African Caper White Butterfly

I mentioned on my Facebook page the other day that I was raising caterpillars with one of my students and I promised to write a blog post to reveal who would emerge from the chrysalis. This is a butterfly I have raised indoors on several occasions and one that is often found in my garden, so I have been lucky to observe these critters a lot over the years and I have a ton of photographs. It was hard to narrow down the choices, but I am finally ready to introduce you to…the African Caper White Butterfly!

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Also known as the Brown-veined White or the Pioneer White, Belenois aurota butterflies only lay their eggs, in batches of 25 – 30, on the leaves of caper bushes (Capparis sp.) The eggs are tall and ribbed and stuck onto the leaves with a special “glue”.

When the larvae, or caterpillars, hatch, they are olive green in color and have glossy black heads. They live and feed gregariously, or socially in a group. They quickly devour the thick caper leaves as they continue to eat and grow.

Garden Caper Pooters (4)

Garden Caper Pooters (9)

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They will molt several times. The larger caterpillars are hairy and have a green stripe along their backs and mottled black stripes along their sides.

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With their last molt, they form their pupa, or chrysalis. It is cream-colored and dashed with black markings and round yellow dots. They attach themselves, again in groups, with a sticky thread to the leaves or stems of the caper bushes.

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The adults emerge in about 7 – 10 days. Their wings, about 4 cm across, are white with black or dark brown veins.

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When they are ready to come out, some segments of the chrysalis become red and will stay this color.

After the butterflies emerge, they will feed and mate.

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And they don’t waste anytime getting started! In the video below, taken in my garden, you can see butterflies trying to mate with one whose wings are still drying.

Caper Bush – Part II

In Part I in my series on caper bushes, we learned what these plants look like, where to find them, how they grow, and why they make good additions to desert gardens. Today, I’ll share how to prepare the plant so you can savor their unique flavor.

You may already be familiar with capers, as they are a common ingredient used in Mediterranean cuisine and are available commercially in many places around the world. These are the flower buds of caper bushes, specifically C. spinosa. (Although C. sinaica, which also grows here in Sinai can be used, as well.)

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The buds are picked when small and then salted and/or pickled. They are used in salads, pastas, meat dishes, sauces, and are popular in salmon and other fish dishes.

Before the caper bush in my garden was big enough to supply enough flower buds for pickling – and even now as I prefer to leave our buds to grow into flowers and fruit – we would forage for the buds as we wandered through wadis. At the right time and place, it doesn’t take long to collect a handful of flower buds. We pick a variety of sizes, but try to keep them on the smaller side.

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Caper flower buds foraged from a wadi near Dahab.

Once you’ve collected the flower buds, put them in a jar, fill with water, and cover with a cloth. Let the buds soak for 3 – 7 days, changing the water every day (or every other day). The buds will turn from a bright green color to a more olive color. They will also start to give off a strong smell and white crystals or film may appear. This is all normal. The buds are releasing their mustard oil and their not-so-nice flavor.

At the end of the week, the capers should be giving off less of an odor and are ready to be pickled. You can use a vinegar brine or, even simpler, a lacto-fermentation method which just involves salt water. That’s what I do. I mix 220 mL of water with 1 tablespoon of salt. (Or multiples of that when I need more water.) Put the caper buds in a clean, sterile jar and pour the salt water over them, making sure they are all covered. Leave them for 3-4 days and then put them in your fridge; they will last a long time.

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Pickled flower buds – and one fruit – ready to be eaten.

Pickled flower buds are not part of the Bedouin culinary tradition, but pickled fruits are! Forage for fruit on the bushes in the wadi or collect them from your garden. You want to pick them when they are still green, not yet ripe. I generally pick them when they are between 5 – 8 cm long.

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The first harvest of the season from my garden caper bush.

You can follow the same method for pickling as described above for the flower buds. The fruits definitely need 7 days in water before they are pickled and give off a much stronger odor than the buds. The pickled fruit are called caper berries in English.

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Fruits need to soak for 7 days before pickling.

This is my first year to do so, but you can also pickle the leaves of the caper bush following the same procedure.

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Pickled flower buds, leaves, and fruit.

Bedouin friends have recommended cutting shallow slashes into the fruit before they are pickled. This allows more of their flavor to be released into the water. Bedouin will then use a few spoons of this zesty liquid to spice up their lentil and rice meals.

We like to eat the pickled caper fruits smashed up in white cheese, which we then scoop up with local flat bread. Delicious! I am looking forward to experimenting with the pickled caper leaves – as a side salad, with deviled eggs, with cheese, with fish. And the flower buds we use in typical Mediterranean fashion, usually on pastas and pizzas.

The caper fruit can also be eaten fresh, when it is red and fully ripe. As I mentioned in my first post about capers, you have to beat the ants to it! Pick the red fruit just as it’s ready to split. If you catch them before they split, open the fruit and use your teeth to scrape the flesh and seeds off of the hard skin. Whether or not to chew the mustard-flavored seeds is up to you. The Bedouin children, who have eaten plenty of fruit from my garden, warn me never to chew the seeds, as they will give you diarrhea. But I’ve heard from other people who chew the seeds and do not suffer from any intestinal upset. I’ve tried the fruit fresh but did not chew the seeds. They taste okay, but I prefer them pickled!

Besides being beautiful and delicious, caper plants are also used medicinally by the Bedouin. (Amazing plant, right?)  A poultice made from the crushed leaves is used to treat rheumatism, joint aches, headaches, and toothaches. Inhaling the vapor made when boiling ground dried leaves is said to treat head colds. I have used a poultice to treat joint aches and I can testify that the crushed leaves really do heat up, much better than creams from the pharmacy.

