(Crocus sativus – Family Iridaceae)
Saffron is a member of the Crocus family, one of the earliest bulbs to appear through the snow in the spring. “Crocus” is the Greek name for ‘saffron’, the most expensive of all spices. True saffron is contained in the orange-red stigmas of the crocus flower. The stigmas are dried and stored in sealed containers to avoid bleaching. The final product is an aromatic matted mass of narrow, threadlike, dark orange to reddish-brown strands about an inch long. If the stigmas are mixed with the styles, the spice is called “female saffron” and is of a lesser value commercially. The enormous cost is because the stigmas can be picked by hand only, and it requires 70,000 flowers to obtain one pound (avoirdupois) of saffron. To put it another way, it takes one acre of ground to yield about 10 pounds of dried saffron. The maximum yield occurs in the third year after planting. In France, saffron beds are uprooted and replanted after three years; in Spain, every four years; in Italy, every year; and in Kashmir, every ten to fifteen years. The majority of connoisseurs seem to favour the saffron produced in southeast Spain.
The plant is thought to have originated in Asia Minor, and was introduced into Spain by the Arabs before spreading to France and the western Mediterranean during the Crusades. Today, it is widely grown in Europe, Iran, Afghanistan, India, and China. Saffron was known as a medicinal plant in ancient Egypt and mentioned by Hippocrates, Theophrastus, and later, Galen, who attributed various medicinal and culinary uses to it. Saffron aids in the digestion and is a natural sedative. The Romans also used it for dying fabric. Saffron has a spicy, pungent, bitter taste and a tenacious odour, so only a very small amount is needed to give flavour and colour. Since saffron is such a valuable commodity, less expensive substitutes are available either openly or by deception. Two of the most common are turmeric, which provides the yellow colour but none of the flavour, and safflower, which is a member of the Sunflower and Thistle family, used since early times as a dye.