When was the last time you checked the price of saffron, that golden-colored condiment usually found in tiny plastic pouches on your grocer’s spice rack? Expensive, wasn’t it? And that’s only for a minute amount. Pound for pound, saffron is, as it has been for over three thousand years, worth its weight in gold.
Of course, a pound is a lot of saffron (I can’t think of anything lighter than saffron, except perhaps for feathers) and probably more than you could consume in a lifetime of eating the Mediterranean rice dishes it is mostly used in.
So, having invested in your pound of saffron, you might as well try using it for one of its other uses: as a dye (yellow of course), as a medicine or in making your own perfume.
Saffron Doesn’t Grow on Trees
If you thought saffron grew on some tropical tree or shrub, you wouldn’t be alone. Most people probably don’t realize that saffron is produced, not from some warm-climate berry, but from the dried stigmas of a tiny crocus that can be grown in temperate-climate backyards. The saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) is one of fall-flowering crocuses which home gardeners are just beginning to discover.
Yes, it’s a bulb. Well, actually a corm (a bulblike organ). Just like the crocus corms gardeners everywhere plant in the fall.
Who’d a Thunk?
I have often wondered who in the world first discovered the saffron crocus’s culinary and medicinal properties.
After all, if you’ve ever looked at the trumpet-shaped stigmas of a crocus, you realize they’re small and relatively insignificant. Plus, you pretty much have to be down on your hands and knees to collect them. When you think of the enormous quantity of blooms required to make one ounce of saffron powder (some 4,000!) and the fact each stigma must be handpicked, you’ll have no trouble understanding why saffron is so expensive.
Historians tell us that saffron was first used in Greece, certainly the world’s crocus capital with some 70 native crocus species. How was the saffron crocus singled out from among all those?
Well, it turns out that other crocuses were used at first, and not only fall crocuses like C. cartwrightianus, but spring-blooming crocuses too, like spring crocus (C. vernus) and late crocus (C. serotinus).
For thousands of years, hunter gatherers wandered through the region, harvesting what edible and medicinal plants they could find in the bush. They would have had the patience to harvest the stigmas… and were on their hands and knees anyway, looking for useful plants. Of course, crocus stigmas, with a long history of medicinal use, would have been on their list.
Even as farming spread through Europe, though, the main crops grown were cereals, fruits and certain vegetables. Crocus stigmas were still gathered from the wild.
A Natural Hybrid
Saffron crocus was apparently only ever found once in the wild. It is a sterile triploid*, and produces no fertile male pollen. Nor can it produce seeds. All that flowering is … just for us humans, really!
*Triploids have 3 sets of chromosomes rather than the usual 2.
Some 3,600 years ago (we know it has been grown since at least that time), one harvester apparently noticed an aberrant crocus with an outrageously long stigma, twice as long as normal. Apparently, they judged its bitter taste, hay-like fragrance, and bright coloring made a good combination for cooking, dyeing, fragrance or medicine. So, rather than harvesting the flower, they started propagating that one specimen by division. That’s the only way you can propagate saffron under normal circumstances. It never produces seed.
All saffron plants grown around the world are nearly identical, clones of the original plant. Sure, there have been some minor mutations over time, but nothing you’d notice. Few other plants are that stable.
From Athens to Crete
Until 2019, historians generally thought saffron crocus originated from an accidental crossing between two different crocus species in Crete, where farmers seem to have first grown it as a crop. But a study by Zahra Nemati et al found it is not in fact an interspecies hybrid, but rather an intraspecies one. Both parents were variants of Crocus cartwrightianus. As proof, 99.3% of the alleles of modern C. sativus come from C. cartwrightianus.
But not from a Cretan C. cartwrightianus.
C. cartwrightianus is a widespread crocus with lots of genetic local variants. All have somewhat different genetics that you can study. And the parent plants both came not from Crete, but from somewhere near Athens in Greece. There, two neighboring plants somehow underwent fusion and that resulted in autopolyploidisation.
There is now some thought that it might be possible to finally do some hybridizing to create new and superior clones of saffron by crossing C. cartwrightianus, which does have fertile flowers, and forcing fusion among the resulting hybrids.
Saffron Makes the Rounds
Having been such a valuable commodity, saffron’s history is long and fascinating. And it certainly got out and about!
So, although native to the Greek mainland, saffron was apparently carried quite rapidly to Crete. There, the Minoans (a Bronze Age civilization) first popularized it. Indeed, the wealth that lead to the development of their rich culture was largely based on the saffron trade.
