Growing crocus for saffron

Information On How To Grow Saffron Crocus Bulbs

Saffron has often been described as a spice that is worth more than its weight in gold. It’s so expensive that you may wonder “Can I grow saffron crocus bulbs and harvest my own saffron?” The answer is yes, you can grow saffron in your home garden. Keep reading to learn how to grow saffron.

Before Growing Saffron Crocus

Saffron comes from the saffron crocus bulb (Crocus sativus), which is an autumn blooming crocus. The spice is actually the red stigmas of this crocus flower. Each flower will only produce three stigmas and each saffron crocus bulb will only produce one flower.

When growing saffron, first find a place to purchase the saffron crocus bulbs. Most people turn to a reputable online nursery to purchase them, though you may find them for sale at a small local nursery. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll find them at a chain store or big box store.

Once you have purchased the saffron crocus bulbs, you can plant them in your yard. As they are fall-blooming crocus, you will plant them in the fall, but they will probably not bloom the year you plant them. Instead, you’ll see foliage in the spring, which will die back, and saffron flowers the following fall.

Saffron crocus bulbs do not store well. Plant them as soon as possible after receiving them.

How to Grow Saffron Plants

Saffron plants need well draining soil and lots of sun. If saffron crocus is planted in swampy or poor draining soil, it will rot. Other than needing good soil and sun, saffron crocus are not picky.

When you plant your saffron crocus bulbs, place them in the ground at about 3 to 5 inches deep and at least 6 inches apart. About 50 to 60 saffron flowers will produce about 1 tablespoon of saffron spice, so keep this in mind when figuring how many to plant. But, also keep in mind that saffron crocus multiply rapidly, so in a few years time you will have more than enough.

After your saffron crocus bulbs are planted, they need very little care. They will be hardy down to -15 F (-26 C). You can fertilize them once a year, though they grow fine without being fertilized as well. You can also water them if the rainfall in your area falls below 1.5 inches per week.

Growing saffron crocus is easy and certainly makes the expensive spice much more affordable. Now that you know how to grow saffron plants, you can give this spice a try in your herb garden.

Saffron | How it’s Grown

Growing up in India where saffron is synonymous with luxury, I knew saffron as the ‘we’re expecting guests’ spice. Today at €25,000 a kilogram, it is the most expensive item in my neighbourhood’s supermarket! Let’s take a look at what makes saffron the most expensive spice in the world.

What is saffron?

Saffron comes from the flower of Crocus sativus (also known as saffron crocus). More specifically, from its stigmas and styles. Most historians speculate it was first domesticated in Iran, but south-western Greek islands remain strong contenders. Traders, conquerors, and world explorers introduced it to China, India, and the Middle East.1 From there, it travelled to Mediterranean Europe.1 At present, Iran, Greece, Morocco, India, Spain and Italy are the world’s top saffron producers.2

Saffron production

Saffron, as we know it today, cannot be produced without human intervention. The seeds produced by its flowers are sterile, making natural pollination impossible.3 The plant reproduces asexually via vegetative propagation. Cultivation is done through corms, which are its bulb-like stems that grow under the soil. 3 The Crocus sativus plant likes dry, warm weather, but tolerates light snow. Its favourite type of soil has clay with a good mix of calcium carbonate and other organic matter.4

Harvesting saffron

Corms are sowed in summer and the saffron crocus flowers are ready to be harvested mid- to late-autumn. The flowers must be harvested by hand, before or immediately after sunrise so that they are not damaged by direct heat from the sun. The flowers are very delicate, and many growers believe mechanical plucking damages the saffron crocus flowers.

Each flower produces only 3 stigmas. Once the flowers have been harvested, its stigmas must be plucked and dried for around 12 hours. It takes between 15,000-16,000 flowers to produce 1 kilogram of saffron spice.5 In terms of labour, producing this amount takes 370–470 hours!5 It is this labour-intensive harvesting process that makes saffron so expensive.

Is your saffron high quality?

Of course, not all saffron is of the same quality. Colour, age, amount of non-stigma content, pliability, among other things determine quality and the price. Given its high price, adulteration is quite common unfortunately. In fact, it has been so common throughout history that in the Middle Ages, those found selling adulterated saffron in Europe were executed under the Safranschou code.6

Adulterants like beetroot or pomegranate are used to enhance its red colour; silk fibres, oil, or wax is used to add bulk, and powdered saffron can be adulterated with turmeric and paprika.

