• Suzanne Sky, L.Ac., MTOM

Growing Saffron in my Backyard!

Someone gave me Saffron (Crocus sativus) bulbs to grow this summer. I put them in a pot and wasn't sure when they'd bloom. A few days ago, several beautiful blooms appeared along with a number of grass-like leaves promising more to come! Each lavender purple flower has 3 red stigmas peeking up and sometimes flowing over the petals. They're usually about 25mm to 30mm

long.. I gently piuck out the 3 long red filaments from the flower & place them on a small plate to dry in my kitchen. I probably have about 14 filaments right now, after several days of harvesting. This evening perhaps I'll try blend Saffron tea with some of them and cook some Basmati Saffron Rice as well. Three to four filaments per person in a cooked dish is supposed to be the portion per person for this powerful spice.

Saffron originated in the Mediterranean region, including Greece, Turkey, Iran and Egypt. Ancient documents show Saffron was used for over 90 conditions over a span of 4000 years throughout the world. Reference to Saffron cultivation in 2300 BC is noted in the Middle Eastern Euphrates, where a famous leader was born in a town whose name might be translated as "Saffron town". A fresco paining in the Palace of Minos at Knossos in Crete, from around 1600 BC depicts Saffron crocuses which were revered as medicine and as sacred spice.

My introduction to Saffron was as a fifth-grader studying Greek history. Our assignment that winter was to get a bar of Ivory soap (plain white soap) and carve one of the 3 types of Greek columns: Ionic, Dorian or Corinthian. We were to color them slightly yellowish using Saffron in water, which my teacher claimed, is what the Greeks also did. At any rate, Saffron is esteemed world-wide as a culinary spice, powerful medicine and excellent dye.

Saffron was known and used by Avicenna and other Persian physicians; by Hippocrates and Greek physicians. Saffron is mentioned in the Songs of Solomon. It was well-known in Egypt, Persia, and Greece and later spread to India, Tibet and China.

The Persians valued Saffron to treat depression. In 1596 the Chinese herbal Bencao Gangmu describes Saffron, so we know that Saffron was introduced to China from Persia. Chinese medicine classifies Saffron as spicy and warm and calls it Hong Hua. It is revered for use in women's medicine to invigorate blood and dispel stasis, particularly for menstrual issues. Because of it's ability to invigorate circulation, my herb teachers taught us to include a little Saffron in most women's formulas to promote health and help circulate the other herbs. Because Saffron is warming and invigorates circulation, it helps provide warmth for those who tend to be cold. Ayurvedic medicine values the stigmas as analgesic and to treat mental illness. Saffron is traditionally used as a mild sedative, antispasmodic, aphrodisiac, digestive aid, emmenagogue, and expectorant in many herbal traditions.

Because of the high cost of Saffron, Safflower flowers are very substituted for both medicinal and culinary use. I'll be writing about Safflower flowers another time!

Externally, Saffron benefits the complexion and skin conditions through its ability to improve circulation and its powerful anti oxidative influence. Saffron was traditionally an important plant dye, used to give a yellow-orange color to material that becomes red with continued applications of the dye. Hindu and Buddhist monks in India often used Saffron for this purpose.

The color of the Saffron filaments comes from a high content of flavonoids. The flavonoid chronic is said to be the main coloring agent. The color from Saffron is richer and deeper than that obtained from Turmeric. More than 150 volatile compounds are found in Saffron including terpenes and their esters. Saffron is high in the beneficial carotenoids including zeaxanthin, lycopene, and various alpha- and beta-carotenes. Many of Saffron's compounds are considered medicinally-important as they demonstrate multiple activities including antihypertensive, anticonvulsant, antitussive, antigenototoxic and cytoxic, antioxidant, antidepressant, anti-inflammatory and relaxant.

Saffron is found to help improve memore and learning skills. It helps increase blood flow to the retina and choroid of the eye.

Saffron crocus can benefit those with mild to moderate depression and is found to exert a positive benefit on brain neurotransmitters. It is also found to help reduce opioid withdrawal syndrome and to enhance nervous system function.

Only a small amount of Saffron is needed, whether for cooking or for herbal use, because it is so powerful. It is also one of the most expensive herbs as it is very labor-intensive to produce. One acre of flowers produces about 6 pounds of saffron per year as they only bloom once. Each pound represents about 75,000 Saffron blossoms or about 100 to 200 thousand red filaments.

Saffron Crocus is not to be confused with Autumn Crocus (Colchinum autumnale), also known as meadow saffron, with is a beautiful ornamental but is toxic. It belongs to the Colchicaceae plant family, while truce crocusses belong to the Iridaceae family. The compound colchicine, while used medicinally, makes this plant deadly poisonous.

Genus Crocus in family Iridaceae (which is part of the Lily family) is about 85 to 100 species coming from the old world, the Mediterranean, europe and Western Asia. The three red stigmas are used. The stigma is attached to a style, which is not high in active compounds, and is not included in the higher grades of saffron. The three yellow stamens are not used and are not found to contain any active compounds. Each Saffron corm produces one to seven flowers which emerge in autumn with grass-like leaves and beautiful lavender-purple petals.The flowers are hermaphrodite (have both male & female organs) and are pollinated by bees and butterflies.

There's about 90 species in the true Crocus family, which are loved by gardeners everywhere for their late winter, early spring blooms. Many bloom in the fall, as does Saffron Crocus.

While there's only one Saffron Crocus, there are variations depending on where the plant is grown. Originally from the Mediterranean region, it likes hot, dry conditions and is used to dry summers with little rainfall.

If you decide to grow some, be sure to place it quite separately from other other Crocus plants. The prefer light (sandy) to medium (loamy), well-drained soils and can grow in nutritionally-poor soil. The are best left unwatered in summer when they are mostly dormant. Some home herbal gardeners say they get a great flush of flowers the first year, with decreasing returns. If you plant them in a pot, they need to be planted an inch or two into the soil. After a few years, as with all such plants, the corms can be dug up and divided. They bloom once a year in autumn, with the harvest ranging over a few weeks in October to November.

I'm still deciding where to plant mine for next year! Meanwhile, I'm enjoying them immensely!

copyright 2016 Suzanne E. Sky


1. Sibhuti Dharmananda PhD. Director, ITM Portland Oregon Saffron: An Anti-depressant herb. 2005 article. http://www.itmonline.org/articles/saffron/saffron.htm

and was written about by Avicenna, the famous Persian physician.

2. Khazdair MR, Boskabady MH, et al. Review Article: The effects of Crocus sativus (saffron) and its constituents on nervous system: A Review. Avicenna J Phytomed. 2015. 5(5):376-391.

3. Saxena RB. Botany, Taxonomy and cytology of Crocus sativus series. Ayu. 2010 jul-Sep. 31(3):374-381.

4. Srivastava R, Ahmed H, et al. Crocus sativus L.: A comprehensive review. Pharmacogn Rev. 2010 Jul-Dec. 4(8):200-208.

5. Khorasany AR, Hosseinzadeh H. Therapeutic effects of saffron (Crocus sativus L.) in digestive disorders: a review. Iran J Basic Med Sci. 2016. 19:455-469.

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​all writings are copyright 2016 by suzanne e. sky