Of course, that kind of wealth requires suitable protection. So, the Minoans (and later the other Mediterranean peoples who grew it) went to great lengths to prevent other cultures from learning the secrets of its production. They threatened saffron corm thieves with death, of course. But not many people manage to keep a secret for thousands of years.
So, saffron culture spread, first along the south shores of the Mediterranean and later, during the Crusades, to Western Europe.
It is said that saffron culture was introduced to the British Isles when an English voyager traveling in Algeria stole a few corms and, at the risk of his life, hid them in the hollowed-out shaft of his walking stick. That way he was able to get them out of the country. It’s entirely possible that the centuries-old saffron culture of England’s Essex County is entirely based on these few illegally-imported corms.
Producers grow saffron is grown in suitable climates all over the world. However, Iran is by far the greatest producer, contributing about 88% of the world’s saffron production of some 400 tons. Much of the rest is divided between India, Spain and Greece.
Growing Your Own
Fortunately, the art of growing saffron is no longer a well-kept secret. And saffron corms are now freely available, costing about the same as or only slightly more than average spring-flowering crocuses.
Fall-flowering crocuses, including the saffron crocus, need the same well drained, fairly dry soil as any other crocus and are otherwise just as easy to grow.
Size matters and big corms give the best blooms. Unfortunately, the corms packaged for sale in garden centers are usually the runts of the litter. For best results, use 10/+ CM clorms, the largest size. However, they can be hard to find and you may have to go with ?9/10 CM bulbs. Anything less is likely to give you disappointing results.
Corms are usually available for planting in August or earliest September. Simply plant them about 3 to 4 inches (8 to 10 cm) deep in a sunny or partly shaded spot. That’s if you have either a mild climate (USDA zones 6 to 8) or good snow cover. In cold climates (USDA zones 3 to 5) where you can’t count on good snow cover, try deep planting: 8 to 12 inches (20 to 30 cm), but if so, the soil has to be very well drained!
Set the corms with the flat or concave part (bottom) facing down and the pointed part facing up. Then fill in with soil.
To finish, water lightly to launch new growth.
A few weeks later, a clump of small, wispy, grasslike leaves will form on each corm. They die back in late fall in many climates, but often hang around until spring under the snow in cold ones.
Don’t Expect Oodles of Bloom!
With saffron crocus, don’t expect a dense cluster of flowers as you would with some spring crocuses. If you plant two dozen corms (a reasonable number if your goal is to harvest enough saffron for a bit of cooking the first year), expect less than half to bloom the first year. (That first year seems to tough on them.) One to three flowers may appear, usually separately. Each lasts up to two weeks (if you don’t harvest it). Flowers close at night and open in the morning, but usually remain closed on rainy or cloudy days. The flowers appear over a period of several weeks, usually starting 4 to 6 weeks after planting.
Over time, if you don’t divide the corms, the number of flowers increases as more and more offsets (secondary corms) are produced. Still, a “field of blooming saffron” is more something you’d see in a Mediterranean clime. In more temperate regions, it’s rarely more than a few weakly growing grasslike leaves spotted with flowers.
However, the lilac-purple flowers with darker purple veins are very attractive, especially since they bloom at a time of the year when most of our garden flowers are fading.
The saffron crocus usually blooms in September or October in colder climates, until late November in more moderate ones. Fortunately, it isn’t bothered by early frosts.
Plant Them Where You Can See Them
Plant fall-flowering crocus corms where their major advantage—the surprise of seeing crocus flowers appear from nowhere at such an unexpected time of the year—is best put to use.
Obviously, they won’t be all that spectacular in a garden of still-blooming annuals. However, put them in a rock garden where their flowers seem to appear directly out of cracks in a bare rock, and they will really shine!
In a fairly dry climate, saffron crocuses naturalize quite well. They’ll also fit in perfectly in a lightly shaded woodland or even directly in a lawn. And should you happen to have a meadow lying around (I’m afraid most of us urbanites and suburbanites are lacking in that respect), you’ll see your fall-flowering crocuses in an environment where they look their most natural … and therefore their best.
One warning, though, saffron crocuses do not like irrigation! They prefer a baking hot and dry summer … the conditions they’d get back in Crete!
In a small garden, where the thin leaves take up space, I suggest mixing fall-flowering crocus corms with spring-flowering ones. That will give you flowering spaces that bloom twice in the same year.
Some people, harder-working than I, grow them in pots and move them indoors and out to get the best harvest. The concept is simple: you need to keep the corms cool (40 to 50?F/4 to 10?C) but completely dry in the winter, then outdoors in the spring. Plus, you might have to bring them back indoors in the summer if your climate is rainy.
