I first encountered the saffron plant in the north of Spain on fall. I was there doing a story on honey and was visiting a local bee keeper in the mountains. His bees collected honey from the wild mint, thyme, lavender, and rosemary plants that carpeted the mountains. As we walked the autumnal mountain slopes, I noticed little clumps of purple flowers peaking out through the grass. The fall is all about dead and brown plants so the bright spots of colour really stood out.
Upon closer inspection, I discovered a crocus in full bloom. This was odd because the crocus I knew did its magic in early spring. When I got back from my trip, I did a little research. I discovered there are two types of crocus. The vernal or spring blooming crocus, and the autumnal or fall blooming crocus. And, that the fall blooming crocus was the source of the spice “saffron”.
Being a plant collector, I decided I had to have fall blooming crocuses in my garden. And, with some digging, I was able to find a supply. I planted the saffron crocus bulbs in amidst the grass in my front yard. Once the mowing season is over, the saffron erupts in purple splendor, at a time when there is little colour in the garden. And, with this saffron in the garden, I have my own supply of saffron, free for the price of picking.
Actually, I was just out in my saffron bed picking saffron. Two thoughts occurred.
The first of which was this. I’m glad my urban garden compound is entirely privatized by a bamboo hedge. If this was not the case, I would have been self conscious about harvesting saffron with the neighbors walking by. Let’s just say it would have been a ridiculous sight. Why you ask? To understand why I would have looked a fool, you have to know a little bit about saffron.
Saffron, that rare and exotic spice, is in fact the stigma and style (that’s the girl part) of a fall blooming crocus. So, to harvest saffron, one has to squat in the saffron field(or front yard in this case), pick a flower, pull out the little red girl bit, toss the crocus flower, and then pick another crocus flower. Each day several hundred flowers open, and each one has to have its girly parts plucked.
Were the neighbors able to see into my garden sanctuary, they would have seen me performing a whacko “he loves me, he loves me not” game with crocus blooming at the wrong time of the year. Of course the maneuver is performed in a squatting and scooting manner that looks like the dance of a person who has had a psychotic break from reality. But, as I said, due to my privacy fencing, my fall ritual was not seen by anyone and it was therefore not called into the local mental health authorities.
My second thought, was this. Who figured out that you could pluck the girl part of a fall blooming crocus, and use it to colour and flavour food? I mean really. How was that ever figured out? The answer is no one knows. All we know is it was, and a long time ago. Saffron has been collected every autumn for so long no one can put a date on it. It gets mentioned in the bible and in other early written works. The dance performance earlier described, has been danced out by other squatting people since the beginning of time.
As I squat in the cold, neutering crocus, I connect a long string of people who have done the same for at least 4000 years! The plant has a story behind it and one that I intend to tell.
Natural history: The saffron plant
The scientific name for the saffron plant is Crocus sativus. It belongs to the Iris family(Iridaceae) and is related to other garden favourites including the German Iris and the gladiola. The plant is native to the Mediterranean region but can be found growing from North Africa all the way into India . Its original habitat was expanded significantly at an early age and along the ancient spice routes. The spice traders traded saffron, but, they also spread the saffron bulb and saffron production. It’s an adaptable little bulb that does well just about anywhere leaves fall.
As I said previously, this mild and expensive spice is really the styles and stigmas of a fall blooming crocus. Open a crocus flower and look for the stick like structures standing right in the middle of the flower. These are the flowers sex organs, this is saffron. It takes the genitals 4,000 flowers to make one ounce of saffron! The sex bits are carefully pulled out of the flower by hand and then dried at a very mild heat. We are talking about tedious, boring, and time consuming work. The neutering of the crocus flowers was and is “womens work” in many a saffron producing country. Saffron is expensive and now you know why.
A logical question would be this. If the saffron crocus is always having its sex organs pulled off, why doesn’t it go extinct. Neutered into non-existence. Here’s why not. Crocuses reproduce through the production of bulblets on the side of the mother bulb. Each mother bulb can produce forty daughter bulbs a season. One crocus quickly turns into a clump or crocus.
Saffron is used in cooking because it gives colour and fragrance to food. And it does so powerfully. The little red string, once pulled from the flower, is incredibly aromatic and if rubbed around the palm of the hand, will strain the hand bright yellow. This is also down to botany. The female sex organ of the crocus is bright red and highly scented as a means to attract bees….its an evolutionary trick. Of course, it also attracted the eyes of man which leads to a lot of neutering. But, that is probably a late breaking development in the life history of the crocus. Anyhow, so scented and coloured, the crocus flower is often visited by bees! Not only is saffron harvesting boring, hard on the calves, but is also dangerous.