Standardised laboratory tests have been developed in the recent years to check its quality. This is an external process, done by retailers or traders who buy in bulk. This means that if you purchase your saffron spice from a trustworthy source, you’re most likely getting home good quality saffron. If you spot unusually cheap saffron, it could be adulterated.

How and why is saffron used?

Several cuisines around the world use saffron for its distinguished colour and aroma. It forms the backbone of several iconic dishes from around the world such as the Spanish rice, meat and seafood dish Paella, the French stew Bouillabaisse, Italian rice dish Risotto Milanese, the Indian ice cream Kesar Kulfi, Pakistani rice and meat dish Biryani, and baked Iranian rice Tachin (just to name a few).

The intense yellow colour that saffron creates in food is because of α-crocin, a carotenoid. α-crocin is also hydrophilic, meaning that it dissolves in water readily. Picrocrocin is another important compound and gives saffron its slightly bitter flavour. During the drying process, picrocrocin breaks down and turns into saffranal, the compound that makes saffron smell like it does: earthy and hay-like.

Saffron in cosmetics & medicine

While saffron today is mostly used as a spice, it has a long history of being used in the preparation of cosmetics and medicines. Ancient Romans were known to steep saffron in their wine because they believed that it prevented hangovers. It was also believed that the spice worked as a sedative, antispasmodic, expectorant, and aphrodisiac. Pharmacopoeias (written medicinal records) around the world have even mentioned saffron for many centuries.5

If you have a favourite recipe using saffron, let us know in the comments below!

How to grow saffron

There are many herbs and spices you can grow in your garden. Saffron is commonly referred to as the world’s most expensive spice and is regarded as a luxury plant to grow. Although 2-3 generations ago it would have been labelled unpretentious and very readily accessible. But saffron nowadays is really a valuable plant to grow and can be particularly useful. We will be taking a look at how and why you should grow your own saffron.

What Is Saffron?

Saffron is generally used as a food flavouring or colouring and tends to be either orange, yellow or most commonly found, purple in colouring. Saffron is predominantly a spice and is added to a lot of curry or spicier dishes. The dried stigmas of the plant are picked from the saffron crocus, which is a plant that can grow up to 30 centre metres in size. In ancient times saffron was used as medicine for a cough or a cold or even flatulence! Partly because of those particular health benefits, saffron can be included in a healthy and balanced diet. Saffron is rich in potassium, carbohydrates and protein, but should only be consumed in small quantities (20-30 grams max!).

The plant is usually found in the warmer climates of the Mediterranean and the sub-continent but fear not, saffron can be grown in the UK! By growing your own saffron, you would save on the costly price of purchase or perhaps sell it to make some money. The reason the plant is so expensive though is due to the labour involved to produce the threaded plant. It is still packed in the same way it has done for centuries by farmers and it cannot be distributed on the same scale in time and volume as other plants. Fortunately, how to grow saffron is something that has been taught widely across the globe for many years.

Steps To Growing Saffron

Now down to the details of how to grow saffron. The saffron crocus can be grown in the UK as the plant is particularly durable to our winter cold as well as the summer warmth (the little we get of it, anyway!). You can quite easily grow saffron on your patio in a well-drained container or border. Growing or planting your saffron is not an arduous task either. Find an area of your garden that tends to get a fair amount of sunlight and plant the bulb around late spring/early summertime.

Picking The Right Soil

It is important that you pick the right soil for your plant as this is the most integral part of growing ‘red gold’. You will need a versatile soil type that will allow for draining and ventilation. Look to use rich, earthy soil to grow your saffron. The plant also needs little to no maintenance as you will only need to water it once every few weeks if that!

You need to plant the bulb 4-5 inches deep into the soil and make sure they are 6 inches apart from each other. 50-65 flowers will produce you on a tablespoon of saffron. You will find that the autumn time will bring about a beautiful bloom of your saffron. You will only find that half of your corms will produce one flower but this productivity doubles by the next year.

Once harvest comes around in October time, look to use tweezers to extract the 3 red filaments of the stigma. If you are only looking to trim the flower, then this can also be done with tweezers or alternatively, you can use your own nails for this too! The yellow stems and purple petals are not of use when harvesting. Be sure to be aware of the dangers of violet root rot and fusarium amongst other predators that can either rot or severely damage your saffron plant. If you see any signs of browning plants or uncommon growth then look to replant your bulbs in a separate area where possible!