Harvesting Your Own Saffron
You have to be ruthless to harvest saffron, because that means removing the flower shortly after it opens. The poor plant barely starts to show its first flower and you’re already pulling it off!
It’s important to wait until a dry day to harvest, though. Collect the flower in the morning after the dew has evaporated. Ideally, you’d harvest the day after the flower opens, when it is at its freshest.
To do so, get down on your hands and knees. Using eyebrow tweezers or scissors, or pinching with your fingernails, carefully remove the flower at its base, leaving the foliage intact, and set it in a bowl or bag. Continue harvesting the flowers-of-the-day from other plants, then set up a workshop, perhaps on a table or bench, indoors or out, and start delicately pulling the flowers apart.
Remove the stigma from the petals, then snip off the yellow parts (the base and the stamens). You want the reddish-orange pistil, divided into three styles called filaments. Place them on absorbent paper to dry. Some people prefer to dry them in the sun, which is faster, but others in the shade, where there is less risk of going too far. You can also carefully dry them in an oven at low heat: 85 à 125 °F (30 to 50 °C) for 20 à 30 minutes is usually fine.
When the filaments are dry, darker red and a bit crunchy, they’re ready for storage. Place them in a sealable glass container and store them in the dark. The flavor improves to a certain degree as the filaments mature, which they do over a time ranging from one month to one year.
Save your precious saffron to use with a meal with friends so you can impress them with your prowess at growing this, the most precious and rarest of all spices!
Hardier Than I Thought
When I first started growing bulbs 50 years ago, I was under the impression that fall-flowering crocuses were fairly tender. I often saw them listed as hardy to USDA hardiness zones 6 to 8 (AgCan zones 7 to 8). Where I live (USDA zone 3, AdCan zone 4), it’s far colder than that. So, I never bothered trying to grow them.
Then one fall I visited an abandoned garden in my neighborhood: an estate called Villa Bagatelle. And I was simply awed by what I saw. The former lawn, then a field mowed perhaps once or twice each year, was awash with the bright blue-veined flowers of Crocus speciosus, a close relative of the saffron crocus. There were literally thousands of these bulbs in bloom, all dating from original plantations over 40 years earlier when the gardens were more carefully attended to.
I figured that if such a bulb was able to not only thrive but even spread over that many years, including through some unusually cold winters, it was much hardier than it was given credit for.
I’ve since tried growing fall-flowering crocuses myself with great success. However, I have to mention that, in both Villa Bagatelle and my own garden, snow cover is excellent, so some mulching may be required elsewhere. Do note that corms planted in lawns or woodland rarely require mulching, as thatch and leaf litter give natural protection.
No More Fields of Crocuses
Sadly, the fields of fall-flowering crocuses are no more. Villa Bagatelle and its garden were “restored” from 1983 to 1985, and part of the restoration included removing all those “weeds’’ so a proper lawn could be developed. And that included the crocus bulbs, which were dug up and destroyed. However, they did miss some, so you can still find a few here and there.
The saffron crocus is not the only fall-blooming crocus of interest. In fact, if you’re looking for flowers for beauty, it’s probably the least floriferous one! (If you want to harvest the spice saffron, though, saffron crocus is your only choice.)
C. speciosus is perhaps the hardiest of all and is therefore among the best for colder climates. There are several cultivars of this popular species in different shades of blue and lilac, often with attractive darker veining. Other interesting varieties, in shades of white through purple, include C. cartwrightianus, C. kotschyanus. C. laevigatus ‘Fontenayi’ and C. ochroleucus.
And, of course, colchicums, which are often mistakenly called autumn crocuses, have similar habits but with much larger blooms and can be used with or in replacement of true fall-flowering crocuses. Well, they can replace them ornamentally, at least. Colchicums are poisonous and should never be eaten. But then, nor should any crocus other than saffron. The others fall into the “not poisonous, but not considered edible” category. Like most plants, they contain a few toxins, but not enough to do any serious damage, either to pets or humans. However, since true crocuses (Crocus spp.) aren’t edible, they could cause nausea or vomiting if you decide to chow down on them. So, just don’t eat them! And keep the corms where pets can’t munch on them.
However, even if some fall-flowering bulbs have bigger, more numerous or more brightly colored flowers, I think that the saffron crocus has a special charm all its own. Every gardener should try growing it.
Now is the time to order or purchase your autumn-flowering crocuses, as they should be planted in late August or early September if you want to get the most of their bloom the first year. If you plant them too late, there may be no flowers during the first season, with better results in the following years.
Article updated form one originally published in Canadian Garden News in September 1987.