Growing up around Jewish cooking, I knew about saffron. It is used to give chicken soup and challah bread their characteristic yellow colour. Beautiful yellow chicken soup eaten with soft and tender challah, brings up fond memories from my past. And, it hints of how ancient saffron use is. Jewish use of saffron goes way back, so way back, it’s listed in the Bible.
In the Song of songs, 4:14 , we find an early mention of saffron.
“Your skin is a paradise of pomegranates, with the choicest of fruits, henna plants along with spikenard plants, spikenard and saffron , cane, and cinnamon, along with all sorts of trees of frankincense, myrrh, and aloes, along with all the finest perfumes”.
In this mention, saffron appears along side loved and revered Biblical items. These are the crème de la crème of the ancient spice world. The top ten on the Israelite house wife’s holiday wish list. In this list of fragrant spices, saffron was the most expensive item listed.
Apparently its scent drove people wild.
If you have ever worked with saffron, you might find this surprising. Its smell is unlikely to knock you over. In fact it is quite subtle, so subtle that you might not notice its presence in a dish if someone didn’t point out the fact. This has to do with the modern palate. We are so palate jaded by powerful artificial flavours in common use, to us, the scent and taste is subtle. But, in a time when chemical flavour did not exist, saffron really rocked the Israelite palate.
The Hebrew word for the plant is karkom and the spice produced by the plant zafrah. The English saffron is in fact derived from the Hebrew. By the by, in Hebrew, zafrah also means yellow. Though the taste of saffron is subtle, its colour is not. Four strings of saffron will colour a pot of rice bright yellow. We are talking creamy yellow, we are talking about lemon or canary yellow! As early as the Bible time, Israelites were using saffron in cookery and baking to impart a bright yellow colour to food.
Oh, it couldn’t be the Bible without some debate. There are some that think this line from the Bible is referring to tumeric. Both spice plants produce a yellow stain and both were in use in ancient Israel . But, because the line is dealing with fragrant substances, and tumeric is without a smell, I would side with the scholars that think the line talks about saffron. This is backed up by the fact that the Talmud, another ancient Jewish text, talks extensively about saffron and insists the line refers to saffron.
We know that the Israelites cultivated saffron in great fields, and that apart from being beautiful when in full bloom, were a crop. A field of saffron was of great value. As the Israelites moved into Europe with the help of the Romans, they continued their love affair with saffron. They used it domestically, produced it, and worked as saffron traders. They were so associated with saffron and its yellow colour, that when the first Pope declared that Jews had to distinguish themselves from Gentiles by wearing a badge, he specified that the badge was to be dyed yellow with saffron. This little history bit pops up in a very tragic instance. Hitler forced Jews to wear the yellow star of David, the yellow being from the Jews long ago prior occupation as saffron dealers.
It would be unfortunate to end Jewish saffron history on such a tragic note, because, though it became a symbol of great suffering and pain, it is also a great symbol of Jewish domestic bliss. The Jews brought saffron into Europe , and saffron and European Jewish culture were closely intertwined. This year, last year, and 2000 years ago, for the European Jew, the Sabbath dinner would not be a Sabbath dinner, without a steaming bowl of rich yellow chicken soup and a big plate of yellow challah bread.
Roman and Greek History
All over the Mediterranean region, saffron is beloved spice. Therefore it is no surprise that it was well noticed by both the Greeks and the Romans. In both of those countries, it grows wild on mountain sides like the one where I first saw it in Spain . And, for the most part, the crocus produces a purple bloom. However, there is a white variety that grows in Greece . Rather than the mountain side being carpeted in purple blooms, its sprinkled with dots of white. Greek legend has it that due to a god inspired event, a mountain that was previously covered in purple crocus, suddenly turned white. One of the gods hit the change colour button and presto magic, the hill went from purple to white.
When it comes to saffron and the Greeks and Romans, as if often the case with popular items from those parts, it is associated with the pantheon gods. Its yet another god inspired plant. The ancient written record well records Saffron. It was called crocus by Homer, Hippocrates, Theophratus, and Theocritus. Virgil and Columella talked about it. Pliny and Dioscorides both say that Sicily and Cilicia were centres for saffron production. It gets mentioned because it got used.