You will need to look too dry your plant after you have picked the particular filaments you would like. Look to dry your saffron out in a room that has a temperature of 15 degrees Celsius or higher. You will only need to let your saffron dry for 15-20 minutes or so before it is ready for cooking use. And if you are not ready to use your saffron right away, then store in an airtight container!

Saffron—Crocus sativus L.1

James M. Stephens2

Saffron is not a vegetable, although in some areas of the world the corms of various crocus species are eaten by local peasants. Saffron is one of the world’s most expensive spices. The slender dried flower stigmas of the saffron constitute the true saffron of commerce. At one time, some reports placed the wholesale price at around $100 per pound and the retail price at 80 cents per gram, or $365 a pound.

Each blossom yields only three stigmas, which must be picked by hand. Supposedly it takes 210,000 stigmas to make 1 pound of saffron. At one time saffron was popular as a yellowish orange natural dyestuff. Today synthetic dyes have replaced it.

Figure 1.

Saffron flowers.

Credit:

KENPEI, CC BY-SA 3.0

Description

C. sativus, native to southern Europe and Asia, is a small showy, bulbous perennial, 6–10 inches high, with violet to bluish lily-shaped flowers.

Culture

It is questionable whether or not saffron plants will grow well here in Florida, for reportedly low annual rainfall of 15–18 inches is desirable. Obviously, Florida’s annual rainfall greatly exceeds this amount. Heavy rains at flowering time do considerable damage to the blossoms producing the saffron.

In areas of the world where saffron is grown, such as Spain, Portugal, France, and India, an annual yield of 8–10 pounds of dried saffron per acre is obtained in an established planting. Usually the maximum yield occurs in the third year after planting.

Plants are propagated vegetatively by planting the young cormlets that form annually at the base of the bulblike mother corm. While the plants may live and bloom for 10–15 years, few plants are kept longer than 5 years commercially. In Italy saffron is cultivated as an annual, mature corms being set every fall; they are uprooted and replanted every 3 years in France, after 4 years in Spain, and after 10–15 years in India.

Harvesting and Use

When the plants begin to bloom, harvesting commences quickly, for the flowering period may last only 15 days. The triple stigmas are picked by hand daily just as the flower opens. On drying, either in the sun or by artificial heat, the stigmas lose 80% of their weight.After harvest and when fully dried, the saffron must be stored immediately, preferably in tightly covered or sealed tin containers, and protected from light to avoid bleaching. The final product is a compressed, highly aromatic, matted mass of narrow, threadlike dark orange to reddish brown strands about 1 inch long.

True saffron has a pleasantly spicy, pungent, bitter taste and a tenacious odor. Fortunately, a little saffron goes a long way. Besides being steeped in tea, it is used for seasoning many foods such as fancy rolls and biscuits, rice, and fish.

Footnotes

This document is HS661, one of a series of the Horticultural Sciences Department, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date May 1994. Revised September 2015. Reviewed October 2018. Visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.

James M. Stephens, professor emeritus, Horticultural Sciences Department; UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county’s UF/IFAS Extension office.
U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.

Get Great Value Out of Growing Saffron

Saffron needs a sunny location with well-drained soil to grow. After planting, saffron needs little care and attention. In fact, giving saffron too much care will do more harm than good. Too much water will cause the bulbs to rot, for example. The bulbs of saffron are planted in the summer and will grow and produce flowers in the fall. The stigmas of the flowers are harvested for use as a spice in cooking. You can grow saffron in USDA zones 6 through 9, as long as your area doesn’t get more than 18 inches of rain per year.

Planting Saffron

Saffron (Crocus sativus) grows from a type of bulb called a corm. While it’s common to plant bulbs that produce flowers such as daffodils and tulips in the late fall, so that they enjoy a deep freeze in the ground before growing, that’s not the case with saffron.

Instead, you want to plant saffron corms in the summer, during the period when the plant would usually be dormant. Saffron grows and blooms in the fall, so planting in the summer gives the corms time to become established.

Choosing the Location

In the video above, Kim Toscano from Oklahoma Gardening walks you through the process of choosing an ideal spot for your saffron corms. The plant isn’t particularly challenging to grow, but because it is from the Mediterranean area, it has certain needs. For example, it will grow best in slightly dry soil, in a location that gets a lot of sunlight.

