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Saffron:

Gold in a Crocus Cup

By Audrey Stallsmith

crocus sativus

I must have saffron to color the warden pies.

William Shakespeare, The Winter's Tale

Since it takes about 4,000 crocuses to produce one ounce of saffron, the spice was once literally worth its weight in gold. Its hue is actually an orange-ish gold, considered, in Asia, to be the ultimate color. Kings and other ancient VIPs strutted in robes dyed with saffron.

The spice's name derives, in fact, from the Arabic za'faran ("yellow") and sahafarn ("thread"). Even the Greek word croci, forerunner of crocus, means "weft".

All of this gold comes, strangely enough, from a blue crocus (sativus) which blooms in the fall. As Gerard writes, "The floure of Saffron doth first rise out of the ground nakedly in September, and his long small grassie leaves shortly after, never bearing floure and leafe at once. The floure consisteth of six small blew leaves tending to purple, having in the middle many small yellow strings or threds; among which are two, three or more thicke fat chives of a fierie colour somewhat reddish. . ."

There is also a white-flowered form of the saffron crocus (as pictured above), but it is much rarer. The "chives" Gerard mentions are the stigmas of the crocus and they, along with part of the style, were picked, dried, and pressed into little cakes.

Although the ancients adored saffron, also called karcom, krokos, or zaffer, it is apparently not so appealing to those unaccustomed to it. Many modern writers describe the spice as "bitter" and its aroma as "astringent." Nevertheless, that scent often pervaded weddings and theaters, and the sawdust on Nero's banquet floor glowed with saffron, vermilion, and powdered mica.

Crocus sativus was probably brought back to England from the Holy Land during the Crusades, either by the Knights of St. John or, as one tradition goes, by a pilgrim who risked his neck to hide a bulb in the hollow head of his walking stick. Saffron is native to the Mediterranean countries, but was eventually raised in large quantities at Saffron Walden in England where the growers were called "croakers." Monks used the yellow dye in place of gold leaf in their artwork and calligraphy.

Saffron tea became a popular remedy for fevers caused by skin diseases such as measles. It apparently invigorated too, since Gerard reported that "the moderat use thereof is good for the head, and maketh the sences more quickly and lively, shaketh off heavy and drowsie sleepe, and maketh a man merry."

He added that "it is also such a speciall remedie for those that have consumption of the lungs, and are, as we terme it, at death's doore, and almost past breathing, that it bringeth breath again. . ."

Saffron has also been used for skin and menstrual disorders, to treat alcoholism and depression, to strengthen the heart, and as a tonic or aphrodisiac.

One must be careful, however, not to confuse true saffron with another fall-blooming crocus known as meadow saffron, colchicum autumnale, or Naked Ladies. It is, as Turner so eloquently put it "sterke poyson and will strongell a man and kill him in the space of one day!" So, if you wish to try growing saffron, make very sure that you purchase crocus sativus.

You can more safely and easily buy the spice ready-made, but it is also very expensive. High-quality saffron can cost up to $36 an ounce. (That is why some supermarkets have been known to keep it locked in the manager's safe!) The spice's supporters point out, however, that an ounce of saffron is a year's supply if only used once a week.

It is sold in both thread and powdered form, with the powder being more potent and convenient, as it can be added directly to recipes. The threads must be steeped first. The best saffron has a coloring stength of at least 220.

Saffron, like gold, was thought to make men happy. In the Language of Flowers, after all, the saffron crocus stands for "mirth." But saffron itself warns "beware of excess."

Gerard cautioned that over-consumption of the spice "causeth head-ache, and is hurtful to the braine. . .for the too much using of it cutteth off sleep. . ." Culpeper reported that some users "have fallen into an immoderate convulsive laughter, which ended in death." That proves, I guess, that too much saffron, like too much gold, can become a dangerous extravagance!

Crocus sativus image is from Kohler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.