Did you know you should forage more than just the edible flower?
Heléna Szöllősy imparts her wisdom on this Mediterranean dietary staple so you can fully utilise another of Gozo’s natural remedies.
In case you are new to this series, each month we take a deep dive into the healing properties of Gozo’s wild plants. Click to catch up on the health benefits of Asphodel and Borage, but in the meantime, we turn our attention to the caper bush which starts to bloom in April. We are capers mad at GITH and still tucking into last year’s mammoth foraging and pickling efforts… grab the recipe here and read on for another dose of fascinating facts from Mother Nature’s healing cabinet.
Botanical name: Capparis spinosa-L Family name: Capparidaceae Maltese name: Kappar tax-xewk Common names: Caper bush, Common Caper, Flinders rose Meaning of name: Capparis from Latin, borrowed from Greek kapparis [κάππαρις], whose origin is unknown but probably West or Central Asia (Alkabara, kabar). Another theory links kapparis to the name of the island Cyprus (Kypros [Κύπρος]), where capers grow abundantly. Arabic kafara, to be hairy, villous, spinosa, "thorny", refers to the pair of hooked spines at the base of each leaf stalk.
The shrubby plant is many-branched, with alternate leaves, thick and shiny, round to ovate. The flowers are complete, sweetly fragrant, and showy, with four sepals and four white to pinkish-white petals, and many long violet-coloured stamens and a single stigma usually rising well above the stamens.
- Habitats: Old walls, cliffs, and rocky hillsides in the Mediterranean
- Range: Caper is native to the Mediterranean, East Africa, Madagascar, South-western and Central Asia, Himalayas, the Pacific Islands, Indomalaya, and Australia
- Status for Malta: Indigenous. Originating from Maltese islands. Common in the wild.
- Flowers: April to September on Gozo.
- Parts used: sprouts, roots, leaves, seeds
- Herbal actions: Analgesic, Anthelmintic, Anticancerogenic, Antihaemorrhoidal, Aperient, Depurative, Diuretic, Emmenagogue, Expectorant, Tonic, Vasoconstrictor
- Main active constituents: astragalin, capric acid, fatty acids (palmitic, oleic, and linoleic acids), fibre, flavonoids, glucosinolates, kaempferol 3-rhamnorutinoside, oil, protein, rutin, (quercetin 3-rutinoside), selenium
Capers were used in folk medicine by the Sumerians in 2000 BC and also by the Greeks and the Romans at a later date.
- In Greek traditional medicine a herbal tea made of caper root and young shoots is considered to be beneficial against rheumatism. Dioscorides also provides instructions on the use of sprouts, roots, leaves, and seeds in the treatment of inflammation.
- In Ayurvedic medicine, the caper is recorded with other hepatic stimulants and protectors as improving liver function. It is used internally in the treatment of gastrointestinal infections, diarrhoea, gout, and rheumatism.
- In Greco-Arab and Islamic medicine, the decoction of root bark is prescribed as deobstruent to the liver and spleen, as anthelmintic and anti-inflammatory agents.
- Caper is used internally in the treatment of gastrointestinal infections, diarrhoea, gout, and rheumatism Seeds are used in feminine sterility and dysmenorrhea.
- Crushed seeds for ulcers, scrofula, and ganglions. Seeds are used in a mixture of spices called Ras El Hanout, which means the “head of the shop”.
- The stem bark is bitter and diuretic. If taken before meals it will increase appetite.
- The unopened flower buds are a laxative. They are used internally in the treatment of coughs. The buds are a rich source of compounds known as aldose-reductase inhibitors – it has been shown that these compounds are effective in preventing the formation of cataracts.
- The buds are harvested before the flowers open and can be pickled for later use – when prepared correctly they are said to ease stomach pain.
- The bark of the root is to be taken in powder, or infusion; it is good against obstructions of the liver and spleen, in jaundice, and hypochondriac complaints: it is also commended in indigestions.
- Capers are an appetizer and digestive. They are said to reduce flatulence. The hydrolysed products of indol-3-ylmethyl glucosinolates have anticarcinogenic effects. Glucosinolates are known to possess goitrogenic (anti-thyroid) activity. Rutin and quercetin may contribute to cancer prevention.
- The buds are a rich source of compounds known as aldose reductase inhibitors; it has been shown that these compounds are effective in preventing the formation of cataracts.
- Selenium present in capers at high concentrations has been associated with the prevention of some forms of cancer.
- The leaves are bruised and applied as a poultice in the treatment of gout.
- Externally, it is used to treat skin conditions, capillary weakness since it improves capillary function and easy bruising and to treat eye infections.
- Leaves crushed and applied in a poultice against headaches and on the face against toothache.
- Leaves heated in butter are used against the external parasitic disease of camels.
- Flowers are used in a poultice for eczema.
- In the Sahara, the steam of the plant’s decoction is said to clean the eyes.
- A decoction of the plant is used to treat vaginal thrush and vaginal infections such as candidiasis.
- Capers are a common ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine, especially in Cypriot, Italian, Aeolian, and Maltese.
- Flower buds – pickled and used as a flavouring in sauces, salads etc. The flower buds are harvested in the early morning and wilted before pickling them in vinegar. A sharp, piquant flavour, they add pungency, a peculiar aroma and saltiness to foods such as pasta sauces, pizza, fish, meats, and salads. The flavour may be described as being similar to that of mustard and black pepper, coming as it does mainly from mustard oil in the plant tissues.
- Fruits – cooked or pickled. The young fruits and tender branch tips can also be pickled and used as a condiment. Mature and semi-mature fruits are occasionally eaten as a cooked vegetable.
- Leaves – pickled or boiled. Caper leaves which are hard to find outside of the Mediterranean are used particularly in salads and fish dishes. They are pickled or boiled and preserved in jars with brine—like caper buds. Dried caper leaves are also used as a substitute for rennet in the manufacturing of high-quality cheese.
- Young shoots – cooked and used like asparagus. Tender young shoots and immature small leaves are cooked as a vegetable.
- Root – ash from the burned roots has been used as a source of salt.
Recipe: caper dressing
- 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- Grated zest 1 lemon, plus 2 tbsp juice
- 2 tbsp small capers
- 2 tsp Dijon mustard (preferably gluten-free)
- 2 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley, plus a few extra leaves (optional)
- Mix the oil with the lemon zest and juice, capers, mustard, some seasoning, and 1 tbsp water.
- Do not add the parsley yet (unless serving straight away) as the acid in the lemon will fade the colour if they are left together for too long.
Keen to own the book? Click here to purchase the e-version of Weeds for Health on Gozo.
Author and Images: Heléna Szöllősy.
Helena is an expert on the medicinal properties of plants having trained in Herbal Medicine and Naturopathy, specialising in Phytotherapy including Homeopathy, Aromatherapy, Apitherapy and Bach Flower Therapy.