Like other crocuses, saffron bears attractive purple or white, cup-shaped flowers and linear leaves — but, unlike most other Crocus species, saffron blooms in fall. Saffron has been treasured and traded as a spice and used as a medicine for more than 4 millennia. As early as the 10th century BCE, ancient Persians cultivated saffron and used its threads in textile dyes, perfumes, medicines, and body washes. Saffron (Crocus sativus) is often confused with autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale), but the two are very different. Autumn crocus, a highly toxic plant, is the source of the powerful pharmaceutical colchicine, which is used to treat gout.
Common Names: Saffron, Saffron Crocus, Spanish Saffron, True Saffron
Description: Linear, grasslike leaves up to 18 inches tall; 2-inch lilac-purple to whitish flowers rise directly from the soil from corms
Hardiness: To Zone 6
Flowering: Early fall
Parts Used: Stigmas
Range/Habitat: Asia Minor; widely cultivated
Pungent and aromatic, saffron is the world’s most expensive spice. Each saffron flower contains three stigmas, which are the part of the plant used for the spice. Saffron flowers must be handpicked, and it takes more than 14,000 stigmas to make 1 ounce of saffron. But a very little saffron goes a long way in cooking. Saffron adds flavor and color to Mediterranean dishes such as bouillabaisse, risotto, and paella, as well as to baked goods and liqueurs. The spice complements mild cheeses, eggs, rice, lamb, fish, poultry, pork, duck, corn, sweet peppers, onions, garlic, and oranges.
Saffron is still used in the traditional medicine practices of India and China. Herbal practitioners use saffron to relieve indigestion and colic, to encourage perspiration, and to ease menstrual pain, although equally effective and much less expensive herbs are available. Saffron is also sometimes used to treat high blood pressure and to improve circulation. In Persia, it was traditionally used to treat dementia and depression. Modern scientific studies have supported saffron’s potential for treating conditions such as mild to moderate depression, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as for improving visual acuity.
Caution: Saffron should not be used in large, medicinal doses during pregnancy.
Saffron yields an unparalleled yellow dye that is associated with royalty and wealth. One part of crocin, saffron’s major pigment, can color up to 150,000 parts of water. Saffron has also been used in beauty-care products since ancient times. Cleopatra is said to have added it to her bathwater to enhance her beauty and increase the pleasure of her lovemaking.
How to grow it
You can grow saffron in a perennial border, container, or rock garden. Plant the corms in fall or spring in well-drained soil and full sun. Set the corms 3 to 4 inches deep and 6 inches apart. Harvest fully open flowers. Pluck and dry the stigmas, spreading them out on paper. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dry location.