Saffron Crocus—Conjuring Color and Flavor in the Autumn Garden
Long before flowers were cultivated solely for their good looks, they were grown to serve some practical, or even preternatural, purpose. This was especially true in the good old days of Minoan Crete, about 1500 BC, when a thriving industry and religious iconography grew up around Crocus sativus, the corm better known as saffron crocus.
Saffron crocus is no ordinary autumn-blooming beauty. Its fragrant, deep lavender, purple-veined flowers house long, scarlet stigmas (the pollen-receptive portions of the female pistils) that can be plucked and dried to make the highly prized spice saffron. Although there are roughly 80 species of crocus, the entire genus is named after this, its most versatile and arguably most handsome member (krokos being the Greek word for "saffron").
The crocus flower suffused Bronze Age Minoan culture. A famous fresco of that era depicts women with crocus blossoms woven or embroidered on costumes of saffron-dyed cloth, wearing saffron-based cosmetics, picking crocus flowers and presenting them to an enthroned goddess. Votive pottery and figurines show the Minoan deity Britomartis all dolled up in a hat-and-dress combo decorated with a crocus motif.
Indeed, the crocus appears so often on Minoan artifacts that its precise significance to the citizens of Crete can only be speculated upon. There's evidence it was used in sacred rituals associated with menstruation and childbirth. One thing is certain, though: The flower formed the basis of a flourishing overseas trade. Even back then, saffron must have cost a pretty drachma.
Hangovers and Hair Dye
No other flower has a more venerable documented history than saffron crocus. It is discussed in the Egyptian Papyrus Ebers, a pharmaceutical record predating the Minoan saffron craze by over 1000 years. It pops up in the Old Testament, too, in the richly poetic Song of Solomon.
Right up there with flax and castor beans, saffron has had an amazing number of uses since human cultures first bloomed in the Mediterranean basin. Medicinally, it was powdered and processed to heal everything from rheumatism to measles. According to Pliny, saffron in wine was a popular remedy for a hangover. Crocologia, a herbal published in 1670, specifies some very interesting—and often ludicrous—applications. A recipe for a salve to cure jaundice, for instance, starts with an ounce of saffron, a quart of earthworms, and a peck of snails.
Roman women used saffron to dye their hair and textiles yellow. ("Saffron," as it happens, comes from the Arabic zafaran, meaning, "yellow.") Impoverished medieval monks sometimes substituted saffron for gold leaf in their religious paintings. And, of course, it was added as a flavoring and colorant to many dishes and cordials. (Today, saffron is found most notably in the fish soup bouillabaisse and Spain's national dish, paella.)
At a banquet given during Emperor Nero's reign, floors were strewn with sawdust and saffron as a colorful cushion for sandaled feet. In his Satyricon, Gaius Petronius described some special baked treats that were served during the feast: "We applied ourselves wholeheartedly to this dessert and our joviality was suddenly revived by a fresh diversion, for at the slightest pressure all the cakes would squirt a saffron sauce upon us."
From the Middle Ages until about 200 years ago, saffron was such a profitable article of commerce that a few pounds of corms served as collateral for a loan of gold or jewels. In 15th century Nuremberg, men were buried alive in punishment for adulterating the spice. (Saffron cheating is as old as the saffron trade itself; often the crocus flower's golden stamens or male flower parts, which have no culinary value, are used to adulterate a crop.)
Much confusion surrounds saffron's arrival in England. A very romantic story, countless versions of which still persist, involves a 14th-century British traveler to the East who, at the risk of his life, concealed a corm inside his walking stick. He brought the plant home to a town in Essex, subsequently named Saffron Walden, where it became an important commodity for more than 400 years.
Nowadays, saffron has earned the reputation of being the most expensive spice in the world. Growers use photospectometry to analyze its three constitutive chemicals—crocin (which imparts color), picrocrocin (flavor), and safranal (aroma)—and determine the quality of a harvest. The price is so high because harvesting is done by hand and over 4,000 crocus stigmas are needed to yield one ounce of saffron. So if you're thinking of starting a saffron business at home, make sure you buy a big window box, one roughly the size of Central Park.
Growing Saffron Crocus
Like other crop plants that have been cultivated for thousands of years, Crocus sativus has an uncertain provenance. It was most likely native to Greece and Asia Minor, but doesn't occur in the wild anymore. Plant historians believe that the saffron crocus originated as a naturally occurring hybrid and was selected and maintained over the centuries for its extra-long stigmas. The plant is unable to set viable seed and must be propagated vegetatively.
C. sativus is not the easiest crocus to grow. It doesn't force well indoors and can be rather temperamental. Generally, the corms bloom nicely the first year, but sparsely thereafter. Saffron crocus likes rich, well-drained soil and dry, very hot summers. This is evidenced by the fact that the epicenter of the world saffron production is La Mancha, Spain.
But don't despair! It may not be an entirely quixotic enterprise to plant saffron crocus in your garden. The flower has also traditionally been grown in the Pennsylvania Dutch country, where the climate certainly differs from that of Spain and other spice-producing regions like India, Egypt, Greece, and Iran. And, as mentioned, for several hundred years it was a faithful crop in England, where summers are relatively moist and cool.
The corms are inexpensive and readily available at garden centers in spring, when they should be planted 4 to 6 inches deep for October bloom. After the flowers fade, the leaves grow rapidly to a length of 18 inches, remaining bright green all winter until late spring, unless squirrels, rabbits or deer do some pruning and unearthing.
Russell Stafford, the knowledgeable purveyor of unusual bulbs at Odyssey Bulbs, sells the straight species and a cultivar, Crocus sativus 'Cashmirianus', reputed to be a more floriferous performer in northern gardens. Mr. Stafford suggests dividing the corm clumps every year or two.
A word of warning: Never confuse saffron or any other autumn-blooming crocus with the similar looking, but highly poisonous, colchicums. It's not hard to get them mixed up, since the 60 to 70 species of fall-blooming corms in the genus Colchicum are commonly referred to as "autumn crocus" or "meadow saffron."
A good way to tell them apart is to remember that colchicums have six stamens while crocuses have only three. Colchicums also belong to the Liliaceae or Lily Family (though maybe it would be better to think of them as members of the Soprano family) while crocuses are in the Iridaceae or Iris Family. No wonder the Minoans worshiped saffron. A few deadly incidences of mistaken identity could put the fear of God into anyone.
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