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Capparis sepiaria L. 1759
pronounced: KAP-ah-riss sep-ee-AIR-ee-uh
(Capparaceae – the caper family)
common names: Wild Caper Bush, Hedge Caper Bush
Capparis sepiaria is a species complex that shows considerable variation, especially in Africa. In Asia there seems to be less variability. In Madagascar there appear to be three entities within the group, one of which resembles the typical Asian plant, while the other two appear to be distinct from anything else in Asia or in Africa. It would seem that there is scope for much more work to be done on the species, and this may well result in some of what are now known as varieties being given taxonomic recognition.
Capparis sepiaria is a spreading or climbing, much-branched shrub, 3 – 4 m high, more-or-less pubescent with ashy grey simple hairs. It is found in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, China, tropical Africa, and Australia. The leaves are oblong-elliptic to ovate or sub-orbicular, 1.5 – 4 cm long, 1 – 2 cm broad, often retuse, softly pubescent to glabrous; the petiole 2 – 5 mm long, pubescent; the stipular spines 2 – 5 mm, hooked, often brown-black.
The flowers are usually in corymbose terminal clusters of 10 – 30, small (5 – 10 mm across), white; the pedicels 1 – 2 cm long, not thickened in fruit, pubescent. The sepals are 3 – 6 mm long, 2.5 – 3.5 mm broad, sub-equal. The petals are oblong-spathulate, 3.5 – 8 mm long, 2 – 3 mm broad, more-or-less hairy at the base. There are many stamens, 5 – 10 mm long. The gynophore is 6 – 10 mm long, slightly thickened in fruit.
The larvae of quite a few Lepidoptera feed on this plant, including:
• the Northern Pearl White Elodina perdita;
• the Queensland Pearl White Elodina queenslandica;
• the Small pearl White Elodina walkeri,
• the Caper White Belenois java, and
• the Australian Gull Cepora perimale.
Unopened flower buds of Capparis spinosa are preserved in salty wine vinegar to develop flavour and become the gourmet condiment ‘capers’, part of Mediterranean cuisine for 2,000 years. The mature fruits of the plant are treated similarly, and marketed as ‘caper berries’. There is an embryonic caper industry in Australia, the bushes being grown with minimal water on the dry rocky slopes of the River Murray. The tiny buds are picked daily at first light throughout the hottest months of the year.
Capers are categorized and sold by their size, with the smallest sizes being the most desirable: non-pariel (up to 7 mm), surfines (7 – 8 mm), capuchines (8 – 9 mm), capotes (9 – 11 mm), fines (11 – 13 mm), and grusas (14+ mm). The pickled caper berry is often used in Greek meze. The Greeks also make use of the leaves of the plant, mainly in salads and in fish dishes. As well as being used fresh, the leaves are also pickled, or boiled and preserved in jars with brine. Dried caper leaves may also used as a substitute for rennet in cheese manufacturing.
Unripe nasturtium seeds can be substituted for caper berries: they have a very similar texture and flavour when pickled.
Photographs taken in Horseshoe Bay 2010, 2014
Page last updated 14th March 2018