Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
As I look around and finally spy the signs of spring creeping up on us, it seems appropriate to look closer at one of the earliest spring bulbs, the crocus. They are so eager for spring it is not unusual to spy their bright blooms against a background of late-season snow. Not only are crocus a welcome sight after a long dreary winter, but one species is the source of one of the most expensive natural products, rivaling gold in its price.
Many of the cooks among you probably realize that saffron comes from a crocus. The saffron crocus, Crocus sativus, is the only one out of seventy-five species of crocus that is a source of saffron. We usually think of crocus as a spring flower, but the Saffron crocus is a fall bloomer.
The saffron itself is actually the female portion of the crocus flower, called the stigma. There are three tiny stigmas per flower. It takes approximately 75,000 flowers (containing 225,000 stigmas) to equal one pound of saffron. Considering these numbers, it should come as no surprise that saffron is enormously expensive.
Compounding the cost is the fact that much of the labor involved in saffron production is all by hand. There simply is no way to automate the careful dissection of stigmas from each flower. Plus, post harvest, the small bulb-like corms must be divided by hand and replanted.
Saffron crocus have been cultivated for thousands of years. Some debate remains as to its precise origin, but many accept that saffron was first cultivated in or around Asia minor, which is approximately modern-day Turkey.
Today most people associate saffron with cooking, but ancient people primarily thought of it as medicine. From curing a hangover to curing the plague, saffron was the answer for many people. Modern day Europeans drink an elixir called Fernet-Branca containing saffron that many consider a general health promoting tonic. Saffron has also been used as a perfume or dye, and in some cultures was used much like money.
Saffron crocus prefer dry, alkaline soil, limiting production to specific regions of the world, particularly Spain, that supplies over seventy percent of the world's saffron. Some saffron is produced in the U.S. It may seem surprising, but the Amish and other Pennsylvania Dutch in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, have been cultivating saffron for hundreds of years.
Saffron is graded according to a system established by the International Standards Organization (ISO) according to color, odor, flavor, and plant or other waste materials present. High quality saffron is a deep yellow color. Lighter colors typically occur when the male flower part, the stamen, is present.
It does follow that higher quality saffron requires more labor and more attention to detail to keep the product as pure as possible. This translates to a higher price for consumers. Typically saffron is used in small quantities in cooking, and saffron fans would argue there really is no substitute. Considering all the work that goes into gathering saffron, perhaps in the long run consumers are really getting a good deal.