Saffron, also known as Crocus sativus, is a plant that grows from a bulb and belongs to the family of Sword Lily. This is actually a spice with an intense aroma and is used extensively in a variety of cuisines. In fact, saffron is among the most expensive spices available.
This yellowish spice is obtained from the blooms of the species called Crocus sativus, which is widely called saffron crocus, The saffron crocus plant grows up to a height of anything between 20 cm and 30 cm and each plant produces a maximum of about four flowers. Each flower of this species has three bright crimson stigmas that are located far away from the point of attachment of a carpel. In conjunction with the stalks or styles which are connected to the stigmas to the plant hosting them, the dried out stigmas are mostly used in a variety of cuisines in the form of a seasoning as well as coloring agent.
For a long time now, saffron has been one of the most expensive spices available across the globe. It has its origin in the south-western region of Asia and Greece. In fact, available documents show that this spice was cultivated for the first time by people in ancient Greece. Saffron, in the form of a genetically monomorphic clone (in only a single form) was gradually propagated all over the world, especially in Eurasia. Much later, this spice was introduced into different regions of Oceania, North America and North Africa.
Saffron crocus rarely grows in the wild and most probably comes down from the species known as Crocus cartwrightianus, which has its origin in Crete. In fact, its possible forerunners include Crocus thomasii and also Crocus pallasii. It may be noted that the species saffron crocus is basically a triploid (its number of chromosomes is three times that of the basic number) and it is self-incompatible. In other words, it is male sterile. This species undergoes abnormal meiosis and, therefore, does not possess the ability to involve in sexual reproduction on its own. Therefore, this plant is always propagated by means of vegetative multiplication through ‘divide-and-set’ undertaken manually of a clone that is just starting or by means of a process known as interspecific hydridisation. In case, Crocus sativus is a mutant variety of Crocus cartwrightianus, it is likely that this species has come into existence through plant breeding. In this case, the plants may have been chosen to have extended stigmas. And this was possibly done in the later part of the Bronze Age Crete.
The distinct flavour as well as fragrance of saffron are attributed to two chemicals safranal and picrocrocin enclosed by this spice. In addition, saffron also encloses crocin, a carotenoid dye, which gives the spice its vibrant golden yellow color. Dishes to which saffron is added also have this color, while textiles are dyed with this hue. In the 7th century B.C., a team of botanists led by Ashurbanipal wrote a dissertation on the use and benefits of saffron. This Assyrian treatise is known to be the first ever recorded history of this spice. It is interesting to note that saffron has been traded for more than four millennia now. Currently, Iran produces roughly 90 per cent of the world’s saffron production.
A very familiar and reputed remedial herb, saffron has an extensive history of effectual utility. However, currently, it is rarely used, as comparatively inexpensive as well as more effectual herbs are available. The parts of the plant that are used as remedies are the styles and stigmas of the flowers. As these are available in very small amounts and it is quite difficult to harvest them, they are very costly. As a result, in many cases they are adulterated by adding cheaper and inferior quality products. The styles as well as the stigmas of the saffron flower are antiseptic, aphrodisiac, antispasmodic, appetizing, carminative, expectorant, diaphoretic, emmenagogue, stimulant and also sedative. They are used to cure chronic bleeding from the uterus of adults, to bring about menstruation, in the form of a diaphoretic in children, alleviate pains due to menstruation, and also to soothe colic and indigestion.
The stigmas are also used to obtain an analgesic that is used by dentists. The flower styles of saffron are harvested during the autumn when the plants are in full bloom, dried up and stored for future use. However, when stored the styles do not keep well and have a shelf life of just 12 months. Here is a word of caution: use this herbal remedy very carefully, as taking it in excessive dosages may prove to be narcotic, while taking the herb in excess of 10 grams may results in unwanted abortion. Hence, pregnant women ought to be very cautious while using this remedy.
As mentioned earlier, as far as the remedial use of saffron is concerned, it has an extensive history and it has been used in traditional medicine for ages. Even the findings of many recent scientific studies have suggested that saffron possibly possesses anti-mutagenic (prevents mutation), anti-carcinogenic (cancer preventing), antioxidant and immunomodulating attributes. The stigmas as well as the petals of saffron flowers may possibly be beneficial for people suffering from depression. Findings of early studies have revealed that saffron may also be effective in protecting the eyes from the adverse effects of very bright light as well as retinal stress. In addition, it may be useful in inhibiting retinitis pigmentosa and macular degeneration. While nearly all scientific studies related to saffron mention about the stigmas of its flowers, this has often been explained in details in the research papers. In fact, a number of controlled scientific studies have hinted that saffron may also possess several other remedial attributes.
The stigmas of saffron flower yield a yellow dye, which has been employed for ages to color fabric. In fact, this yellow color is a preferred dye for the clothes worn by Indian swamis, who have given up the pleasures of the material world. Even the petals of this plant yield a dye whose color may vary from blue to green.
Generally, the styles of saffron (Crocus sativus) flowers are used to add essence to foods. In addition, they are also used to color a variety of foodstuff, including bread, rice, soups, puddings and sauces. They form an essential ingredient of several traditional food preparations like bouillabaisse, paella, risotto Milanese as well as a variety of other Italian cuisines. The styles of saffron flowers are soluble in water and contain very high amounts of riboflavin. However, the yield of saffron for each plant is very less; roughly 4,000 stigmas supply 25 grams of saffron.
It is worth mentioning here that saffron is the costliest spice available anywhere across the globe. This is primarily because a whopping number of 150,000 flowers and about 400 hours of labor produces just one kg of dried out saffron. Statistically, just approximately 25 kg flower styles are harvested from plants grown in one hectare of land. However, it is fortunate that very little amount of this spice is need to impart flavour and color to the cuisines. As saffron is highly expensive, often unscrupulous traders adulterate this spice by adding inexpensive substitutes like safflower and marigold to this herb. The styles of saffron flowers are also employed in the form of a substitute for tea.
