Common Name: Saffron Crocus
Scientific Name: Crocus sativus
Family: Iridaceae (the Iris family)
Saffron is a small plant known throughout the world for its flowers which produce bright crimson stigmas used as a spice. The plant is fairly easy to grow and makes a nice addition to the Herbaceous Layer of the Forest Garden; however, ideal conditions are needed for the plant to flower. Many people are intimidated by this, so they don’t even try growing this plant. While it is cultivated mostly in Mediterranean climates of the world today, it was commercially raised in Britain and by the Pennsylvania Dutch in America. You may get a good yield only once every few years, but a little Saffron goes a long way. I strongly recommend trying your hand at growing Saffron… the most expensive spice in the world!
There are no Saffron Crocuses in the wild. This plant likely derives from the Wild Saffron (Crocus cartwrightianus), native to Greece, but it may come from C. thomassi or C. pallasii as well. No matter how it was developed, it is considered a sterile mutant plant… unable to produce viable seed (technically it is a self-incompatible, male-sterile, triploid). It has been raised by dividing and replanting the corm (bulb-like structure) for over 3,000 years. Used by the Assyrians, Sumerians, Persians, Greeks, and Egyptians, it spread through China and Mongolia to the east, and with the Roman Empire to Europe in the west. It is now used, and prized, around the world.
- Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice. Each plant produces up to 4 flowers and each flower produces 3 stigmas (aka “strands”). It takes 150,000 flowers and 400 hours of work to yield 1 kilogram (2.2 lbs) of dried Saffron!
- Fortunately, most family-sized recipes call for only 10-20 strands of Saffron.
- Due to its high price, many Saffron substitutes exist: safflower, annatto, tumeric, and even marigold flowers.
- In the 15th Century, the Safranschou code was put in place in Nuremberg (part of modern day Germany) to curb imposter Saffron. Violators could be fined, imprisoned, and even executed!
- In 1374, the theft of a shipment bound for Basel sparked the 14-week-long “Saffron War” between Basel (in modern day Switzerland) and Austria.
USING THIS PLANT
- Edible Flower Parts – The flower styles and stigmas (see photos above) are a common spice and yellow dye for food. Classically used in Indian, Persian, Arabian, Turkish, and European cuisine. They are allowed to dry out before being stored. Can also be used to make a tea. Remember, a little Saffron goes a long way!
- General insect (especially bees) nectar plant
- Ornamental Plant
- Dye Plant – the same stigmas used for food are also used to dye cloth yellow. A blue or green dye can be made from the petals of the flowers as well.
Yield: Each Saffron plant bears up to four flowers. Each flower bears three stigmas. Yield is extremely low!
Harvesting: Cut open flowers in the morning. Carefully remove the stigmas (the red/orange part) with your fingers. Allow to air dry without using high heat (dehydrator on the lowest setting or on a screen in a warm, dry room). Leave the plant to grow (without the flowers) for the remained of the season.
Storage: Store as you would any other dried herb, in a dry, cool, dark location.
DESIGNING WITH THIS PLANT
AHS Heat Zone: Zone 9-6
Chill Requirement: Likely, but no reliable information is available.
Plant Type: Small Herbaceous Plant
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Herbaceous Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: There are a few varieties available.
Pollination: Saffron is considered a sterile plant, so sexual reproducion via pollination does not really occur… but it is likely not self-pollinating if it would produce sexually.
Flowering: Late Spring to early Summer (May-June)
- Years to Begin Flowering: 3-5 years from seed, but only 1-2 years from corms.
- Years of Useful Life: No good information available. Considering that the plants can be propagated from corm division, an individual’s life span is likely irrelevant.
PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THIS PLANT
Roots: Clumping pattern with corms
Growth Rate: Medium
GROWING CONDITIONS FOR THIS PLANT
Shade: Tolerates light shade, but does not grow as well
Moisture: Prefers medium moisture soils.
pH: 5.5-8.5 (tolerates a wide range of soil conditions)
Special Considerations for Growing:
- It is recommended to plant the corms or dormant plants in late Summer.
- Saffron grows best in a Mediterranean climate, but if you live in a non-Mediterranean climate, you can still try growing this plant. Just choose the hottest, driest Summer location for your plantings. They can tolerate cool to cold Winters. Wet Spring and dry Summer is ideal. If your conditions are not great, the plant will not flower. I am not planning on living in a Mediterranean climate. I have in the past when I lived in Turkey, but this is not my favorite climate to live. I still plan to plant Saffron on my land. If I only get flowers once every three or five years, I am just fine with that. I don’t use this spice a whole lot, and a little goes a long way. The plants will still be a great addition to the Herbaceous Layer, and when they do flower, it will be that much more special!
- While Saffron is considered a sterile mutant plant (unable to produce viable seed), it will occasionally produce seed, but almost all of it is non-viable. Seed is planted immediately, and germination can take 1-6 months.
- Typically, and by far most commonly, Saffron is propagated through the corm. This is a small, bulb-like structure that develops underground. A mature corm will produce up to 10 small corms which can be dug up, divided after the growing season (when the top growth has died down), and replanted. Each corm will develop into a new plant.
Minimal. Most non-commercial growers dig up and divide their corms (and replant a patch) every 3-6 years. Division of corms is not manditory, but the patch will spread at a slower rate.
- If a whole lot of Saffron (5 grams) is consumed, it could be deadly… that is the harvest from 750 flowers!
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