The caper entered my life relatively late. During my military service, Nogah Hareuveni told us that the flower buds are edible, and that pickled capers are rather expensive. In one of my first attempts to cook with them, I cooked the buds in water, replaced the water to reduce the bitterness, and mixed them with canned meat. The bitter taste of the whole dish dampened my further desire to cook capers, for some time. This bitter taste reminded me of the little “trick” Yoav Orni played on us – a group of youngsters interested in nature, during a walk in the southern Negev. He told us the leaves of [Capparis cartilaginea] were very sweet and seduced us into eating them, while displaying the face of a person very happy with the sweet taste. They were very bitter!!
Hareuveni’s instructions for pickling caper buds seemed to me too involved for the free time I had during military service. But I liked the “tales of the caper” in the Mishnah. Raban Gamliel stated that “There will be trees that will provide fruits daily.” His pupil said “But it is written that there is nothing new under the sun”; Raban Gamliel said “Come and I’ll show you that they already exist in our world – they went out and he showed him a caper (Fig. 5.5.1).
When telling this story I have often felt a pleasant shiver of excitement, thinking of the old days when every one in this land knew what [Capparis] was, and why it was the symbol for a tree that provides fruits daily. There is a gradual change in the size of the bud, seen in Fig. 5.5.1; once a day one bud will reach its maximal size and later open. To obtain the maximum yield from this shrub, the largest bud should be collected from each branch.
A similar situation is seen in [“Capparis aegyptia” C. aegyptia] (Fig. 5.5.2) and [“Capparis sicula” C. sicula] (Fig. 5.5.3) where a few young fruits of different sizes are seen. In the distant past, the word “Trees” in Hebrew, referred to lignified plants. King Solomon talked of “The trees,” from the cedar (Erez – the most pompous tree) of Lebanon to the hyssop (Ezov – the most modest). These and many other stories rooted in the past, come to mind and are told when I find sufficient time to talk about the magnificent caper. My friend, teacher, and commanding officer Nogah Hareuveni chose the caper flower (Fig. 5.5.4) as the logo for a company he set up. In addition to its beauty it symbolizes “things that already exist in our world”.
I started collecting flowering buds of capers, “Kaprisin” in the Mishnah, when I was a student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. One day I was walking in the area of David Yellin street and the Edison Cinema, and picked some capers. Orthodox Jews came out of their Yeshiva, and looked at this strange person walking in their neighborhood. Their Rabbi said in Yiddish “Is that a caper?” Surprised, I said to him, “Yes, it is a caper, and I wish to learn more about trees that give fruits daily.” I was trying to ‘show off’ and impress him with my knowledge of our heritage. He then said, “If you are speaking of religious things, why don’t you cover your head with a hat or kippa? And if you pick this fruit, do you also give the necessary tithe to the Levites in the Temple?” I was speechless. After speaking to me, the rabbi and his pupils then walked away to have their lunch, past the synagogue named after Avinoam Yellin (I am also named after him – he was a cousin of my father’s). Over the years, whenever I picked capers and ate what I had pickled, I took pleasure in seeing their high price per kilogram in the shops, while I was eating them at no cost. This is also based on a story in the Mishnah, in the Sabbath tractate, of a Hasid who refrained from repairing his fence during the Sabbath. God rewarded him by giving him one caper that provided him with financial support for many years. To people I appreciate, I give pickled capers (Fig. 5.5.5) as my “Specialite de la maison”.
The observations I made when collecting capers at the twilight hour always gave me the deep pleasure of enjoying nature’s natural regulator or timer, as displayed by the caper and its visitors – a timer well trained over a long time during the evolution of the plant and its pollinators. From lunch-time onward, the caper buds start indicating that something is going on. The white petals start to expand and show their color among the green sepals. Half an hour before sunset in Jerusalem, Galilee, and the Golan, when the sun’s rays no longer fall on the shrubs, the petals stretch and their creases begin to straighten. (Near Ashdod the caper refused to open according to the right “mountains timetable.”) The stamens, having purple filaments, become straight and the buzz of bees is heard near the flowers (Fig. 5.5.6). On rare occasions, I was lucky enough to approach such shrubs at this enchanted hour without the noise of cars. I felt that this buzz was part of the ‘Sound of life’ (an expression from the book ‘Zen Shen’ by Michael Prishvin, translated into Hebrew by Shlonsky). Not many people are privileged to hear this sound, although this concert may be heard at twilight in the summer near every flowering caper plant. The bees collect only gray-purple pollen grains from the anthers and do not search for nectar (see the left legs of the two bees in Fig. 5.5.6). At this hour, the flowers’ scent is strong and distinctive. After sunset a fairy arrives at each shrub and sends the bees away, into a long sleep, opening up the area to others.
The nectar gland is hidden among the upper pair of petals (Fig. 5.5.7). Observations made by a high school student working with my colleagues from the botanical department, revealed that hawk-moths arrive during the night hours. The white color of the petals leads them to the flowers and while searching for the nectar with their long tongues, they become contaminated with the pollen and transfer it to the next flowers they visit. I have not seen these visits, although I have wanted to see them for many years. On the ninth of Av (a Jewish day of mourning), in August 1992, I was invited by Yisachar Goldrat, the president of the “Friends of the Open University” to a night walk in the Old City of Jerusalem. I contributed my part by displaying the capers in bloom. I pointed out a shrub growing not far from the house of David Yellin, whose son Yehoshua Yellin was my father’s grandfather. Yisachar illuminated the shrubs with a strong light, but even then the hawk-moths refused to cooperate. That night a large shrub bloomed on the Western Wall, on the right of the flag in Fig. 5.5.8 (Fig. 5.5.9), but no moths were seen. At sunrise the bees arrived again. From time to time a large bumble-bee arrived without a scrap of respect for the flower. These bees move the filaments and send their long tongues into the nectar gland and use the nectar.
