Plant Spotlight: The Saffron Crocus

Fall is a busy time for gardeners, as with the threat of colder weather approaching, we must set about our tasks with a sense of urgency. Whether we like it or not, winter is on its way. A couple of hard frosts have caused me to step into high gear as they are reminders that I need to finish my tasks before the coldest weather arrives. There is a seemingly endless list of jobs that lay before me: garden beds to be tidied and prepared, hoses to be emptied and stored, tools to be cleaned and put away, to name a few. The hard frosts have already claimed all of my annuals at this point, including my beloved zinnias and Truffula Pink globe amaranth. I was sad to see them go but had little time to mourn their passing; I had work to do.

Whether We Like It or Not, Winter Is on Its Way
A Recent Hard Frost Claimed My Beloved Zinnias

Some tasks I am relieved to say I have managed to complete. Garlic and shallots have been planted, tucked in tight with a generous layering of shredded leaves and straw for their long winter’s nap. Over 100 Daffodil bulbs somehow made it into the ground and will await their dazzling spring performance and leaves have been collected continuously to be composted into garden gold for next season’s crops. As I go about my garden chores, author Gary Zukav’s words play in my head: “We cannot stop the winter or the summer from coming. We cannot stop the spring or the fall or make them other than they are. They are gifts from the universe that we cannot refuse. But we can choose what we will contribute to life when each arrives.” So I press on, knowing that the preparations I’m doing today will contribute to the lives of many, including pollinators, wildlife, and my loved ones as they dine on the literal fruits of my labor, next season.

“We Cannot Stop the Winter or the Summer From Coming…but We Can Choose What We Will Contribute to Life When Each Arrives.” -Gary Zukav

During all of this chaotic rushing around, I had almost forgotten that back in September, I had ordered and planted 20 saffron crocus corms until I noticed them poking their heads up out of the ground. They were purchased on a whim, as many of my garden aspirations tend to be when I was lured by the thought of growing something uniquely beautiful and useful in the kitchen. I have not always had the best luck growing certain herbs, but perhaps, I thought, a spice grown on a flower would be more conducive to my garden thumb. I had no expectations, and I was both surprised and thrilled when I spotted them emerging out of the ground.

I Was Thrilled to Spot My Saffron Crocus Emerging From the Ground

Saffron spice comes from the Crocus sativus flower and is actually the stigma and styles of the flower. These threads are collected and then dried for later use in flavoring and coloring food dishes. The pigment crocin contained in the threads imparts a golden-yellow hue to textiles and culinary creations. There is some debate about the origins of the saffron crocus, although most agree it likely originated in Iran, Greece, or Mesopotamia. Today, Iran produces 90% of the world’s saffron. Recorded history reveals that the spice has been widely traded and used for its dying and seasoning properties for thousands of years. It was also valued for its use in textiles, perfumes, medicines, and cosmetics, and was even placed in the baths of royalty such as Alexander the Great and Cleopatra.

The Three Red Stigma and Styles of the Crocus sativus Flower are Saffron Threads

Saffron holds the title of the world’s costliest spice, and for a good reason, as the harvesting process is both tedious and labor-intensive. Each thread must be hand-picked, and it is estimated that 40 hours of labor is required to harvest the saffron threads from 150,000 flowers. To put this in perspective, to obtain a mere pound of saffron spice, 200,000 threads must be harvested from 70,000 flowers! On top of the tedious picking process, threads must be harvested rapidly, as each flower only lasts a day or two, and the entire flower crop blooms in a one to a two-week window. No wonder saffron spice is so expensive, ranging between $5,000 to $10,000 per pound!

Each Saffron Thread Must Be Picked By Hand
These Saffron Threads Will Be Dried and Then Stored in an Air-Tight Container for Later Use

I wasn’t about to plant 70,000 saffron crocus corms or start a saffron growing business, but I was intrigued by the notion that I could grow these beautiful flowers and harvest the divinely flavored spice in my own garden beds. I was also enamored with the saffron crocus because, unlike most other crocus varieties, Crocus sativus blooms in November here in Zone 5. At a time when all of my other flowers are faded or destroyed by frost, these exquisite purple flowers emerged as if a last hurrah despite the cool temperatures. A fact not lost on the pollinators, whom I watched with delight as they sleepily flew from bloom to bloom completely covered in yellow pollen.

This Pollinator Seemed Thrilled to Find a Flower in Bloom in November

Being the first year since planting, I harvested, dried, and stored what would probably be considered a minuscule amount of saffron. However, it seemed monumental in my eyes. Gaining great respect for saffron growers and reveling in the fact that I am growing something in my garden that has been enjoyed by the likes of Cleopatra seems worth it to me. I may only be able to enjoy one meal this year prepared with my precious saffron threads, but it will taste so satisfying knowing I grew it myself. In the years to come, my saffron crocus will multiply and spread, giving me even more delectable spice to enjoy.

I Revel in Growing Something in My Garden Enjoyed by the Likes of Cleopatra

Soon, the crocus flowers too shall fade, and winter will be escorted in. I will have to wait until this time next year to see my saffron crocus once more. It will  sadden me to see the passing of summer’s bounty, but I will try to keep poet William Blake’s words in mind: “In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.” This season, I have learned much within my garden, have been taught substantially, and now I plan to enjoy, starting by sampling the flavor of my saffron.

Source: Saffron Crocus (Crocus sativus)

Photographs (top to bottom): Feature image: Saffron Crocus (Crocus sativus) flower and saffron threads Photo 1: Baby Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium dubium) covered in frost Photo 2: State Fair Zinnia covered in frost Photo 3: Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) covered in frost Photo 4: Saffron Crocus (Crocus sativus) about to bloom Photo 5: Crocus sativus bloom Photo 6-7: Harvesting saffron threads Photo 8: Pollinator enjoying the Crocus sativus flower Photo 9: Beautiful Crocus sativus flower in bloom

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