Do you use saffron when you cook? If you do, you likely know how expensive it is. This highly prized flavoring agent has been treasured for centuries, and is still the most expensive seasoning on the planet. The good news is that it’s also really easy to grow! Follow this guide on how to grow saffron crocuses and you’ll never run out of this glorious spice.
All About Saffron
Saffron is one of the most prized and expensive spices in the world, and has been cultivated for over 3,500 years. It’s been prized throughout history for its use as a spice, dyeing agent, cosmetic ingredient, perfume, and its many uses in folk medicine. In fact, Cleopatra herself used to bathe in saffron-infused milk regularly to maintain her strength and appearance.
The word “saffron” comes from the Persian word “zarparan”, which literally means “yellow stigmas”. It’s mostly cultivated in Iran—where 90% of the world’s saffron is grown—but some of the best is grown in Sardinia. Heralded for its intense flavor and aroma, it’s known as “red gold” here, and treasured accordingly.
It’s said that the Phoenicians brought saffron to the island thousands of years ago, and it’s one of the sacred trinities of traditional Sardinian cuisine. The other two parts of that trinity are honey, and sheep’s milk ricotta cheese. I recently created a recipe using those three staples for the October 2018 edition of Costco Connection.
Growing saffron requires the right conditions for the plant to thrive. That said, with the right soil and sunlight requirements (and some patience) you can easily grow saffron in your home garden.
What is Saffron (and Why is it So Expensive)?
Saffron is the dried stigma of a particular crocus flower species: Crocus sativus.
The reason saffron is so expensive is that it takes an average of 150,000 flowers to create just 1 kilogram (about 2 pounds) of the spice. Picking those flowers requires 40 hours of labor, and most small-scale farmers only produce this limited quantity every year.
The blooms are hand-picked, and then the stigmas are pulled out of the flower by hand and left to air dry. In Sardinia, the stigmas are rubbed with a little olive oil to help preserve them before they’re left out to dry.
Saffron’s Many Benefits
If you aren’t sure about whether you want to try your hand at growing saffron, learning about its many benefits might give you the final push. Saffron isn’t just delicious in Paella—it has over 40 therapeutic medicinal applications as well.
Many people drink a cup of warm saffron milk before bed: a remedy that’s been used since ancient times to promote better sleep. This is most likely due to safranal: the volatile compound in saffron, which is also a natural pain reliever.
Saffron is loaded with B vitamins, carotenoids (like crocin), and antioxidants, which help neutralize free radicals in the body. This can help with preventing macular degeneration since the antioxidants can delay cell damage and death.
Hair, Skin, and Heart
This spice is also high in manganese, iron, and potassium. All these vitamins and minerals are vital for good hair and skin. The high potassium content is also great for the heart because it dilates the blood vessels and arteries.
One of the most studied uses for saffron is as an aid for mild to moderate depression. It helps to regulate brain chemicals by stimulating the release of neurochemicals like serotonin, and dopamine, which can also help PMS symptoms.
Diabetes and Obesity
Coughs and Colds
Saffron has also historically been used in folk medicine as an expectorant to aid those who suffer from coughs and asthm. It also helps to aid in recovery from whooping cough.
It’s also the world’s oldest aphrodisiac. Science proves that it can improve androgen levels in women, which increases libido.
Look for the official saffron crocus, or Crocus sativus. It’s a small plant, with green, grass-like leaves growing up from the round corm—much like a bulb.
The corms are sold in several sizes: small, medium, and large. Although the small corms are less expensive, they might not flower the first year, whereas the larger corms to have a higher chance of doing so.
The best place to buy them is at a reputable online retailer, although some specialty gardening shops may carry them.
Saffron is expensive, but that’s mostly due to the amount of labor involved to get it from field to fork, not because it is difficult to grow. In fact, with the right conditions, you can grow them easily.
Start with about two dozen medium or large Crocus sativus. These should produce enough saffron in the first year to enjoy a few dishes where the spice really shines, like Spanish paella, Swedish saffron buns or, Chicken Biryani.
