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What is Capparis?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 02 December 2016
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Capparis is a genus of perennial flowering shrubs known collectively by the common name caper shrubs or caperbushes. There are many different species, many of which are used for their fruit, though the flower buds and seeds of some species are also eaten. Capparis plants are native to a wide range of tropical and subtropical habitats.

The term "caper" most often refers to Capparis spinosa, or more specifically to its flower buds, which are often pickled or salted and served as a condiment. The fruit of the shrub, called a caper berry, may also be pickled and used as an appetizer or garnish. C. spinosa is a spiny shrub with sweet-smelling, pinkish white flowers, native to the Mediterranean.

Capers are common in Mediterranean cuisine, such as the Italian veal piccata and puttanesca sauce. Caper leaves are also used in Greek cuisine, and are sometimes pickled or dried. In ancient Greece, capers were used to prevent abdominal gas and heartburn. The plant has also been used medicinally to treat rheumatism.

Capparis decidua, or karir, is a type of caper bush native to the Middle East, southern Asia, and parts of Africa. Its spicy, pink fruits are used in both cuisine and medicine and are often pickled, much like the flower buds and fruits of C. spinosa. Karir is also sometimes planted to prevent soil erosion.

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Many Capparis species native to Australia feature fruits that are eaten raw. C. arborea, native to the rain forests of eastern Australia, is commonly called brush caper berry, native pomegranate, wild lemon, or wild lime. It produces a large, green fruit similar to guava. C. mitchellii is commonly called wild orange and produces a sweet orange or yellow fruit. One Australian species, C. spinosa ssp. nummularia, is a subspecies of C. spinosa known as wild passionfruit. Its fruit is bright orange and filled with spicy, black seeds that can be crushed and used as a seasoning.

Many species of Capparis have very limited geographical ranges and are threatened or endangered due to habitat loss. C. crotonantha, C. mirifica, C. panamensis, and C. uniflora, for example, all grow only in Panama. C. heterophylla is an endangered species endemic to Ecuador, while C. sprucei, endemic to Peru, is classified as vulnerable.

C. sandwichiana, called Hawaiian caper, maiapilo, or pua pilo, grows only in the Hawaiian islands, and C. pachyphylla grows only in India. C. mollicella is endemic to Mexico. C. discolor, found in Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama, also faces habitat loss.

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