One book I came across suggested that the ancients scattered saffron, wetted with wine, on the floors of their public meeting places as a deodorizer. I doubt this very much. It would have been a major expense and a waste of money. No one would have noticed the little rat hair like strings on the floor and I sincerely doubt its presence would have covered the lovely smells brought in by the public. The Romans were said to have used saffron water to sprinkle down theatres and public places which makes about as much sense. This would be like mopping the floor with five hundred dollar a bottle perfume. If you read anything to this effect, have suspicions.
But, we know for certain saffron was used at wedding ceremonies, as a food flavour and something that was tossed over guests as a good luck symbol. This seems a bit more realistic and keeping with ancient history elsewhere.
Something does come up from this corner of the world. Here we find saffron also being used to dye fabric canary yellow. The colour that saffron imbued to food and could also be passed onto a top or a pair of bottoms. Colour was rare in those days, both in clothing and in food. There were not that many colours available, and, the yellow spectrum saffron added to the weavers pallete was well appreciated. It would seem that yellow coloured clothing was particularly lovely to the ancients eye. However, this was a frivolous dye. The colouring agents in saffron are not colour fast, meaning they washed out with water. Be that such that it may, it was still used in exclusive clothing manufacture. In Homers “the Saffron morn”, the gods and goddesses, heroes and nymphs, vestal virgins, and whores, are clothed in robes of a saffron hue. More commonly saffron was used to dye the clothing of the well to do. As an example, the Persian nobility wore saffron stained clothing, a testimony to their wealth and extravagance.
The saffron fake out
All over the saffron loving world, saffron was an expensive spice. It was hard work to collect a handful and it did not go cheap. It has always been pricey because there was never a lot of it available. Humans are humans and since man first walked he and she have like the unavailable.
Another human trait is that of ripping other humans off. As saffron was so popular and rare, early on we have records of people attempting to sell fake saffron. In the book of Joshua, laws were laid down governing the sale of saffron. It was a high crime to pass something off as saffron, when in fact it was not saffron. Under Islamic law, selling fake saffron was punishable by death. That’s right, the head rolled for the offense. Let’s just say that people took their saffron seriously.
The most common fake out agent? A common thistle, the saffleflower or carthamus tinctoria. This thistle produces red petals which were rolled to look like saffron threads. Though passing Carthamnus off as saffron was risky business, a lot of people tried it and still do. The trick is as old as the Bible, literally.
How can you tell the difference? Saffron has an odour, though slight, and one that is unique to it. To me, it smells a bit like clorox bleach. The odour of the spice is released upon being mixed with liquid, dry it doesn’t smell like much. If you put a saffron strand in your plam, add a drop of water, the yellow colour and chlorox like smell should appear as you rub the strand into your palm. No smell, chances are, no saffron.
I have this theory about saffron. As I tried to state politely in the previous paragraph, saffron doesn’t really have an impressive odour or taste. Its not in the same league as cinnamon or frankincense, though history tells us people loved the spice beyond compare. My theory is they liked eating coloured food. When we are talking about the Israelites you have to remember we are talking about a different space in time. They did not have cheap artificial food colours in the kitchen cabinet. Most of the food they ate was the colour of dog food. To have a bright yellow bowel of rice had to be a big deal. No wonder they loved the stuff. People like colour and saffron gave the Israelite a big old blast of it.
The colouring agent found in saffron is a chemical known as crocin, a carotenoid. The chemical has been proven to act as a choleretic along with a related chemical, crocetin. Choleretics increase the amount of bile produced which in turn promotes digestion. This means they improve liver function while assisting in the digestive process. The aromatic element of the spice, albeit slight, is due to two chemicals, safranal, a volatile oil, and a substance known as picrocrocin.
Saffron and Medicine
As a medicine, saffron has been used since antiquity as a general stimulant, tonic, appetite stimulant, aphrodisiac and emmenagogue. The Arabian physicians suggest using 10 of the strings to a cup of hot water as a narcotic in cases of asthma, whooping cough, and hysteria. It is used to break a fever via increased sweating and as a source of release in gaseousness and bloating.
The Indian physicians say this about it in “Indian Plants and Drugs”. “As medicine it is used for its stimulant, antispasmodic, and stomachic properties; in over doses it is a narcotic poison. It is used in small doses in fevers, melancholia, enlargement of the liver and in catarrhal affections of children. It has also emmenagogue virtues. In European medicine it is used chiefly as a colouring and flavouring agent. The dose of the drug is from one to three grains and of the tincture it is .5-2 drachms. It is given to cage birds when they are moulting or otherwise sickly, a few threads being infused in the water which they drink.”
