Growing and Harvesting Saffron

Easily grow “red gold” and cultivate one of the most valuable spices right in your own garden.

| January/February 2018

Quality spices can be expensive, as a quick tour of the spice rack at your local grocery store will prove. There are a variety of reasons for their costliness. Some spices only grow on remote tropical islands. Others require jungle-like conditions, specific soil types, or specialized pollinators to produce a crop. Poor weather or a rapidly growing market can also inflate the price tag on a jar of spice. Even cheap imitations and fillers can make you pay dearly for the good stuff. And sometimes the price tag is so big because the harvest is so small.

That’s where saffron comes in. Not only is saffron one of the most expensive spices, ounce for ounce, it’s also one of the most expensive foods, edging out even truffles and caviar. Saffron even commands a higher price than gold, at up to $65 a gram compared to gold at $40 per gram, earning it the nickname “red gold.” Throughout history, saffron has been used not only as a seasoning, but also as a dye, medicinally, and as a trade commodity. Only, saffron doesn’t grow on remote islands, nor does it need tropical conditions or a rare exotic insect to produce a harvest.

Saffron is the product of the ‘Saffron Crocus’ (Crocus sativus), a small fall-blooming crocus, usually the last flower to bloom in the season. It’s a pretty little thing, with thin, grassy looking leaves adorned with a white pinstripe and lavender blooms. Like all crocuses, the saffron crocus forms a hair-covered corm, similar to a bulb, a little bigger than a quarter.

Saffron has an unusual growth pattern — the reverse of most plants. The corms lie dormant in the ground through the heat of the summer before pushing new growth in early fall. The blooms, which bear the spice, arrive in late September into early October. The leaves often persist through the winter into early spring, when the corms push new replacements. All of the leaves shrivel and fade away by early summer. Saffron corms multiply by dividing underground, as saffron flowers are sterile and do not produce seeds.

A word of warning: Be aware of a saffron look-alike, ‘Autumn Crocus’ or ‘Meadow Saffron’ (Colchicum autumnale). Even though it blooms in fall and looks a bit like saffron, ‘Meadow Saffron’ does not produce saffron spice, and is in fact poisonous. Make sure you are growing C. sativus.

Great beginnings

While no one’s really certain, saffron may have been the first spice to be cultivated and traded. Most likely a hybrid of C. cartwrightianus, or possibly C. thomasii or C. pallasii, C. sativus does not exist in the wild.

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