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Saffron Crocus—Conjuring Color and Flavor in the Autumn Garden

By Ilene Harfenist Sternberg | September 1, 2001

Long before flowers were cultivated solely for their good looks, they were grown to serve some practical, or even preternatural, purpose. This was especially true in the good old days of Minoan Crete, about 1500 BC, when a thriving industry and religious iconography grew up around Crocus sativus, the corm better known as saffron crocus.

Saffron crocus is no ordinary autumn-blooming beauty. Its fragrant, deep lavender, purple-veined flowers house long, scarlet stigmas (the pollen-receptive portions of the female pistils) that can be plucked and dried to make the highly prized spice saffron. Although there are roughly 80 species of crocus, the entire genus is named after this, its most versatile and arguably most handsome member (krokos being the Greek word for “saffron”).

The crocus flower suffused Bronze Age Minoan culture. A famous fresco of that era depicts women with crocus blossoms woven or embroidered on costumes of saffron-dyed cloth, wearing saffron-based cosmetics, picking crocus flowers and presenting them to an enthroned goddess. Votive pottery and figurines show the Minoan deity Britomartis all dolled up in a hat-and-dress combo decorated with a crocus motif.

Indeed, the crocus appears so often on Minoan artifacts that its precise significance to the citizens of Crete can only be speculated upon. There’s evidence it was used in sacred rituals associated with menstruation and childbirth. One thing is certain, though: The flower formed the basis of a flourishing overseas trade. Even back then, saffron must have cost a pretty drachma.

Hangovers and Hair Dye

No other flower has a more venerable documented history than saffron crocus. It is discussed in the Egyptian Papyrus Ebers, a pharmaceutical record predating the Minoan saffron craze by over 1,000 years. It pops up in the Old Testament, too, in the richly poetic Song of Solomon.

Right up there with flax and castor beans, saffron has had an amazing number of uses since human cultures first bloomed in the Mediterranean basin. Medicinally, it was powdered and processed to heal everything from rheumatism to measles. According to Pliny, saffron in wine was a popular remedy for a hangover. Crocologia, a herbal published in 1670, specifies some very interesting—and often ludicrous—applications. A recipe for a salve to cure jaundice, for instance, starts with an ounce of saffron, a quart of earthworms, and a peck of snails.

Roman women used saffron to dye their hair and textiles yellow. (“Saffron,” as it happens, comes from the Arabic zafaran, meaning, “yellow.”) Impoverished medieval monks sometimes substituted saffron for gold leaf in their religious paintings. And, of course, it was added as a flavoring and colorant to many dishes and cordials. (Today, saffron is found most notably in the fish soup bouillabaisse and Spain’s national dish, paella.)

At a banquet given during Emperor Nero’s reign, floors were strewn with sawdust and saffron as a colorful cushion for sandaled feet. In his Satyricon, Gaius Petronius described some special baked treats that were served during the feast: “We applied ourselves wholeheartedly to this dessert and our joviality was suddenly revived by a fresh diversion, for at the slightest pressure all the cakes would squirt a saffron sauce upon us.”

From the Middle Ages until about 200 years ago, saffron was such a profitable article of commerce that a few pounds of corms served as collateral for a loan of gold or jewels. In 15th century Nuremberg, men were buried alive in punishment for adulterating the spice. (Saffron cheating is as old as the saffron trade itself; often the crocus flower’s golden stamens or male flower parts, which have no culinary value, are used to adulterate a crop.)

Much confusion surrounds saffron’s arrival in England. A very romantic story, countless versions of which still persist, involves a 14th-century British traveler to the East who, at the risk of his life, concealed a corm inside his walking stick. He brought the plant home to a town in Essex, subsequently named Saffron Walden, where it became an important commodity for more than 400 years.

Nowadays, saffron has earned the reputation of being the most expensive spice in the world. Growers use photospectometry to analyze its three constitutive chemicals—crocin (which imparts color), picrocrocin (flavor), and safranal (aroma)—and determine the quality of a harvest. The price is so high because harvesting is done by hand and over 4,000 crocus stigmas are needed to yield one ounce of saffron. So if you’re thinking of starting a saffron business at home, make sure you buy a big window box, one roughly the size of Central Park.

Growing Saffron Crocus

Like other crop plants that have been cultivated for thousands of years, Crocus sativus has an uncertain provenance. It was most likely native to Greece and Asia Minor, but doesn’t occur in the wild anymore. Plant historians believe that the saffron crocus originated as a naturally occurring hybrid and was selected and maintained over the centuries for its extra-long stigmas. The plant is unable to set viable seed and must be propagated vegetatively.

