Safflower is a cultivated plant with a long and colorful past. It has been a source of cooking oil since the days of ancient Egyptian pharaohs, and the plant’s distinctive orange-yellow blooms were found inside the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen (ca. 1370–1352 BCE), woven into a decorative necklace.
Ancient Egyptians extracted a yellow dye from the flowers as early as the 12th dynasty (1991–1778 BCE). In Europe and North America, where safflower has naturalized, the plant has been used medicinally to treat constipation, fevers, respiratory problems, and other conditions. Today, safflower’s primary use is as a cooking oil.
Common Names: False Saffron, Safflower
Description: Stems, 1 to 3 feet tall, branch toward the top; orange-yellow thistlelike compound flowers, up to 1½ inches wide; alternate ovate leaves; seedlike fruits
Parts Used: Flowers and seeds
Range/Habitat: Native to the Middle East; cultivated all over the world
Safflower oil, derived from the plant’s seeds, is believed to lower harmful cholesterol levels. Dried safflower petals can be used to enliven the hues of soups, marinades, sauces, salad dressings, basting liquids, flavored vinegars, pasta salads, and curries. The dried flowers produce a red color. To heighten the flavor of safflower, crush the flowers lightly with the back of a spoon before use.
Safflower blossom tea has traditionally been used as a diaphoretic (a substance that causes sweating) and treatment for common children’s ailments, such as measles, fevers, and skin problems. Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine use the dried flowers (called hong hua) to stimulate blood circulation, promote menstruation, and reduce pain and bruising. The unpurified seed oil has laxative and purgative properties.
Caution: Do not consume the flowers or seeds if you are pregnant.
As suggested by its species name, tinctorius, safflower is a valuable dye plant. The flowers produce yellow and red pigments used to color cosmetics and textiles, including the robes of Buddhist monks. The oil is added to commercially made cosmetic lotions and salves, as well as to margarine. At home, you can add dried safflower petals to oil infusions to produce a deep orange color.
How to grow it
Safflower is easy to grow in full sun and average soil. Sow the seeds in early spring directly in the garden or in pots; the plants do not transplant well. Thin the seedlings to about 6 inches apart. If you wish to use the fresh flowers, harvest them just as the buds begin to open. If you plan to dry the flowers before use, harvest the fully open blooms.