Capers from the Desert

caper flower and foliage (Capparis spinosa)

caper flower and foliage (Capparis spinosa)

Saliva nemerosa (brid's eye view)

Saliva nemerosa (brid’s eye view)

Salvia chiapensis

Salvia chiapensis

If you enjoy perking up your roast, your fish, your pasta, or your salad with capers, you might find it of interest to know that you can grow capers to your heart’s delight in this part of the world and with a clear conscience, too, since the water requirement of the plant that produces capers is negligible.  It so happens that the caper bush is probably more drought tolerant than any plant you have ever seen.  Its unforgiving desert habitat is virtually rainless and daily temperatures exceed 100 degrees throughout the summer months. It is also cold hardy and, although it dies back when the mercury drops to 20 degrees, its roots remain viable at that temperature and shoots will regrow from them the following spring.  Caper bushes are also salt tolerant and are not affected by ocean spray should you live near the coast.
On top of all that, the caper bush is a fine ornamental specimen.  Each flower is a kind of miniature fireworks display with a large cluster of gold tipped lavender stamens shooting up in all directions from a platform of wedding white petals.  Soft, blue-green, oval shaped leaves are tightly held along stems that turn red as they mature.
The caper bush (Capparis spinosa) is remarkable for being so leafy and yet so immune to drought.  Caper foliage, then again, is the secret to this species’ desert survival since, while photosynthesizing and supplying a steady diet of sugar to the plant, its hydrophobic cuticle means water loss from leaf surfaces is virtually non-existent.  Throughout Southwest Asia, the Middle East, and countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, caper bushes may be found growing on road embankments, in wall crevices, and adjacent to piles of rocks. In terms of soil and climate requirements, they remind me of Dudleyas, those succulent rosettes with chalky, blue-grey foliage that hang off of steep, if not outright vertical, limestone embankments throughout Southern California.   Caper seeds require only a few drops of water to germinate, leaving it to caper roots to skillfully extract any moisture that has collected in stony cracks or depressions, whether on the side of a cliff, block wall, or in the earth.
Because caper bushes are so minimal in their growth requirements, it is easy to kill them.  If there ever was a plant for which too much kindness is deadly, the caper bush would be that plant.  A caper bush is best planted at the base of a wall or next to a rock, under which the remnants of winter rain, even if only a thimble full or two, will collect.  This should be enough moisture to keep that caper bush happy throughout the growing season without supplemental irrigation.  In fact, supplemental irrigation may be lethal to it.  You can also grow caper bushes in containers as long as the soil is rapidly draining — a very sandy topsoil would be appropriate — with no water retentive amendments or organic material added.
Locally, caper bushes are available through San Marcos Growers.  To find a retail nursery in your area that is supplied by this grower, go to www.smgrowers.com and click on “retail locator” on the left margin of that web page.
Among the most glorious flowers of spring are those perennials of a certain genus that begin blooming now and will continue to do so, with varying intensity, until fall.  I am talking about Salvias, commonly known as sages. Some gardeners say that Salvias — from the Latin “salvere,” which means “to heal” or “to save” — are a fitting appellation for these plants since they are the salvation of drought tolerant gardens due to their near constant bloom.  I can assure you that if you plant a dozen different Salvia species, at least a few of them will be flowering at any given moment.
Red salvia (Salvia splendens) will flower non-stop for up to three years and finally die, but for those three years you will be the beneficiary of the most constant and brilliant scarlet flower display on earth.  Just keep your red salvia fertilized and cut it back nearly to the ground every 4-6 months.  Cooking sage (Salvia officinalis) is not only of culinary interest but grows into a fine, blue flowered woody perennial.  For a dark blue bloomer whose climactic flowering occurs this month, select Salvia nemerosa ‘May Night,’ and if you are partial to magenta pink, plant Chiapis sage (Salvia chiapensis).  There are many more Salvias I could mention, with literally dozens to choose from, including natives such as white sage (Salvia apiana), with silvery white foliage and Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii), with purplish blue flowers.  An advantage of growing Salvias is their moderate stature.  Few species are more than 5 feet tall at maturity and many favorites grow no taller than 3 feet.
Tip of the Week:  Botanically speaking, those pickled capers you see in a small jar at the market are unopened flower buds.  (Point of information:  artichokes are unopened flower buds, too.)  If you wish to prepare capers for eating, harvest the buds in the morning just before they open.  Soak them in water for three days, changing the water daily.  To brine 1/2 cup of capers, make a solution of 1/2 cup water, 1/2 cup wine vinegar, and 1 tablespoon of salt.  Soak your capers in this solution for three more days and they will be ready to eat, although they can be stored for later consumption in your refrigerator.  If you do allow caper flowers to open, fruits known as caperberrries will eventually form and they, too, can be brined.  Small capers are tastier than large ones and semi-ripe caperberries are preferred to fully ripened ones.  Even caper shoots can be brined and eaten, but they, too, should be harvested when young.

 

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