C. sativus is not the easiest crocus to grow. It doesn’t force well indoors and can be rather temperamental. Generally, the corms bloom nicely the first year, but sparsely thereafter. Saffron crocus likes rich, well-drained soil and dry, very hot summers. This is evidenced by the fact that the epicenter of the world saffron production is La Mancha, Spain.

But don’t despair! It may not be an entirely quixotic enterprise to plant saffron crocus in your garden. The flower has also traditionally been grown in the Pennsylvania Dutch country, where the climate certainly differs from that of Spain and other spice-producing regions like India, Egypt, Greece, and Iran. And, as mentioned, for several hundred years it was a faithful crop in England, where summers are relatively moist and cool.

The corms are inexpensive and readily available at garden centers in spring, when they should be planted 4 to 6 inches deep for October bloom. After the flowers fade, the leaves grow rapidly to a length of 18 inches, remaining bright green all winter until late spring, unless squirrels, rabbits or deer do some pruning and unearthing.

Russell Stafford, the knowledgeable purveyor of unusual bulbs at Odyssey Bulbs, sells the straight species and a cultivar, Crocus sativus ‘Cashmirianus’, reputed to be a more floriferous performer in northern gardens. Mr. Stafford suggests dividing the corm clumps every year or two.

A word of warning: Never confuse saffron or any other autumn-blooming crocus with the similar looking, but highly poisonous, colchicums. It’s not hard to get them mixed up, since the 60 to 70 species of fall-blooming corms in the genus Colchicum are commonly referred to as “autumn crocus” or “meadow saffron.”

A good way to tell them apart is to remember that colchicums have six stamens while crocuses have only three. Colchicums also belong to the Liliaceae or Lily Family (though maybe it would be better to think of them as members of the Soprano family) while crocuses are in the Iridaceae or Iris Family. No wonder the Minoans worshiped saffron. A few deadly incidences of mistaken identity could put the fear of God into anyone.

Nursery Sources:

Brent and Becky’s Bulbs
7463 Heath Trail
Gloucester, VA 23061
Phone: (804) 693-3966
www.brentandbeckysbulbs.com Odyssey Bulbs
8984 Meadow Lane
Berrien Springs, MI 49103
Phone: (877) 220-1651
odysseybulbs.com McClure & Zimmerman
108 W. Winnebago Street
P.O. Box 368
Friesland, WI 53935
Phone: (800) 883-6998
www.mzbulb.com

Ilene Harfenist Sternberg and her husband were both born and raised in Brooklyn but didn’t take their first stab at gardening until they bought a home in Maryland. “He cut the townhouse lawn with scissors,” says Ilene, “while I experimented with growing miniature vegetables. Not understanding the concept of soil preparation and digging deeper than the size of the actual seed, I was able to grow, unintentionally, pearl onions, one-inch carrots, and lettuce heads that attracted only miniature slugs.” Somewhat wiser now, Ilene lives and gardens in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where corn grows tall and saffron grows well. She writes a regular garden column for the Wilmington News Journal in Delaware. This is her second article for P&G News.

Colorado State University

A familiar flower blooming in what seems to be the wrong season is always a source of surprise and curiosity. Such a plant is the fall-blooming crocus that provides a burst of unexpected color in the autumn garden.

Technically members of the iris family, there are more than a dozen species of crocuses that bloom in fall and winter. Hybridizers have concentrated on the familiar spring-blooming crocus, and they now outnumber the fall bloomers.

Crocus sativus, known as the saffron crocus, is probably the most familiar due to its history of culinary, dye, and medicinal uses. When blooming, the flower is only 2½ inches tall and is tucked in among its tall, narrow leaves. At 6-7 inches tall, Crocus speciosus is larger than the saffron crocus and blooms a bit earlier. As the leaves emerge after the flowers, the blossoms appearing from the soil or among the fallen leaves of deciduous tree is very dramatic. Several hybrid varieties of C. speciosus are available as well as the straight species. Other fall-flowering crocus species include C. goulimyi, C. kotschyanus, C. medius, C. pulchellus, and C. ochroleucus. These less common species of crocus can be obtained through mail-order bulb companies. They also may also be available at local garden centers and nurseries. All crocuses mentioned here are hardy to USDA zone five.

