COMMON NAME – Saffron crocus
SCIENTIFIC NAME – Crocus sativus L.
The most expensive spice in the world!
The saffron crocus is actually a mutant derived from Crocus cartwrightianus, which is native to Greece and Crete. Saffron is sterile and therefore cannot reproduce from seed; it must be propagated by multiplication of corms (underground storage organs). Each corm only lasts one season and produces up to ten cormlets for the next season. The flowers are fragrant and usually pale mauve or lilac with darker veins, and they are harvested in the morning after the dew evaporates but before the flower withers. It’s the extra long red stigmas, which were selected for during the domestication of saffron, that are used as a condiment and colourant in cuisine. After harvesting they must be dried quickly at high temperature to maintain the vibrant colour and produce a good quality spice. The average weight of the fresh stigmas is 0.03g per flower; that means that between 70,000 and 200,000 flowers must be harvested to produce 1kg of saffron! It’s no wonder the spice is so expensive.
Not just a pretty stigma
Saffron has been cultivated in Mediterranean countries and used by cultures all over the world for over 3000 years. It has many historical and contemporary uses besides colouring and spicing up European and Asian cuisine. Recorded uses include as a dye, a perfume, a cosmetic, and a medicinal herb used to treat eye problems, genitourinary infections and many other diseases. Recent research has found evidence for the efficacy of saffron to treat depression, cancer, psoriasis, and symptoms associated with menstruation, although historically it has many more medicinal uses than these. It was used in ritual healing in ancient Mesopotamia, the first known great civilization, and in Assyria and Babylon to treat complaints such as menstrual pains and headaches. In Egypt saffron was used to treat eye disorders, asthma, pain including menstrual cramps, urinary infections, and to induce labour, and it is said that Cleopatra used to bathe in milk and saffron. Iran is the world’s largest producer of saffron (85% of world production), and in ancient Persia it was dispersed along parade routes together with gold, flowers, and sweets at wedding celebrations. So precious was saffron in antiquity that it was given as a gift along with gold, and was also a spiritual item used to scent the bodies of the dead. In India saffron was used to display wealth and status; it was used as a dye for clothes, as an expensive perfume, and even in home décor!
Basker, D., & Negbi, M. (1983). Uses of saffron. Economic Botany, 37(2), 228-236.
Deo, B. (2003). Growing saffron—the world's most expensive spice. Crop Food Res, 20(1), 1-4.
Gohari, A. R., Saeidnia, S., & Mahmoodabadi, M. K. (2013). An overview on saffron, phytochemicals, and medicinal properties. Pharmacognosy reviews, 7(13), 61.
Mousavi, S. Z., & Bathaie, S. Z. (2011). Historical uses of saffron: Identifying potential new avenues for modern research. Avicenna Journal of Phytomedicine, 1(2), 57-66.
JENNIE HARVEY MSC
Jennie has an academic background in Biology and Ethnobotany and is currently studying for a PhD in Geography. She has interests in ethnobiology, biocultural conservation, traditional knowledge, and smallholder agriculture.