Putting the Saffron in the Ground

To plant the saffron, dig a hole that’s about three to four inches deep, as you want about two to three inches of soil on top of the bulbs. Place the corms in the soil with the flat side facing downwards and the pointed side upwards.

How far apart you space the saffron depends on your garden’s arrangement. If you are planting using the square foot gardening method, you’ll plant about 10 bulbs in per square foot.

If you want to fill a larger area, you can space the bulbs about six inches apart in the soil. About 50 bulbs should be enough to fill a two foot by five foot bed, according to the Vegetable Gardener.

To create small groupings of saffron in a garden bed, space the corms about three inches about in the soil, in groups of five or so.

After you’ve planted the saffron in the ground, cover the bulbs with the soil and water. Since the bulbs rot easily if they are exposed to too much water, you want to avoid watering again until you see small saffron shoots popping up, usually in the early fall.

Photo by sebagee licensed under CC0

Care for Saffron

Saffron needs little care and attention. In fact, the trickiest thing about growing saffron might be striking the balance between giving it just enough care and giving it too much.

Watering can be a major issue. You don’t want to overwater the plants, as the corms are very susceptible to rot. If the soil in your garden tends to hold water very well, it’s a good idea to mix in compost or sand to improve drainage, according to the Nebraska Extension.

If your area gets sufficient rain, about 1.5 inches per week, you might not need to water your saffron during the growing period at all. If you live in a drier area, keep an eye on the soil and water when it is very dry. Remember not to water the bulbs at all during the dormant period, which is over the summer.

Limitations on Saffron

Although it does well in the right conditions, saffron won’t grow in every area. The plant is hardy in zones 6 through 9 and can survive a deep frost and temperatures down to negative 15 degrees Fahrenheit.

What really does the plant in is too much rainfall. According to the University of Florida IAFS Extension, saffron just won’t thrive in places that receive more than 15 to 18 inches of rain per year. Florida gets a lot more rain than 18 inches per year, making it a challenging place to try to grow saffron.

Dividing Saffron

Saffron reproduces by developing new bulbs or corms on the exterior of the existing bulbs. The new bulbs will produce a plant and a garden bed can become very crowded if you don’t take the time to divide your saffron every few years.

To divide saffron, simply dig up the corms during the summer, when the plant is dormant. Break apart the corms and replant. You can give away any extra corms or find a new area in your garden to plant them.

Saffron grows during two seasons of the year. In the spring, the plant produces little green shoots in the garden. Those shoots then die back when saffron is in its dormant phase in the summer. In the fall, the plant produces shoots and flowers. Fall is the time to harvest the stigmas from the flowers to use as a spice.

Saffron has the privilege of being the most expensive spice in the world. That’s because each flower produces three stigmas, the bright red threads people use to flavor and add color to certain dishes. It takes tens of thousands of saffron flowers just to produce a pound of saffron spice.

If you are going to harvest saffron threads for cooking, pick the red stigmas just after the flower has opened. You’ll want to do this early in the day.

It’s easiest to harvest the stigmas using a small pair of tweezers or clippers. You can dry the stigmas by placing them on a paper towel, according to the UW Extension. Set the towel somewhere warm and dry for several days, then store the dried spice in a sealed container. You can also use the spice immediately, without drying it.

If you can’t get enough of saffron in your cooking, but don’t like paying the high price at the grocery store, try growing your own. The plant is relatively hands off and will reward you with the world’s priciest spice for barely any effort.

How To Grow Saffron: Research Farm To Home Garden

Growing Saffron Crocus in a Hoop House

Bob Roberts, a farmer and environmentalist in Northern Vermont, donated his land and hoop house to UVM researchers to grow the saffron corms. Bob is particularly excited about saffron’s potential ability to cure disease.

Arash says that although many plant saffron directly in the ground, they’ve had better success with planting the corms in milk crates. “We had a lot of problems with rodents last year; moles, voles and mice,” he says. “When you plant the corms in the crates the rodents cannot come inside of the crates because we have weed cloth there works for protecting the corms.”

UVM’s saffron crop being grown in Bob Robert’s greenhouse in Northern Vermont.

Another benefit to the crates is that they are moveable, making it easy for farmers to bring them inside the hoop house after the preceding summer or fall crop has finished. “After the growth season you can bring back into the greenhouse. With this method we will have two growth seasons instead of one in high tunnels,” explains Arash.