Crocus bulbs are technically corms and are planted during the brief July and August dormant period. The small corms should be set with flattest side down in the soil at a depth of 3½ to 4 inches. Given their diminutive size, crocus displays are most effective when planted in mass. Most crocuses do best when planted in an area that receives full sun has well-drained soil. A few species will tolerate light shade.

Also referred to as “fall-blooming crocus” are corms from the genus Colchicum. The flowers of these plants are very similar to Crocus but their growth cycle differs slightly. Colchicum have broad leaves that grow briefly in the spring and then die by midsummer. In the fall, leafless flower stalks rise to produce clusters of flaring, four-inch purple flowers. Do not confuse these with the saffron crocus as most parts of the Colchicum plant are poisonous.

For more information, see the following Colorado State University Extension fact sheet: Fall Planted Bulbs and Corms # 7.410.

For more information, see the following Planttalk Colorado™ script:

  • Autumn Crocus Bulbs: Colchicum.

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Cheery crocuses are synonymous with spring. They are tough plants, often blooming in the snow. Flowering in an assortment of spring colors, they brighten the mood of winter-weary gardeners.

Types to consider for your garden

Cheerful spring blooms

The common hybrids have about half a dozen flowers per bulb and they bloom about a week or two later than species types.

When buying in the fall, you will find the following available: Dutch hybrids, generally from Crocus vernus, and the wild species, C. chrysanthus and C. tommasinianus.

The wild species don’t grow as tall, but they produce more color blends and have many more blooms per bulb, up to 20.

Crocus flowers are fair weather bloomers, opening only on sunny days. If it’s cloudy or rainy, they stay closed. They also close up at night.

Where to plant

These bulb flowers look good anywhere in the garden, but because they’re small you will enjoy them more if you plant them near the house or next to accessible pathways. Sometimes it can be too wet or muddy to venture further into the garden to enjoy these first flowers.

They are attractive under deciduous trees, in the front garden surrounding shrubs, at the edge of a perennial bed or in a rock garden setting.

You can also plant the bulbs in your lawn and allow them to naturalize. Combine them with other early blooming bulbs, such as snowdrops or Dutch iris (Iris reticulata).

Planting and care tips

Cosmos – an easy annual for beginners

Look for plump, firm bulbs and plant in full sun to part shade in well-drained soil. Plant bulbs 3 to 4 inches deep and the same distance apart. (More bulb-planting tips.)

These bulbs are trouble-free and easy to grow, but squirrels like to steal them.

Foil the furry pests by placing a screen of chick wire over your bulbs and then cover with soil; the bulbs will grow through the screen.

After blooming, allow the leaves to turn yellow and die back naturally.

CHOICE CULTIVARS TO TRY

Although you may find only two or three types at your local garden center, many more varieties and cultivars are available by mail order or through on-line catalogs.

Crocus chrysanthus

‘Cream Beauty’ – creamy yellow flowers with bright orange stamens

‘Jeannine’ – bronzy interior with light yellow exterior brushed with plum purple coloring

‘Ladykiller’ – outside petals are purple violet with white edges and interiors

‘Prins Claus’ – white flowers with oval blue blotch on outer petals

‘Snow Bunting’ – creamy white with pale blue-grey feathering on the outside

Crocus tommasinianus (these naturalize well)

‘Albus’ – creamy white form

‘Barr’s Purple’ – large, rich, amethyst-violet on the inside

‘Pictus’ – rounded, overlapping violet petals with darker purple tips, a white heart and yellow/orange stamens

‘Ruby Giant’ – reddish purple; almost one solid color

Crocus vernus cultivars

‘Enchantress’ – soft, pale blue flowers with a silvery gloss inside petals

‘Jeanne d’Arc’ – large, pure white with small purple base and bright orange pistil

‘Remembrance’ – rounded, violet flowers with a silvery gloss and a very dark blue base

‘Vanguard’ – light mauve/purple, rounded petals with shades of grey

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The Crocus Flower: Its Meanings & Symbolism

Etymological Meaning of the Crocus Flower

There are several theories to explain how the crocus flower got its name.

  • Latin Origins:The crocus is a genus of flowers that derived its name from the Latin word crocatus, which means saffron yellow. Saffron is a spice derived from the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus ). It is one of 80 species of the genus crocus, says The Flower Expert. While not all crocus species produce saffron, they are all similar in appearance and share the name.
  • Greek Origins: Other sources claim the crocus earned it name from the Greek word for thread after the golden fiber used to make saffron.
  • Greek Legend: According to Greek legend, Crocus was the name of a Greek noble youth who feel deeply in love with Smilax, a beautiful shepherdess. When the gods forbade his marriage to Smilax, poor Crocus killed himself in deep sorrow. Upon discovering his death, Smilax was heart-broken and could not stop crying. The Goddess Flora took pity on the distraught Smilax and turned them both into plants. Crocus was turned into the crocus flower while Smilax was turned into a vine. It is said that the Greeks used the vines to weave together garlands of crocus flowers as wedding decorations.

