tended to plant "one of these" and "a couple of those" as a test to see how each plant would react to different environmental situations. I still didn't hear the warning.

My husband and I took over the duties at the house on the same day that the temperature leapt to a blood-boiling 105 degrees. There was a long list of instructions awaiting me on the kitchen table. I hadn't realized that the garden had no irrigation system and needed to be watered entirely by hand. Every bit of the large corner lot was under cultivation with exotic plants that I could barely recognize, as well as a greenhouse and a large vegetable garden.

Holy Hopping Horned Toads! Los Altos was hotter than the hinges on the gates of Hell at high noon! The heat wave hung on day after day. Each afternoon I drug those darned hoses to irrigate all those "experiments."

One of the many items on my list of chores was to "Pick the capers and put them in the brine solution in the refrigerator." I had no idea what a caper plant (Capparis spinosa) looked like, but kept my eyes open for the tiny green fruits as I worked around the property. Finally I gave up and told my husband, "I can't find those darned capers anywhere! Would you help me please?"

He was much smarter than I and went immediately to the Sunset Western Garden Book, which contained an illustration of the plant within its pages. Keeping a good reference book on hand is always good idea, even if you think know what you have planted in your garden.

Native to the Mediterranean, caper thrives in Northern California, and may sprawl vine-like or form a rounded shrub reaching 5 feet tall and wide. The plant is deciduous, requires full sun and very little water during the dry season. It is well suited to our heavy clay soil and is an excellent choice for a rock garden.

The edible part of the plant is its unopened flower buds. Further research indicated that I should harvest these buds every 10 to 12 days, before they developed into flowers. The Dunmires kept a solution of salt and vinegar in the refrigerator where the harvested buds were stored until they were ready for use. These pickled buds or capers are use in making tartar sauce, pickles, and caper-flavored sauces. Used in their natural state, capers are bland and require the processing treatment to develop their unique flavor. Preferably the buds should be harvested when they are less less than a centimeter in size.

But by the time we finally located that plant the capers were the size of ping-pong balls! I learned a couple valuable lessons from my "caper caper." First, remember to consult the reference books sitting on your shelf; it can be like having a garden expert on speed dial. Second -- and most important -- ask to see the garden before you commit to plant sitting!

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