When picking capers one has to tap the stems gently to free them of the small ants that come for the extra-floral nectar. This is a barely studied phenomenon. For many years I have seen the nectar as minute clear, sticky droplets, and did not know if the ants came to collect what the plant produced for them. The alternative was that the ants caused the plants to secret nectar (Figs. 5.5.10 & 5.5.11). This year, during mid-June, when I decided to photograph nectar droplets, I went to the caper in my garden at 8 a.m. I found that the small ants (Fig. 5.5.12) had got up earlier, collected all the nectar droplets and continued walking around on the buds. I assume that the ants discover the nectar with their highly developed senses, whereas I am limited to seeing the droplets. I went to another shrub which was surrounded by rich herbaceous vegetation. There were plenty of ants there and almost no droplets of nectar. Another shrub growing in a relatively new habitat had only a few herbaceous companions and few ants. Here, I succeeded in photographing nectar droplets and arrived at a satisfying point in my private theory of the cycle: caper – ants – nectar – aphids (absent). A few days later I left home at 05:30 and arrived at the first shrub on my new way. The small ants were walking slowly and there was not even one droplet present there. Another shrub nearby had no ants and was rich with relatively large droplets. New photos replaced the old. These photographs confirm the answer I received in 1977
when I visited the large greenhouse of the Missouri Botanical Garden at St. Louis, where they raised a Mediterranean caper under proper conditions. Its leaves and buds were covered with sugary crystals. The caper was brought to the greenhouse in the USA as seeds; the accompanying ants that know the plant in its homeland were not brought with it. The conclusion is therefore that the plant itself produces the nectar and the fluid crystallizes to sugars in the dry air of the greenhouse. In other cases of extra-floral nectar, and especially in the “ants-Acacia” group in the Savannas of Central America, the nectar serves as a reward to ants that protect the plants from parasitic insects.
Right now, as I write, I think I have found a good solution (until somebody offers a better explanation). In Israel, there are many small ants raising aphids on various plants (see an example in Fig. 5.5.13). The aphids suck fluids from the plants and excrete sugary droppings, collected by the ants. By providing the ants with extra-floral nectar, the caper protects itself against harm from the aphids. I can tell you that in all the many thousands of times that I have observed caper plants, I have not seen, even once, aphids or similar parasitic insects on the capers.
In January – February, in the years when I have the time, I usually arrive at the Dead Sea area, where [Capparis aegyptia] grows, to start collecting capers. I have several “old friend” shrubs that are expecting me at that time of the year. These are near Enot Tzukim (Ain Fashkha), near En Boqeq, and other large dry water courses along the Dead Sea. In April, the harvest of Wadi Firan, Sinai, and Petra, Edom gave similarly piquant capers. When May arrives, the shrubs growing on south-facing walls or slopes in the Judean Mts., give their first crop. Later come capers in the rest of Jerusalem. I have tried various methods for pickling the capers, but the easiest and best is to put the buds and young fruits into a plastic or glass bottle and rinse the dust off by adding water and shaking. After pouring off the dirty water, add the salt-water solution to the bottle. How to measure the concentration of salt? Put an un-boiled fresh egg into water and add salt while stirring, until the egg starts to float. The bottle is ready to be opened after about a month, but it may be opened even one or two years later. I rinse the salt from the capers (“the doctor said”) by pouring off the salt water and adding tap water. Repeat this if necessary. When most of the salt is gone, I add 2/3 vinegar and 1/3 water and after one day the pickled capers are ready to eat.
I follow the uses of capers given in the Mishna (as I have read in Nogah Hareuveni’s books). I cut the young and non-lignified stems, known as Timorot. This term includes the tips of older stems with very young leaves and short non-lignified stems. From the base of each leaf the pairs of hooked spines are easily removed before pickling. Flowering buds are the main components of my pickling bottles together with a few young fruits.
A kind woman from Ain Rafa, near Jerusalem, told me that she puts young and non-lignified stems into milk on its way to becoming yogurt. Each component acquires the special taste of the other. I was surprised when visiting Mr. Georgios Hadjikyriakou in Cyprus: there were pickled young stems of [Capparis spinosa] and of [Asparagus horridus] on the table at every meal.
I love the flavor of olden days that derives from the legends and tales about the plant. The Bedouin names of the [Capparis] species have this flavor of antiquity as well. [Capparis aegyptia] is known as “lasouf” (Fig. 5.5.14) and [Capparis cartilaginea] (Fig. 5.5.15) is “lasaf”; both have roots in “tzalaf” – the name in Hebrew. The Bedouin tradition preserved the Hebrew names used already 2000 years ago. The root of the name in the European languages is from “caper” and the scientific name in Latin is [Capparis]. This root is in Latin: Capra, meaning goat. My colleagues in Greece told me, on a tour in Crete, that the pickled capers are the size and shape of goat dung. I’ll never forget the occasion when I brought pickled capers on an excursion and told the participants about the linguistic connection. One of them immediately spat out the caper buds, as if they were goat dung, thereby increasing my collection of funny stories about plants…
The pickled capers differ in taste: those of [Capparis cartilaginea] are extremely hot – piquant, like the small red, very hot peppers. Capers of [“Capparis aegyptia” C. aegyptia] are less piquant, but still less mild than those of [“Capparis zoharyi” C. zoharyi] and [“Capparis sicula” C. sicula].