The root of the saffron plant is consumed after cooking. However, the corms of the plant are noxious for young animals and, hence, this report regarding edibility of the different parts of the saffron plant ought to be considered with great caution.
Often connoisseurs describe the fragrance of saffron as something that reminds one of metallic honey along with hay-like or grassy notes. They say that saffron also tastes somewhat like hay and is sweet. Additionally, when added to foods, saffron brings a glowing yellow-orange hue to them. People in India, Arabian nations, Turkey, Europe and Persia extensively use saffron in their food preparations.
In addition to food dishes, frequently saffron is also added to confectionary as well as liquors. As saffron is a very expensive herb, people sometimes use its substitutes, most common among which is safflower (botanical name Carthamus tinctorius), which is usually marketed in the form of ‘açafrão’ or ‘Portugese saffron’. Other substitutes of saffron include turmeric (botanical name Curcuma longa) and annatto. In addition to its culinary uses, this spice is also used to dye fabrics, especially in India and China, as well as by the perfumery industry.
In India, people use saffron in religious rituals. It is also used extensively in cooking a variety of dishes that vary from the Italian dish Milanese risotto to French popular preparation bouillabaisse to biryani of the Indian sub-continent cooked together with different types of meat.
Habitat and cultivation
Saffron is a bulbous plant that has a preference for a sandy (light) or loamy (medium) soil having a proper drainage and without containing any clay (heavy soil). While the plant has a preference for sunlit position, it thrives excellently on calcareous (limestone) soils as well as stony banks that have a hot shelter. Saffron plants are very resilient to frosts and possess the aptitude to also flourish in regions where the summer is not very hot or long. Nevertheless, when grown in such conditions, the plants do not produce flowers. At the same times, these plants make very less amount of saffron when they are cultivated in very fertile soils. It may be noted here that people have been cultivating saffron for more than 4,000 years now for the edible dye yielded by the stigmas of its flowers.
Long ago, saffron was cultivated commercially in Britain, especially in Saffron Walden – this British town actually obtained its name from saffron cultivation. Then again, there is in any case one named form of ‘Cashmirianus’, which gets its name from Kashmir. This variety of saffron plant has large and superior quality corms. In fact, every hectare of plant of this particular variety of saffron produces as much as 27 kg or high quality orange-hued stigmas. When you inhale close to the flowers, they give off a subtle aroma. Dissimilar to nearly all other members belonging to this genus, the ‘Cashmirianus’ flowers never close during the night or when the weather conditions are dull. Precisely speaking, these plants bear flowers only following a hot and arid summer. In addition, the plants of this variety of saffron have an inclination to move very much from the place where they were originally planted, especially owing to their vegetative (asexual) mode of propagation. Hence, it is prudent not to cultivate various species in close vicinity of this saffron variety. Ideally, these plants should be transplanted outdoors during the later part of spring or early spring. Normally, it takes anything between four to five years for the plants to bear flowers from the day of sowing their seeds.
A number of reports suggest that this species is basically a sterile triploid and, hence, it is incapable of producing fertile seeds. Nevertheless, if you are able to obtain the seeds, the ideal time to sow them is immediately after they mature. It is essential to sow the seeds in a cold frame. If you have stored saffron seeds for future use, you should sow these seeds in a cold frame during the spring. Normally, saffron seeds may take anything between one to six months to germinate provided they are maintained at a temperature of 18°C. Provided you have not planted the seeds too deep into the soil, you may transplant the young seedlings in the first year of their existence/ growth itself. Nevertheless, it is important to provide them with liquid feeds at regular intervals with a view to ensure that they do not suffer from any deficiency of nutrients.
Alternatively, you may divide the little bulbs of the plants when the plant has withered and plant two to three bulbs in each pot having a depth of at least 8 cm. Continue to grow the seedlings emerging from this divided bulbs in a cold frame or greenhouse for no less than two years and subsequently transplant them outdoors in their permanent place of growth during the later part of summer when the young plants are dormant.
You may also propagate saffron plants by means of dividing their clumps. This should ideally be done during the summer when the plant has already died down. When propagated by means of clump division, the new plants take about three years to produce flowers. The clumps should be divided during the later part of summer when the aerial part of the plant has withered. You may plant the divided bulbs directly outdoors into their permanent place of growth.
Saffron encloses over 150 compounds that are not only volatile, but also yield aroma. Besides, it also contains several active elements that are stable (non-volatile) and many of these are carotenoids, such as lycopene, zeaxanthin and several alpha (α) and beta (β) carotenes. Nevertheless, the bright golden yellow hue of saffron is mainly attributed to the presence of α-crocin. In effect, this α-crocin is trans-crocetin di-(β-D-gentiobiosyl) ester. By themselves, crocins are a sequence of hydrophilic carotenoids, which are diglycosyl polyene or monoglycosyl esters of crocetin.
Crocetin is basically a conjugated (enclosing alternating chemical bonds) polyene dicarboxylic acid, which is hydrophobic, and hence soluble in oil. When crocetin is converted into an ester (the process called esterification) together with gentiobioses that are soluble it itself becomes soluble in water. It may be noted here that gentiobioses are actually sugars. The α-crocin formed through this process is a carotenoid pigment that may possibly contain over 10 per cent of dehydrated mass of saffron.
Side effects and cautions
Despite being a popular spice and effective remedy for various health conditions, the saffron plant is said to be poisonous. When used in standard dosage, saffron is safe for use. However, using saffron in dosage of anything between 5 grams and 10 grams is said to have resulted in deaths of people consuming this herb.