Here in Sardinia, we enjoy it in sweets, like cookies, and also in savory dishes like the national dish, malloreddus. In that dish, it can be found in the sauce or the homemade pasta itself. Three flowers will provide you with 5-10 saffron strands, which should be plenty for most recipes.
In the first year, around 50% of the corms will produce one flower each. Over the next two years, each corm will produce 2 flowers or so. Just like other plants that grow from bulbs, the corms will multiply each year, meaning an increase in harvestable stigmas.
The plants should be dug up and divided every three to four years in June when they’re dormant. Move them to a new bed well away from their previous one if there’s any sign of disease.
If you’re growing them in containers, replace the potting mix with fresh soil every year. At that point, you can expand your existing beds or share the excess corms with friends or family.
How to Plant Saffron Crocuses
Saffron crocuses can be grown in zones 5-9, but many growers say the soil conditions are more important than the hardiness zones.
To prepare the soil for them, turn the ground over, and mix with a good amount of aged manure or compost.
You can also plant them in containers to ensure the ideal conditions. For containers, plant the bulbs 2 inches deep and 2 inches apart. Keep the soil moist, but not overly saturated. Be sure the bottom of the post has excellent drainage. Containers are a good solution if you have wet summers, because you can move the pots out of the rain to keep the bulbs from rotting.
If you’re planting them in a garden bed, plant them 4 inches deep and about 4-6 inches apart. They grow best in clusters as opposed to rows. Cluster them in groups of 10-12 corms.
Saffron crocus flowers should appear 6-8 weeks after planting your bulbs, but may actually not flower until the following year.
Ideal Soil Conditions
The crocus plants require loamy, nutrient-rich, well-drained soil in a sunny location. Achieving the right soil conditions is probably the most difficult aspect to growing saffron crocuses. They don’t like soggy ground, as that will cause the corms to rot. Nor do they thrive in hard clay soils. Therefore, be sure to adjust your soil to fit the ideal growing conditions.
Sun & Water Requirements
Saffron crocuses require good sun, and need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight a day to thrive.
They don’t require watering unless you live in a dry area prone to drought, in which case you need to water them lightly once a month.
Be sure to plant the bulbs as soon as you get them because they do not keep well. Plant them from late summer to fall, directly into the ground. The first spring, you’ll see some green foliage emerge, which will turn yellow and then die back. You’ll have your first crocus flowers the following fall.
Problems and Solutions
Wood mice, voles, and rabbits all enjoy munching on saffron plants, whether it’s on the foliage or the corms themselves. If you’re planting in the ground, try a raised bed with wire fencing attached to the bottom of the bed to deter them. Or try planting them in pots. To deter rabbits, plant them in a fenced-in area.
The other problems all have to do with soil that’s too wet. As long as you’re careful about the soil, you can avoid the rest.
Harvesting & Storing
Wait until a warm sunny day when the flowers are fully open to harvest your saffron. This will generally occur in October or November, depending on where you live.
You’ll find 3 orange-red stigmas in the center of each flower. Use your fingers or tweezers to remove them. If you have a lot of plants, this method will prove very time consuming. As such, you can trim all the flowers and then pull out the stigmas at once while sitting more comfortably at a table.
Dry them on paper towels for about 3 days, or until they’re completely dry and brittle. Then let them age in an airtight container in a cool, dark place for about a month before using.
Store your saffron in an airtight container in a cool, dark cupboard for up to 2 years.
How to Use Saffron in Cooking
There’s a lot of confusion about how much saffron to use in a recipe. It greatly depends on the quality of the saffron, and a little goes a long way. If you’re using your own homegrown spice, you can be sure it will be fresh and of good quality. Start with a small amount: around 5 strands.
Crush the saffron to get the most out of it. This releases the flavor and makes the color stronger too.
The next step is to infuse a liquid with the saffron. This can be done with boiling water or very cold water.
To learn everything you need to know about cooking with saffron, check out The Persian Fusion.