PLEASANT HILL, Calif. — A caper is not a crime, despite the word's low-life image in old Grade-B movies where crooks often referred to their misdeeds as "capers."
In fact, capers are plants, and people pay good money for their buds after they've been bottled, which caused a plant pathologist and entomologist to wonder if California farmers could grow capers profitably.
Capers are not grown commercially in the United States, but California's dry climate, soil and irrigation would be ideal for the perennial vine, said Demetrios Kontaxis of the UC Cooperative Extension office at Pleasant Hill in the east San Francisco Bay Area.
About $5 million worth of caper buds are imported to the United States each year from Spain, Italy and Morocco, he added, and a 4-ounce jar of the condiment costs about $5 in grocery stores. Capers are used for flavoring, often on fish, chicken and veal.
Kontaxis, who has grown caper plants successfully in his back yard, just finished a report touting their possibilities as a commercial crop.
"It is my dream that this crop gets established in California and becomes an income source," Kontaxis said in an interview. "I visualize it becoming another success story, like the kiwi fruit."
Kontaxis said his interest in capers stemmed from a query by some immigrants from Cyprus who wanted to know why they aren't grown in California. He traveled to Almeria, Spain in May, 1988, to study capers and found they could be a good crop for small-scale farmers because they grow well on small plots.
Kontaxis said he has already received about 100 calls from people interested in his caper studies, including a San Miguel farmer who wants to grow them on 500 acres, a Contra Costa County doctor interested in investing in them and an Orinda housewife who wants to grow capers for her family's consumption.
"I can't keep capers in the house because they just eat them," Claudia Pitas of Orinda said. "I haven't been buying them lately because of budget reasons."
Kontaxis gave her seeds and instructions on how to grow capers, and Pitas has begun a lengthy process that precedes planting. The seeds must be soaked in hot water, then refrigerated for more than four months before planting, Pitas said.
Caper plants are delicate and require frequent watering when they are young but become drought-resistant after they are 2 years old, requiring only a few waterings each summer, Kontaxis said. They grow about 2 feet tall and spread 10 feet in diameter.
"It grows almost anywhere, and doesn't have any disease or insect problems," he said.
Kontaxis added that the plant's pretty purple and white flower can be used for decorations. In Spain, the shoots--called tallos --are eaten like a vegetable.
"According to some Spanish caper growers, tallos taste better than asparagus," he said.
California Farm Bureau spokesman Mike Henry said the questions California growers would want answered are whether capers can grow as well as Kontaxis thinks they will and whether they can be produced as cheaply as in Europe, considering California's higher labor costs.