Two (and even three) growing seasons per filed or hoop house is of high importance to farmers, as it means multiple income streams from the same piece of land.

How To Build a Rodent-Resistant Container For Growing Saffron:

  1. Get weed cloth, milk crates and duct tape from your local hardware or garden center.
  2. Cut two pieces of weed cloth that are long enough to overlap the edges of the milk crates.

  1. Place the first piece of weed cloth in the crate and tape the edges.

  1. Place the second piece of weed cloth in the crate and tape the edges.

  1. Tape around the top outer edge of the milk crate to secure the weed cloth.

Step-by-Step Instructions For Growing Saffron Crocus in Crates or Containers:

After Arash showed me how to create the milk crate planter, he walked me through the step-by-step process of planting and growing saffron.

  1. Whether you are planting in the ground or containers, make sure to have regular topsoil (garden soil) and some compost or potting soil.

  1. Add about 5” of topsoil to your crate or container before planting corms.

  1. Plant 11 corms per square feet (each milk crate), making sure each corm is about 2.5” from another. Arash planted them in three rows in the milk crates.
  1. Plant the corms with the pointed side up. If you can’t decipher which end should go up, plant the corm sideways. It will find its way.
  2. Cover the corms with 2-3” of regular topsoil.
  1. On top of this soil, add another thin layer of compost or potting soil. The nutrition gradually releases into the soil and helps the saffron grow. Another function of this is to help suppress weeds, acting as a sort of mulch.

  1. Water thoroughly immediately after planting.

Ready to grow!

Arash explains that the initial watering is extremely important because that is what helps break the dormancy of the corms. After that, you only need to water the corms every 15 days. “Coming from an arid and semi-arid areas, if you water the saffron a lot fungi will damage the saffron corms,” says Arash. “The greenhouse I am planting these at is like a desert. Moisture is not good for saffron.”

Saffron appreciate sandy, loamy soil and won’t thrive in clay soil, says Arash. He also stresses that the bigger the corm, the better. “The size of the corm is really important,” he says. “Based on research, the weight of each corm has to be at least 5 grams.”

Adapting This Method Of Growing Saffron At Home

Arash and I talked about how to adapt this method of growing saffron for the home gardener. He explained that it’s basically the same process, regardless of the scale and amount of corms being planted. Home gardeners can use milk crates or containers to help deter pests and to control the environment in which they grow their corms. So whether a home gardener is looking for late season color, or harvesting the flowers for potpourri and spices, there should be a higher success rate when planting the corms in containers.

Results At The Greenhouse

I visited Arash up at the hoop house in Northern Vermont about six weeks later to see how the saffron crocus were coming along. He told me they started harvesting around mid-October. Like he suspected, the corms in the milk crates did much better than those planted in raised beds.

Arash says the saffron corms planted in milk crates did better than those planted in raised beds.

Every two days Arash comes up to the hoop house to harvest the flowers. The harvesting process doesn’t require a step-by-step list – you simply pick the flower from the stem with your fingers. The stigma (which is red), stamen and petals are also very easy to separate by hand.

The stigma, petals and stamen are easy to separate with your hands.

After harvesting the flowers, Arash and his colleagues separate the stigma and stamen and send the stigmas to Mississippi for chemical analysis to compare the levels between Pennsylvania, the Netherlands and Vermont.

Different Uses For Saffron

“The saffron petals are also valuable,” says Arash. “In Europe they are developing some type of medicine for animals from them. I’m trying to keep the petals but it’s really tough because you have to dry them perfectly or else the fungi will get to them.” He adds that the United States often uses the petals for potpourri. I never thought of Saffron as overly fragrant, but he proved me wrong with the box of freshly harvested flowers.The saffron petals are used to make potpourri in the United States.

Arash says that even growing saffron in the small hoop house in Northern Vermont can be profitable for a small farmer. “The United States is the biggest consumer of saffron in the world,” he explains. “And they are hardly using it as a spice, they are using it to produce medicine. Compared to tomatoes and other conventional crops, saffron can produce more money for farmers.”

Arash says he enjoys days he comes up to the hoop house to harvest.

The key for farmers – especially in colder areas like Vermont – to growing saffron crocus is that they can start the production after the conventional crops have finished for the season.

