Saffron, at the time of writing, is probably the most expensive spice known to mankind. It takes around 150,000 flowers and hundreds of hours of labour to produce a couple of pounds of saffron threads.
Only a small amount is used at a time so this is a good reason to grow some yourself. Saffron spice comes from the stigmas or fronds of the flower Crocus Sativus and is believed to have originated in India. In recent years it has spread over many regions and is cultivated in Europe as well as Middle Eastern countries.
Saffron has been one of the most revered herbs for thousands of years and was cultivated for use as early as the 11th century.
Although saffron is a hardy plant and will survive in many cooler climates, it may not flower in poor summers. A greenhouse or bright conservatory may be a better spot if you are in a region where summer sunshine isn’t very reliable.
Plants are propagated by corms, which resemble bulbs and in ideal conditions, will multiply every year. They can be left in the ground for three or four years, sometimes longer before they need to be dug up and separated.
They like a rich soil and should be planted around mid-summer to flower the following year. Sometimes larger corms planted earlier in the summer will flower in the same year as planting but generally, a year should be allowed before they flower. Patience is needed here!
Buy corms from a reputable supplier and be sure to get the right variety. Only Crocus Sativus produces saffron. All other crocus varieties are inedible.
Whole flowers can be collected just before opening and the stigmas removed afterwards. Or, if the sun has been kind and the flowers are blooming, collect the stigmas directly from the flowers while still on the plants. This is quite fiddly and will stain your fingers temporarily. Perhaps a pair of tweezers may be easier for you.
Pull the stigmas from the centre of the flowers. Lay the threads carefully on a tray and dry very slowly in a cool oven – or the sun if possible – until completely dry. Store in an airtight jar out of direct light.
Because the plants will multiply every year (in ideal conditions), you could have your own ‘free’ supply of saffron forever more! A jar of organic saffron threads would make a lovely gift for a foodie friend.
NB: As I mentioned above, make sure you buy the right variety – Crocus Sativus – of corms and from a good supplier.
Text taken from the new updated Herbs & Spices book where you can find out more about growing saffron and lots of other herbs and spices.
Herbs and Spices
It’s available now at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Waterstones, Walmart and other places! Order it online in case your local bookstore is out of copies. Links are all on the Herb Books page.