The following article (with slight variations) first appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 1991. The Underground Gardener has killed two caper bushes and two seedlings since then, and is currently keeping her fingers crossed over her most recent cliff-hanger, a seedling she got from the Huntington Botanical Garden three years ago.

THE CAPER CRUSADE

It was not your typical top-notch hotel.
Smack dab in the middle of the pool-side terrace sprawled a caper bush, five feet wide. And anyone who dared to go for a swim had to negotiate its thorny rim. This caper bush was the guest of honor; we tourists were merely tolerated.
But I, for one, was delighted by the inconvenience. I adored caper bushes and had always wanted one for my garden back home. Now here was an opportunity to observe one at length, and up close.
This wasn't the first caper bush I'd seen in Italy, and I had the photos to prove it. In Portovenere, outside Lucca, in Rome and near Vicenza, there I was: in front of, squatting over, or pointing to one caper bush after another. Yet who could blame me for my obsession? They were beautiful things, these caper bushes, swaying from walls and cascading down boulders, with their glossy leaves and sensational flowers.
But in fact, where were the flowers on this hotel caper bush? They didn't appear that day. Nor the next, nor the next, and ditto down the line. Then, early on morning, as I was preparing to leave, I saw the reason for my frustration.
A little old lady, in a black wool dress and black wool shawl, was picking the unopened flower buds. I had caught the mother of the hotel owner in the act, harvesting her daily capers. Naturally, I couldn't let her go.
"Did you plant this?" I asked in my crude Italian. "How old is it? How do you preserve the capers?" She did her best to answer. The bush, she seemed to say, was heaven-sent, a gift from a bird passing by. And it had grown so strong and healthy that she didn't have the heart to uproot it. Besides, she said proudly, it gave her more than two kilos (4.4 pounds) of capers every year. Then she took me by the hand and drew me to the family kitchen where she showed me how to salt the capers away for future family meals.
The scene was Taormina, Sicily, a couple of years ago. But please don't consider it hopelessly quaint or exotic. Think instead of spaghettini puttanesca, or carrots and capers, or caper sauce with chopped onion and crushed anchovy fillets cooked slowly in butter.
Because you, too, can grow capers and harvest them in your own California backyard. You just don't have to wear the black wool shawl.

CAPER ROOTS

The caper bush, Capparis spinosa, is grown throughout the warm-climate regions of the world, from the Mediterranean through India to the Philippines and the islands of the South Sea. The earliest known mention of the caper bush is in a Sumerian epic of 2000 BC. The bust was also used by ancient Greeks and Romans, though apparently for medicinal purposes only.
According to Lesly Gordon in A Country Herbal, its medicinal qualities are antiscorbutic and aperient (laxative). Another source says its bark has been used for its diuretic and anti-arthritic action, and an infusion of the bark and leaves has been described as astringent and refreshing. Even the University of California goes out on a limb in a pamphlet promoting the caper bush as a small farm crop and mentions its use in cosmetics to improve dry skin.
But of course, the caper's contemporay value lies in its use as a condiment.
Pickled capers have been known in Western Europe since 1500 AD. Pickled capers were called for in Arabic cookbooks as early as the 10th Centruy, and since the Arabs got their word for capers from Greek, the Greeks probably pickled it before that. Brillat- Savarin maintained long ago that only the smallest, immature flower buds (nonpareil) are worthy of pickling, and his rule still holds. However, don't tell that to the Spanish, who prefer big buds (capotes) and even immature seed capsules (taperones; in Catalan, taprots) that look like little gumball-sized watermelons. They consider the dainty French buds insipid. To their credit, I've been served taperon a number of times in Spanish bars, and I found those seed pods delicious, with a wonderful chewy consistency. You'd be hard pressed for a better accompaniment to a glass of Amontillado Sherry.
The late gastronomic authority Waverly Root believed that the best capers are those grown in the French department of the Var, but those days are over. I spent five months in the region, and apart from a few bushes dangling from a St-Raphael church tower and from the Roman ruins in Frejus, I didn't see any signs of capers. As for the Var's vaunted caper farms, I went on a wild goose chase searching for them, and all I got was blank looks from the locals or sorry shakes of the head. Now commercial production has passed to Morocco, where land is less developed, labour is less expensive, and hard freezes are less common than in France. Italy and Spain, however, still cultivate the bushes commercially and carry on the caper tradition.

A CALIFORNIA TRADITION

In 1790 Thomas Jefferson said, "The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture." Well, what could be a more useful introduction than a caper bush? Besides its value as food and medicine, the plant is highly ornamental, and its deep roots control hillside erosion. What's more, its summer-dry, winter-wet cultural requirements are perfectly suited to California's coastal climate.
I wasn't the first to think that.
Caper bushes have been grown periodically in the Santa Barbara area since 1893. Public and private institutions have grown them, too, like UC Berkeley, the Huntington Botanical Gardens and the Getty Museum in Malibu. And now, because of increased demand, selected nurseries are stocking them as well.
But it hasn't been easy to establish the plants here. On the contrary, capers have proven decidedly capricious. I can testify to that.
I first tried to grow capers from seed in 1980, and I've been trying ever since. I've sown commercial seed from Italian, Spanish and American seed companies, all with no success. Once, in Italy, I separated caper seeds from caper fruit pulp in a hotel sink. It was a messy business, and not worth the effort. That seed failed me, too.
Of course, it occured to me that the failures were my fault. So I sent seed to my French father-in-law, a master germinator, but even he threw in the trowel. Finally, I gave up on seed and put in a plant --- which promptly disappeared from the face of the earth. It was a mystery I'll never solve.
Still, other amateurs have succeeded at propagating the caper bush. Betty Van Dyke's mother, a Yugoslav emigre, planted seed from her homeland 15 years ago in Gilroy, California. Now the plant is 10 feet wide and gives her daughter capers galore. There are other gourmet gardeners out there, too, who have somehow established the caper bush and who reap its rewards every summer by simply providing its modest cultural requirements: poor soil, excellent drainage, and a hot, sunny location.
The lucky stiffs. What I wouldn't give for a big shiny caper bush. What lovely bouquets I'd make with its gracefully arching stems and large, delicately scented flowers. What fine meals I'd prepare with my freshly harvested capers. Perhaps I'd try steaming the caper's new shoots, in spring. They say they're better than asparagus spears. Or maybe I'd try macerating the leaves for two weeks, then frying them, like another Italian friend said.
Unfortunately, at the moment, it's all pie in the sky. But I figure one day my caper bush will come.
If enough Californians tried to grow a caper bush, some of you would succeed. Then maybe a bird would eat the ripe seed and drop me a little present, smack dab in the middle of my terraced backyard.

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* Stromme no longer writes for the Silver Lake Press/LA Alternative Press

(c) copyright Elizabeth Stromme. All rights reserved.

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