Symbolism of the Crocus Flower

  • The crocus has long been a symbol of youthfulness and cheerfulness. The flower was used by ancient Greeks to ward off the fumes of liquor by weaving the crocus flower into wreaths for the head. The Egyptians also used crocus flowers to dispel the fumes from intoxicating liquors by placing a spray of flowers on wine glasses.
  • The ancient Romans were so fond of the fragrance of the crocus that they devised an apparatus to emit a fine spray of its scent on guests as they entered banquets. The fragrance of the crocus was thought to inspire love was even believed to bloom at midnight on Valentine’s Day.

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Crocus

The name of the genus is derived from the Latin adjective crocatus, meaning saffron yellow. Saffron is a spice derived from the flower of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), a species of crocus in the family Iridaceae. The word Crocus is Latin for Saffron. The flower’s three stigmas (the distal ends of the plant’s carpels, or female reproductive organs) and parts of its style (a stalk connecting the stigmas to the rest of the plant) are often dried and used in cooking as a seasoning and colouring agent. Crocus is the native of Southern Europe and Asia.

There are about 80 species of crocus, of which approximately 30 are cultivated. These cup-shaped, solitary, salverform flowers taper off into a narrow tube. Knowing this, it should not surprise you that Saffron comes from the stigma of the Saffron Crocus. But, it takes thousands of flowers to get an ounce of Saffron. Saffron, which has for decades been the world’s most expensive spice by weight, is native to Southwest Asia. It was first cultivated in the vicinity of Greece.

Kingdom Plantae Division Magnoliophyta Class Liliopsida Order Asparagales Family Iridaceae Genus Crocus Species Crocus sativus

The spice saffron is obtained from the stamens of Crocus sativus, a fall-blooming species. The hay saffron (Crocus sativus L.) is a sterile triploid plant, known in human culture only, with no fertile seeds produced. The origin of saffron is still a mist, however it is assumed to be an autopoliploid mutant or a hybrid. The recent classification and most of the former taxonomic publications define C. sativus to be derived from C. cartwrightianus, a wild species. Saffron is considered to be the worlds most expensive spice. The flower of Crocus sativa is a light purple, but it is the thread-like reddish colored stigma of the flower that is valued both as a spice and as a natural colorant. Saffron is hand harvested in the autumn, and the stigma is laboriously separated to yield the reddish colored spice. It takes in excess of 70,000 flowers to yield just one pound (0.45 kilo) of saffron spice. The odour of saffron is sometimes described as like the sea air.

Saffron is characterised by a bitter taste and an iodoform- or hay-like fragrance; these are caused by the chemicals picrocrocin and safranal. It also contains a carotenoid dye, crocin, that gives food a rich golden-yellow hue. These qualities make saffron a much sought-after ingredient in many foods worldwide. Saffron also has medicinal applications.

