Dr. T. Ombrello - UCC Biology Department




Common names:            Saffron, Saffron Crocus

Scientific name:            Crocus sativus


Explanation of scientific name:       

Crocus   - from the Greek name ‘krokos’ meaning saffron or yellow, probably through Corycus where saffron was first cultivated.

sativus  - Latin for cultivated.

If one was to make a list of the most expensive natural products that we use for or in our food, saffron would certainly rank near the top.  With a price that rivals gold in value, saffron is considered by many to be the most expensive spice in the world.  Saffron is usually sold by the fraction of an ounce or by the gram, and when one does a bit of multiplication, retail prices can be as high as $315 per ounce or $5,040 per pound.

Where does saffron come from?  As the scientific name suggests, it comes from a crocus.  Not from just any crocus and certainly not the spring flowering crocus we grow in abundance around here.  The saffron crocus is the only one of more than 75 crocus species that yields this spice.  The saffron crocus blooms in the fall, producing fragrant, lilac-colored flowers one to two inches long.  The plant’s leaves are long and linear, growing to 18 inches after the plant blooms.  Only the 3 small, burnt-orange female parts of the flower called stigmas are used for the spice.  With a long history of cultivation (Egyptian physicians were using it by 1600 BC), true saffron is known only as a domesticated plant with only a few related species growing in the wild.  This makes it difficult to ascertain its origins, but it is believed to have originated in Asia Minor.

Today saffron is used primarily as a flavoring and coloring agent in foods, especially paella, risotto Milanese, and bouillabaisse.  Its original uses, however, were almost exclusively medicinal.  Throughout history claims have been made that saffron tea was a stimulant and antispasmodic, could induce sweating, provoke menstruation or abortion, cure the plaque, stop toothaches and headaches, and act as an aphrodisiac.  Pliny the Elder listed 20 remedies derived from saffron.  Even today Europeans drink 12 million liters a year of Fernet-Branca, a bitter black elixir based on saffron that people claim will awaken one’s appetite, ease indigestion, or cure a hangover.  Saffron’s aroma is quite pleasant, and the Greeks and Romans used it in perfumes.

While saffron is grown on dry, limestone ground around the world (including France, Italy, Greece, Iran, India, and even Pennsylvania), fully 70% of the world’s supply comes from Spain.  Grown there almost exclusively on small family farms as a side crop, the cultivation of saffron has remained unchanged for thousands of years.  Small bulb-like structures called corms are dug, divided, and replanted every few years.  In the fall they bloom and the flowers are harvested.  A labor intensive endeavor, when the saffron blooms (usually for 3 weeks) all the family’s attention goes to harvesting and processing, working up to 19 hours a day.  Open flowers are picked and then carefully dissected to extract the stigmas.  They are dried over heat and then sealed in packages for sale to international brokers.  How much saffron can be obtained from the flowers?  The numbers are staggering.  With 3 stigmas per flower it takes 75,000 flowers (225,000 stigmas) to make one pound of saffron.  It is easy to see why it is so expensive.