Many of you know saffron as “The World’s Most Expensive Spice," but did you know it can be easily grown right in your own backyard garden? That’s right, just like other flower bulbs you may be used to planting in the fall, saffron can be easily (and surprisingly) thrown into the mix.
What is saffron?
Saffron comes from the autumn crocus (Crocus sativus), of which the bright red strands are dried and used as a spice to add a distinct floral, sweet, earthy flavor to foods. The strands can also be used as a natural dye to add a golden yellow hue to foods and fabrics. For culinary use, very little is needed - just a couple strands will add a unique and flavorful addition to your dish, a sure-fire way to impress your dinner guests!
Why is saffron so expensive?
Saffron threads are the stamens of the crocus. Each flower blooms only one week each year and produces 3-4 stamens, which must be picked by hand and dried. It takes roughly 75,000 flowers to make one pound of saffron spice. This labor-intensive process for only a small amount of reward is the reason for such high prices - even more expensive than gold!
Where does saffron come from?
The history of saffron is an interesting and complex one. It’s a bit of a big question mark as to where exactly this plant first appeared, but most evidence points to the Mediterranean, Southeast Asia, or Persia. Many believe ancient Greece is the country of origin, as the first known images of saffron were found on Minoan pots and frescoes dating back to the 8th century BCE. Many of these images depict saffron being used by goddesses and priestesses, and it’s even scattered in stories throughout Greek mythology (Fun fact - Zeus supposedly slept on a bed of saffron). Regardless of its origin, ancient cultures have long used and cultivated saffron as a spice, dye, perfume, medicinal and spiritual plant, and equally as a symbol of wealth. Today, saffron is primarily grown in Iran, as well as parts of India, Spain, Italy, and France.
How do I grow saffron?
Bulbs should be planted about 2 to 4 inches deep, with the pointy end up. Amend with compost and/or bone meal if your soil needs a little help. Mulch well for winter, and watch for leaf emergence in spring and peel back mulch to help if needed. The bulbs will begin flowering the following fall. Bulbs will produce for 5 to 6 years, with the heaviest production around year 2.
Saffron crocus goes against traditional springtime blossoming and throws up its pretty purple flowers in the fall. And unlike more common crocus, each flower unfurls only three bright orange saffron strands that should be harvested shortly after opening (as in mid-morning). Use the spice fresh right away, or dry for a few days and store in an airtight container for future use. Happy planting!
Written by Chloe Grund