Arash can’t stress enough that saffron crocus is a tough, hearty crop that doesn’t need much attention, which makes it so special. “They are just so beautiful. I enjoy harvesting days very much,” says Arash. I couldn’t agree more.

10 tips for growing saffron

It’s worth as much as gold per gram, but fortunately it’s easy to grow.

Words: Jenny Somervell

Saffron (Crocus sativus) has always fascinated me, being both beautiful and expensive, two irresistible qualities. The flowers are bold and beautiful. They pop out of the ground in autumn like magic, lilac or mauve with darker colour veins. But the real show stopper is the three fiery-red stigmas which carry the ‘scent of ambrosia’.

Saffron stigma and flowers were the symbol and statement of wealth and the world’s costliest spice.

They were praised by poets, the petals stuffed into the cushions of the high and lofty, and saffron water was used to scent banquet halls.

The yellow dye was considered the ‘perfection of beauty’ and saffron-yellow shoes were only worn by Persian kings, gods and goddesses, nymphs and vestals.

Saffron tea was a warming drink used as a digestive, but traditionally saffron is also used in cakes and buns, paella and rice dishes, in fish soups and stews such as the French bouillabaisse, a rich fish dish from Marseilles.

Today it tends to feature most often in exotic dishes in up-market restaurants. Why the hype?

Perhaps, like me, you have had saffron in a dish and not been impressed. To be honest I couldn’t taste anything much at all and put it in a similar category to whitebait – over-rated for the cost (sorry to all you whitebaiters!).

Now, thanks to a little home experimentation, I have changed my mind and I hope you do too.

To the cook’s chagrin, until now we have never produced any in our garden. But now, thanks to a generous reader (thank you Ian!) and an accommodating, well-drained soil, we planted our very first saffron corms last year.

There was great excitement when Ken brought in the first few flowers from our own plot and arranged them carefully on paper towels to dry. A few petals were a little insect-chewed but who’s complaining? However, when I asked him to experiment with them he said he didn’t have enough yet and they were far too precious to waste on me!

Fortunately the cook didn’t get the last say on that matter.

The first dish that Ken came up with was a delicious saffron rice salad and it was even better after a night in the fridge. After eating a bowl I felt extremely hungry and ate seconds – apparently saffron is an appetite stimulant and assists digestion as well.

Like the Moroccan fare we explored in the last two issues, the flavour is hard to put a finger on, described by some as resembling honey, but other descriptions include hay-like and metallic overtones with slightly bitter notes.

Because it is water soluble, a very small quantity in cooking will give a lovely bright yellow, which brings us to Ken’s second experiment, a gorgeous yellow saffron orange cake.

This second experiment uses ground almonds instead of flour and is by far the best gluten-free baking I have ever tasted, with the added benefit of it being good for you.

10 TIPS FOR GROWING SAFFRON

1. Luckily for us here in Canterbury, we have what saffron likes: winter chill and warm, dry summers. Sorry to those of you in Auckland and Northland, but you might be out of luck. Research by Crop and Food in the 1990s found this Mediterranean native grew well in areas south of the Waikato in the North Island and on the east of the South Island (where we are). Good frosts down to -10°C and occasional snow were no problem for it.

2. Saffron prefers light, friable soils with a sandy or loamy texture and a high nutrient content, but the most important criteria is that the soil is well-drained. Corms are often grown in raised beds to improve drainage.

3. Saffron is sterile and does not set viable seed so crops must be grown by corm multiplication.

4. Plants corms in late January or early February for harvest in April and May. Place 10cm apart and 10-15cm deep, preferably in raised beds for increased drainage.

5. Planting depths and distances vary commercially but more daughter corms are produced in shallower plantings. Provide a free draining soil with plenty of organic matter. You can side dress them with compost too but don’t overdo it.

6. Depending on the size of the mother corm, each corm will be replaced by 1-10 new cormlets. Each original corm above 30g will produce an average of six new corms in its second year. These increase in weight each year and grow above the old ones, creeping towards the soil surface by 1-2 cm each year. Eventually corms become overcrowded resulting in decreased yields so growers usually lift them periodically, about every four years in commercial plots in Spain.

7. Beds should be kept weed-free – if you are a lazy weeder like us, a layer of sawdust helps with weed control.

8. Saffron flowers in its first season, about 40 days after planting, and continues for 30-40 days depending on weather. The mauve flowers often appear before the leaves, but may come at the same time or after. Each plant may flower for up to 15 days but once flowering starts you need to keep a close eye on them, picking flowers in the morning before they wilt.

