Fall-blooming crocus yields saffron, world’s most expensive spice


Dried saffron in jars.

Yellow stamens and red stigmas. (C) Photo Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Sometimes you just have to try something new because it looks like fun, you know others who have tried it, it isn’t hard or expensive, and it’s a plant that blooms at an unexpected time.

The bulb-like corms of fall-blooming crocus (C. sativus), may not be pricey, but what they yield is saffron, the world’s most expensive spice. Planted in early September, the winter hardy bulbs bloomed right on schedule in October and early November. Here’s what I learned, so get ready for a little horticulture nerdiness.

Plant parts

Red stigma and yellow stamen.

The red strands are saffron. (C) Photo Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Inside the crocus flower are three stamens and three stigmas, among other reproductive parts. The stamens are yellowish and the stigmas are thin and reddish orange. The stigmas are the prized saffron, used with rice, paella and other dishes. The stamens also are used, but they have a slightly different flavor than the saffron stigmas.

There are a couple of ways to harvest the strands, each tedious. With tweezers or hands, some gardeners pick the strands from the flower while still on the plant. Others, including me, snipped off the flowers and allowed them to dry slightly before plucking out the strands. I first used a tweezers, but found it easier to pinch them with my fingers.

In Spain, India, Iran, Greece and other arid countries where saffron crocus is grown as a crop, millions of corms are planted in rich, well-drained fields. The American Center for Saffron Research & Development at the University of Vermont promotes saffron as an alternative winter crop to be grown in high tunnels. The tunnels are hoop houses covered with plastic. Center experts peg the income per square foot for saffron at $4.03, compared to $1.81 for a winter crops of greens grown in a tunnel.

Tedious handwork

Saffron crocus in landscape.

Saffron crocus. (C) Photo Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

If there’s a hindrance, it’s that harvesting saffron is very labor intensive. It takes roughly 70,000 crocus flowers or 210,000 stigmas to make one pound, all harvested by hand. Is it worth it? Saffron sells for about $5,000 a pound. A gram of Spanish saffron is $20 at Penseys, the spice store.

Herb expert and horticulturist Debra Knapke said growing saffron is a challenge in the Midwest because of our heavy clay soil. In her Columbus, Ohio, garden, she successfully grew dozens of saffron crocus in a bottomless, metal trough with the top encased in hardware cloth. If there’s a natural threat to crocus it’s squirrels and other rodents. The hardware cloth works as a barrier.

I grew 10 bulbs in a window box and 10 in garden beds. So far, the rodents haven’t found them, and I hope the saffron crocus will return next year. I may even plant a few more.

Colchicums

There’s another fall-blooming bulb sometimes called fall or autumn crocus. However, it is a Colchicum, a different species than saffron crocus. Colchicum flowers are usually white or pink and are larger than the blue flowers of saffron crocus. Colchicums are toxic, so don’t confuse the two.



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