Okay, enough.

Have I convinced you to grow a caper bush in your garden yet? 😉

Large Salmon Arab Butterfly

Of the nearly 19,000 butterfly species in the world, only 63 occur in Egypt. And this beauty – a Large Salmon Arab (Colotis fausta) – has been fluttering about my garden lately!

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We are lucky here in South Sinai, as the mountainous region is one of the hotspots of butterfly diversity in Egypt, home to 2/3 of the butterflies found in Egypt. The Salmon Arab is a member of the Pieridae family of butterflies, or Whites, as they are commonly called. Like most butterflies, they go through a 4-stage metamorphosis: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult. The eggs are laid on and the caterpillar feed on the leaves of caper bushes (Capparis sp.), which is why I find these butterflies in my garden and where you’ll usually spot them in the wadis. The caterpillars are light green, hairy, and have a pale-colored stripe through their body.

Large Salmon Arab Catepillar (1)

The larva continue to eat, grow, and molt (shed their skins) until they are ready to form their chrysalis (a hard skin) and start to pupate. The chrysalis is attached, usually to a leaf, by silk threads.

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After about a week, the adult butterfly emerges.

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The upperside of the wings are a salmon-pink to an orange-yellow color and the forewings have dark scales and black spots along the edges. In the dry season, they are smaller and lighter-colored. You can find these butterflies in flight between April and November.

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As a curious nature-lover as well as a teacher, I will occasionally raise caterpillars indoors to learn more about them. Check out the proboscis (sucking mouth part) on the newly-emerged butterfly below!

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Although the weather is getting a bit too hot to be wandering through wadis these days, you might just spot these butterflies near the caper bushes around town!

References:

Butterflies of Egypt: Atlas, Red Data Listing, & Conservation

Francis Gilbert & Samy Zalat

PDF version of the book is FREE to download here.

Caper Bush – Part I

Caper bushes (Capparis spp.) are some of the most common plants that you will come across when wandering through the wadis of South Sinai. They are also one of my favorites and one of my most photographed. So, I have a lot to say about them and too many photos. You’ve been forewarned. 😉

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There are three species of capers growing in Sinai: Capparis decidua, C. sinaica, and two different subspecies of C. spinosa. C. decidua, which I have never seen, is easily distinguished from the other Capparis species. It grows as a small tree and the others are bushes. In English, we call them all capers, but the Bedouin differentiate between  them. In Arabic, C. spinosa is called lasoof and C.sinaica is called lasaf.

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Caper bushes are shrubs growing between 1 and 2.5 meters high. They usually grow prostrate along the ground, scrambling over rocks, or hanging in cliffs. Capers can tolerate saline soil and drought. And they love dry heat and direct sunlight! (This makes them excellent additions to desert gardens. More on that later.)

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Capparis spinosa – Ain Yarqa

The branches are smooth and hairless and grow out from the base of the plant. The leaves  are thick and fleshy and those of C. spinosa are round or oval while the leaves of C. sinaica are shaped more like an egg, getting narrower near the tip. The flowers – oh, the flowers! – are white with lots of stamen. In C. sinaica, these stamens are initially white but turn purple as they begin to wilt. In C. spinosa, they are white and pinkish-purple from the start and turn a darker purple. Both blooms are simply stunning!

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Capparis spinosa

Flower buds grow only on first-year branches, bloom at night, and live only for 24 hours. It is amazing to watch the blooms open, and since I have a caper bush in my own garden, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to do so.

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I am seriously in love with these flowers and how their color changes throughout the day!

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The fruits of these caper bushes are pretty amazing as well. They are somewhat pear-shaped; the young fruit are green, turning a brilliant red when ripe, and contain hundreds of small seeds. And they’re edible! (More on that later, too.)

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Caper bushes often have buds, flowers, and fruit at the same time. They start blooming in May and will continue to do so until late summer. When you come across these bushes in the wadis, you’ll often find the ants or other critters have already munched the seeds of the burst fruit.

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But if you have a caper bush in your own garden, you can beat the ants to the feast!

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When we bought our land in Dahab nine years ago, we built our house and had an empty desert plot in front, a blank canvas, our garden. We planned on growing only local desert plants, and, for the most part, our little garden is made up of the same bushes and herbs you find growing in the desert wadis of South Sinai. Our plan definitely included a caper bush. I wanted one right underneath the front window.

Irena Springuel recommends capers in her book The Desert Garden: A Practical Guide because of their beautiful blooms and edible parts. She does warn, however, of the thorns and recommends keeping that in mind when choosing a planting site. You wouldn’t want visitors or children getting hurt by the spines. (And they do catch you! My husband and I have both been hooked on numerous occasions and it hurts.)

The notes that Springuel gives about propagating capers (C. spinosa) made me think it would be a challenge to grow a caper bush from seed. But I collected a ripe fruit from a bush (C. sinaica) in a nearby wadi and simply planted the seeds in a clay pot at home. Several sprouts grew and they continue to thrive in my garden today. We have a beautiful large bush now, exactly where I dreamed of having one, and it is producing loads of fruit. You can also propagate capers by cuttings, which we have done successfully, too.

If you’re looking for a beautiful, low-maintenance plant for your garden, try a caper bush! Many of the bushes around Dahab are fruiting right now, so it’s the perfect time to see them and collect seeds. In my next post, I’ll tell you all about which parts of the plant you can eat, how to process and prepare them, and how the Bedouin use capers medicinally.

References:

Springuel, Irina. (2006). The Desert Garden: A Practical Guide. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.

And my book, too.