9. Rain (or irrigation) 10-15 days before flowering results in high production; drought will cause small flowers and stigmas.

10. Harvest flowers by pinching off at the base with the fingernail, or with a slight twisting movement. They are best harvested in the morning after dew has evaporated. In Italy flowers are harvested very early in the morning while still closed and the stigmas are easier to detach. It is possible – but tricky – to harvest the stigma without picking the flower.

HOW TO HARVEST AND DRY SAFFRON

● Flowers should be dried as soon as possible after picking. If you can’t dry them straight away keep them in closed containers in the fridge. The aim is to achieve about 10% moisture. Drying time will vary with the humidity, quantity of threads, dehydrator model (if you’re using one). With a small domestic dehydrator, about three hours at 48°C should be about right.

● Brightness of colour is aided by quick, high temperature drying. With care you can use an oven, as we did. Experiments show that stigma can be dried at up to 110°C as long as the timing is right (at 110°C, just two minutes is needed).

● Well-dried saffron should be a glossy, dark red colour. If you bite on the thread it should have a waxy feel. Over-drying makes threads brittle with a bitter aftertaste. Not dry enough and they will be prone to rot.

● Dried stigmas should be stored immediately in an airtight container in the dark to avoid bleaching.

IS YOUR SAFFRON GOOD OR BAD?

● Saffron quality depends on its colouring power (crocin content), odour (safranal), and taste (picocrocin).

● Crocin is the major pigment, a water soluble carotenoid that gives saffron its value as yellow-red dye.

● Picrocrocin, a bitter tasting principle, hydrolyses on drying to glucose and safranal. The best quality saffron has a high safranal content.

● Good saffron is a fresh, bright orange colour and smells strongly sweet and pungent. It can be substituted with similar coloured herbs such as safflower, turmeric and marigold but it completely changes the flavour. When old it becomes dry and musty so don’t save it up for too long!

WHY IS SAFFRON SO EXPENSIVE?

● Weight for weight, saffron is more valuable than gold, making it easily the world’s most expensive spice. In Minoan culture (1900-1600BC) the same weights to measure gold were used to measure saffron.

● Once you start picking and experimenting with saffron you quickly see why it costs so much. Our first year’s harvest from two plots yielded less than a dessertspoon of stigmas.

● Each dried stigma weighs between 0.3-1g. To make up a kilogram of dried saffron requires the sacrifice of between 70,000 and 200,000 flowers, depending on their quality. Put it another way, a kilogram of flowers might yield just 12g of stigmas.

● Yields vary greatly in different growing conditions ranging from 2-2.5kg per hectare (Morocco) to 29kg per ha in Spain under irrigation. Research in NZ (in Clyde) showed yields of 24kg/ha.
How to use it

● Less is more – too much and the bitter taste overpowers the subtle flavour.

● Just a pinch of saffron will colour and flavour 500g of rice.

● Generally, the dried threads are infused first by adding to warm water, milk or cooking liquor. They can also be crumbled dry into food.

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This article first appeared in NZ Lifestyle Block Magazine. Discuss This Article

Saffron

Saffron Care and Cultivation

Once the bulbs are planted they are low maintenance. They survive in below zero temperatures, up to -15 Fahrenheit, and do just fine in the dog days of summer. When summer hits however and the heat bears down they go dormant. This is when they need you, be sure to water them, don’t over do it just make sure they are kept moist, water sparingly. New leaves form again in early fall when cooler temperatures come. After the leaves comes the flowers.

Fertilizing is not needed unless your soil is abysmal, if you do decide to fertilize do so modestly . Fertilizer should be Potassium rich. Avoid Nitrogen based fertilizers which promote foliage at the flowers expense. Fertilizer should be spread near the plant base to seep through to the roots gradually, not more than once a year.

The plants attain a height of 4 to 6 inches. Blooms appear in Late summer through autumn and are generally harvested as pumpkin season approaches in October. In their first year they may appear late.

Hardiness Zones 6 to 9 are suitable for growing Saffron Crocus. In colder zones they can also be grown, but the bulbs should be dug up and stored indoors over winter. If you are going to do this allow them to experience a few of early winters first frosts. Once you dig them up they should be stored in sand or dry peat. They can also be planted in containers and transported in and outdoors on a seasonal basis.

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