Facts About crocus Flowers

  • The word saffron originated from the 12th century Old French term safran, which derives from the Latin word safranum. Safranum is also related to the Italian zafferano and Spanish azafr?n. Safranum comes from the Arabic word asfar , which means yellow, via the paronymous za?faran , the name of the spice in Arabic.
  • In the Greco-Roman classical period (8th century BC to the 3rd century AD), the saffron harvest is first portrayed in the palace frescoes of Minoan Crete, which depict the flowers being picked by young girls and monkeys.
  • The best-known Greek legend involving saffron was that detailing the tragedy of Crocus and Smilax.
  • The people best known as growers of this bulb were the Minoans. The Minoans grew it throughout its range in the Aegean Sea and the parts of Asia Minor which they controlled. It was produced by crushing the dried stigmas of the flower for the powder. The stigma is the female part of the flower which is surrounded by the male stamens.
  • According to a theory, after ancient Persia conquered Kashmir, Persian saffron crocus corms were transplanted to Kashmiri soil. The first harvest then occurred sometime prior to 500 BC. Phoenicians then began in the 6th century BC to market the new Kashmiri saffron by utilising their extensive trade routes. Once sold, Kashmiri saffron was used in the treatment of melancholy and as a fabric dye.
  • Saffron-based pigments have been found in the prehistoric paints used to depict beasts in 50,000-year-old cave art in what is today Iraq. Later, the Sumerians used saffron as an ingredient in their remedies and magical potions.
  • The flowers of the Crocus Autumnale arise on leafless stalks from corms in early fall and can be white, pink, lavender, or purple. The tulip-like leaves follow a few weeks later and last until early summer. This is a highly poisonous plant, so don’t confuse it with Crocus Sativa. This Crocus is the most cold tolerant.
  • Winter and Spring Flowering Crocus: These are the earliest bloomers, Ex: Snow Crocus, or Crocus chrysanthus. Snow crocuses get their name, as they are the earliest of spring flowers.
  • The Dutch Crocus, or Crocus vernus, sports the largest blooms of all the Crocuses, and is probably the most popular variety of this versatile plant.
  • The stigma of the plant Crocus sativus L., commonly known as saffron is used in traditional medicine as an aphrodisiac, antispasmodic and expectorant.1 Recent pharmacological studies have demonstrated that saffron extract has antitumor2-4 and hypolipidemic effects5 as well as radical scavengering and learning or memory-improving properties.
  • Though some true crocus bloom with the fall rains, after summer’s heat and drought, Autumn crocus is a common name used for Colchicum, which is in the lily family (Liliaceae), and which has six stamens; it is also (confusingly and incorrectly) known as Meadow saffron. The so-called Prairie crocus (formerly Anemone patens, now Pulsatilla patens or P. ludoviciana) belongs to the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae).
  • Saffron has a curiously distinctive flavor, but fresh from the fall flower it smells sweet, of freshly cut hay, and feels like waxed thread.

The popular Autumn Crocus or Colchicum Autumnale is actually not a true Crocus and is a member of the Lily family. The two can be differentiated in that true Crocus has 3 stamens and Crocus Autumnale has 6. This is a highly poisonous plant, so don’t confuse it with Crocus Sativa. Poisoning symptoms are similar to arsenic poisoning.

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Growing Crocus Flowers

  • Saffron Crocus do best in full sun and well-drained soil that is moderately rich in organic matter. Ideally, the site should be relatively dry in summer, when the corms are dormant.
  • Plant the corms 4 inches deep and 4 inches apart.
  • Heavy fertilizing is not necessary; apply a light dusting of bone meal or 5-10-5 fertilizer on the soil each fall so that it can work in during the winter months.
  • Flowers will appear the first fall after planting (generally in September or October) and last for about 3 weeks.
  • The grass-like leaves may emerge soon after the flowers or wait until the following spring. In either case, the leaves persist for 8-12 weeks, then wither and vanish, leaving no trace of the corms below until the flowers appear again in fall.
  • Propagation is by natural increase of corms, which multiply rapidly in rich soil.

Crocus plant care

  • Once planted, Crocus will look after themselves, and come up flowering year after year.
  • If planted in the borders, the treatment given to the other plants will benefit the crocus, but no individual treatment is needed.
  • Bulbs planted in the lawn must be allowed to die down naturally after flowering, before mowing over them.
  • This is not normally a problem provided they are situated in groups rather than random scatterings.

Crocus

spring crocusTime-lapse video of a spring crocus (Crocus vernus ‘Purpureus Grandiflorus’) flower opening and closing, filmed over a period of two days. The flower opens in response to sunlight and closes when the sun sets or on dark, overcast days.Video by Neil Bromhall; music Clover Fields by Debbie Wiseman (A Britannica Publishing Partner)See all videos for this article

Crocus, genus of about 75 low-growing cormose species of plants of the iris family (Iridaceae). Crocuses are native to the Alps, southern Europe, and the Mediterranean area and are widely grown for their cuplike blooms in early spring or fall. Spring-flowering plants have a long floral tube that allows the ovary to remain belowground, sheltered from climatic changes. The flowers close at night and in dull weather. Saffron, used for dye, seasoning, and medicine, is the dried feathery orange tip of the pistils of the lilac or white, autumn-flowering saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) of western Asia. The alpine species, C. vernus, is the chief ancestor of the common garden crocus. Dutch yellow crocus (C. flavus), from stony slopes in southeastern Europe, is another popular spring species, as is C. biflorus, tinged purple and with yellow throat, sometimes striped, from the Mediterranean.

  • crocusClose-up of a spring crocus (Crocus vernus). The flower’s three pollen-covered stamens are clearly visible.© Bill Guerriero
  • Crocus.Grant Heilman/Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

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