Saffron is mentioned in only one verse, Song of Solomon 4:14. Here it is in a garden, no doubt simply for its ornamental beauty as there is no indication in the Bible of it being used as Saffron, Crocus sativus, is the most expensive spice known. One kilogram cost over ten thousand dollars! About 150 saffron flowers are needed to produce one gram of spice. Put another way, 75, 000 flowers (225, 000 stigmata!) are needed for one pound of the final product. Next time you are in the grocery store, look for saffron. It is about ten dollars for a few threads. These threads are the dried stigmata of the plant. Spain is the largest producer of commercial Saffron, most of it grown in Andalucia.
I have seen the saffron harvest in Spain near the village of Membrilla in the La Mancha region in October. The plants are grown in small plots, less than about one quarter hectare. Leaves of saffron are grass like and only a few mm wide. However, the flowers are large and showy.They are a pinkish- purple in color and are borne close to the soil so that harvesting the flowers requires a great deal of stooping.
The flowers are picked and put in baskets then taken to a house where the style and three- parted red stigmata are removed from the center of the flower. The stigmata are large and droops between the petals of the flower. Saffron flowers are fragrant in addition to being showy and it is striking to see large piles of flowers near the fields where they have been discarded after the stigmata are removed. Immediately after removal, the stigmata are carefully dried over a charcoal fire giving them the appearance of dark red threads. They are ready to use as a spice at this stage but have little flavor if used fresh.
Like other species of crocus, saffron is grown from bulbs. In fact, Crocus sativus is sterile and no sexual reproduction is known. Numerous studies on the cytology of the plant show that it has chromosomal aberrations that do not allow it to reproduce.
The bulbs are planted at a depth of about 5 cm in the spring. Numerous flowers will be produced the first year but the second year is reported to be the most productive. In Iran and Kashmir, also important saffron producing areas, the bulbs are left for up to 12 years. It takes about one acre of saffron to produce one pound of spice. After three years, the bulbs are dug and the smaller bulbs produced at the base of the older bulbs are removed.
I brought some bulbs from Andalucia and have grown them in my garden in Norfolk. Most years, at least a few flowers are produced in October or early November. From these, I have collected and dried the stigmata and used them as commercial saffron. The color is the same but the flavor does not seem as pronounced as the saffron grown in Spain.
A recent paper (Casoria, P., U. Laneri and N. Di Novella. 1996. A preliminary note on an interesting species of crocus (Crocus longiflorus, Iridaceae) similar to Saffron (C. sativus). Economic Botany 50(4): Page 971) discusses a wild crocus in the Salerno region of Italy that local people use like saffron. Chemical tests show that C. longiflorus contains some of the same coloring and flavoring agents as true saffron. Interestingly, C. longiflorus reproduces sexually, unlike C. sativus. Further studies might show that the two species are related.