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.
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.
Records of saffron use go back at least 3,000 years. Prehistoric Iranians used saffron-based dyes. Sumerians practiced medicine and magic with the help of saffron components. Ancient Greek myths offer some interesting, if improbable, origin stories for saffron, including the warrior Crocus dying in battle, then returning as a flower. Persian saffron was world famous and reached China and Western Europe.
Saffron happily grows well across the globe, thriving in Zones 6 through 9. All it needs is well drained soil in full sun exposure, and protection from rabbits and small rodents. That’s it, nothing fancy. It does prefer dry summers, as do most bulbs and corms, but will comfortably settle for soil with excellent drainage. Saffron does well in raised beds, large containers filled with light potting mix, and in beds along south-facing foundations, in rain shadows where most plants struggle.
Avoid heavy clay soil if at all possible, or amend it heavily with compost, peat moss, composted manure, leaf litter, or any other organic material you can get in abundance. Even better, build a raised bed above the base clay, filling it with heavily improved soil. Make your bed no wider than 2 feet, and your back will thank you later. Alternatively, use half whiskey barrels as containers. Drill several 1-inch drainage holes in the bottoms of the half barrels to ensure good drainage, and fill with potting mix. Whichever method you go with, work organic matter in to a depth of at least 8 inches.
You might expect the most expensive spice to have equally expensive corms. Happily, that is not the case. Saffron corm prices can range from 50 cents to $1 each, depending on vendor and number of corms purchased. Plan on 50 corms for your starter bed. That should plant about 61⁄2 feet of bed at a 2-foot width. You can plan on using the same number of corms in a 24-inch-diameter half barrel, assuming you plant the corms a little closer.
Plant your saffron corms any time during their dormant period, from June to early September. Remove the top 3 inches of soil in your bed. Lay out the corms in an even pattern, spacing them 6 inches apart from each other for raised beds or flat-earth, and 4 inches apart for containers. Carefully backfill with the removed soil to cover the corms with 3 inches of soil, smoothing it out. You can also use a dibble to punch 3-inch-deep planting holes in the loosened soil of your saffron bed, dropping a single corm in each hole. Water the corms in well.
Protect your saffron bed from weed competition with either a thin layer of fine mulch, or an annual ground cover such as Portulaca, also called rose moss. Ground covers need to be drought tolerant, and must be removed in early September, before the saffron starts growing.
Mice and voles love to snack on saffron corms, and rabbits eagerly nibble the leaves to the ground. Keep the soil around your saffron bed clear of any cover, and destroy any rodent tunnels you find. Make cages of chicken wire or hardware cloth to keep rabbits away from your crop. Keep the cages small, so they are easy to remove during harvest.
Over time, fungal diseases will build up in the soil, which can ultimately destroy your saffron bed. Most of these diseases do not respond well to any treatment. Disease buildup can be avoided simply by digging up the saffron corms every three years or so, in June when they are dormant. Move them to a new bed well away from the old one. In the case of container beds, replace the potting mix completely with fresh soil. This is also an excellent time to divide the clumps of corms, to either expand your bed or share with gardening family and friends.
A healthy harvest
Harvest time arrives with the flowers in late September, typically lasting two to three weeks into October. Each lavender flower contains three bright red threads, the female stigmas of the flower, roughly 3⁄4 inch long. These threads are the saffron spice, and are at their peak when harvested early in the morning, just as the flowers begin to open. The threads will often peek out from the unfurling bud before it opens completely.
There are two ways to harvest the threads, depending on how much time you have and how you want your bed to look when you’re finished picking for the day. Method one is simple: Pick the entire bud as soon as the threads are visible. Later, you can pick each flower apart to remove the threads, while sitting comfortably at the kitchen table. This method works well when you have a lot of saffron to harvest.
Method two is more painstaking, but it allows you to enjoy each flower, at least for a little while. As the flowers open, carefully pluck the threads from each one. The remaining blossom should hold its petals for a day or so, cheering the patch with a splash of lavender. Whichever method you choose, a good pair of tweezers will make your job much easier.
The fresh-picked threads must be dried for storage. Spread them out on a screen or sieve in a warm spot or in a dehydrator set on low, until they are light, brittle, and thoroughly dried. Store the dried threads in an airtight container, in the dark, for at least a month before using to develop the best flavor possible.
Saffron yields its flavor slowly, producing the deepest color and best flavor when steeped. Add a few threads of saffron to about a tablespoon or so of hot water or warm liquid from your recipe for 10 to 20 minutes before adding it to the pot.
By now you’re probably thinking saffron might sound like a goldmine cash crop. It’s not hard to grow, starter corms don’t cost a lot, and the plants don’t need special conditions. So where does the cost of the spice come from? In a word: labor. Well, two words: labor and volume.
Saffron’s price tag by weight sounds impressive at up to $10,000 per pound retail. When you consider that each flower yields just three little threads, tweezed out by hand, and then dried to 20 percent of their original weight — you start to get an idea of the sheer volume needed to get that pound. A pound of saffron is nearly a gallon, and your 50-corm starter patch might yield a tablespoon of dried saffron its first year. It takes 70,000 flowers to produce a pound of saffron, in a football field-sized patch. No doubt, your back would be mighty sore before you ever reached the 10-yard line. Saffron’s harvest season lasts only two to three weeks, and there is no way to harvest the threads mechanically. It has to be plucked by hand.
There’s a big difference between growing saffron commercially, and supplying your family and friends with fresh, high-quality “red gold.” While your starter bed might only yield a tablespoon of dried threads the first year, as the plants establish and multiply, the number of flowers, and spice, will increase in a few years. Plus, you can glean the flowers from your bed in 15 minutes or so each morning. Figure out how much saffron you use in a year, and plan accordingly. Start small. Picking flowers can get tiresome after a while. Then again, you can always let the excess flowers bloom if you like; it won’t end the harvest like forgetting to pick green beans or peas.
Just imagine serving your own paella, saffron rice, risotto, or golden chicken pot pie, all flavored with your own homegrown saffron. Imagine telling your garden club that you grow the most expensive spice on earth right in your own backyard. Imagine sharing extra spice and extra corms with friends and family. Now, stop imagining, and go order some saffron corms.
Andrew Weidman lives in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, also known as “yellow Dutch country,” for the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition of growing saffron. At one time, neighboring Lancaster was world famous for its ‘Dutch Gold’ saffron. Saffron still grows in many gardens in the region, and is a vital ingredient in many Pennsylvania Dutch recipes.