This idea that saffron makes caged birds happy and whistling a tune suggests that it is a stimulant and somehow affects the mood. In the Hamdard Pharmacopoeia we see how the Arabian physicians living in India used the spice. “It is credited with various medicinal properties. It is a nerve sedative, stimulant, aphrodisiac, stomachic, slightly anodyne, and anti-spasmodic, emmenagogue, refrigerant, and diuretic. It is used in fevers, melancholia, and liver enlargement, in spasmodic cough and asthma, in catarrhal affections of children, in anaemia, chlorosis, and seminal debility. As a stimulant and aphrodisiac it is considered a sovereign remedie. It is given in rheumatism and neuralgia. Pessaries of saffron are used in painful affections of the uterus.” The interesting note here being its use as a nerve sedative and stimulant at the same time.
On the European front we have a report from Gerard as to the uses of saffron in medicine. Its a pretty long list so be prepared.
Antidepressant: “the moderate use of it is good for the head, and maketh the senses more quick and lively, shaketh off heavy and drowsie sleep, and maketh a man merry.”
Stimulant to the heart and lungs: “Also, saffron strengtheneth the heart, concocteth crude and raw humors of the chest, openeth the lungs, and removeth obstructions.”
“It is also such a special remedie for those that have consumption of the lungs, and are, as we term it, at death’s doore , and almost past breathing, that it bringeth breath again, and prolongeth life for certain days, if ten or twelve grains at the most be given with new or sweet wine. For we have found by often experience, that being taken in that sort, it presently and in a moment removeth away difficultie of breathing, which most dangerously and suddenly happeneth.”
Liver, reproductive organ, and kidneys stimulant: “It is commended against the stoppings of the liver and gall, and against eh yellow jaundice, and hereupon Dioscorides writeth, that it maketh a man well coloured. It is put into all drinks, especially which bring down the floures, the birth, and the after burthen. It provoketh urine, stirreth fleshly lust, and is used in Cataplasmes and pultesses for the matrix and fundament, and also in plasters and seare-cloaths which serve for old swellings and aches, and likewise for hot swellings that have also in them S. Anthonies fire.”
Used as a tonic in epidemics: “The weight of 10 graines of saffron, the kernels of walnuts 2 ounces, figs 2 ounces, mithridate one dram, and a few sage leaves, stamped together with a sufficient quantity of pimpernel water, and made into a masse or lumpe, and kept in a glass for your use, and thereof 12 grains given in the morning fasting, preserveth from the pestilence, and expelleth it from those that are infected.”
Gerard tells us two important things. Firstly, that saffron was powerful medicine and not to be used in large quantities and not to be used too often. It was seen as a stimulant to all the organs of the body and to the vital life force. As Gerard said, it was used when someone was knocking at deaths door as a rescue medicine. Saffron was thought to be generally stimulating to well being and good for virtually every condition a person could develop. By stimulating health, all conditions improved.
The ancient doctors knew when a patient was slipping away. The described this in many ways, but they knew what they saw. They had a few medications that were kept in reserve which could be used to bring the person back and away from deaths door. Saffron was one of these plants. Its odd that it has been so entirely forgotten in the modern age. The physicians held it in high esteem and this only added to the pricey nature of the spice.
The forgetting process that has engulfed saffron started some time ago. Howard Horton, M.D., in 1879 had this to say about saffron. His words indicate that by the turn of the last century saffron had fallen out of favour. “This article was formerly much used, and considered a good remedy, and in female obstructions; but at the present time it has fallen very much into disuse, we think this article has been unjustly rejected as there is no doubt it possesses valuable medicine powers.”If Howard thought saffron was neglected in 1879, he would fall out of his bed if he knew how little we use it today.
Horton thought it a powerful stimulant to the organs, especially the female reproductive tract. “Saffron is very fragrant, and is highly esteemed, as it exhilarates the spirits when taken in small portions, but if used in too large doses it produces immoderate mirth, with many of the consequences resulting from the inordinate use of ardent spirits. This article was formerly much used, and considered a good remedy in hysterical affections, and in female obstructions; but at the present time it has fallen very much into disuse, excepting for complaints in infants, such as the jaundice, redgum and eruptive diseases in general, etc. for which it is an excellent remedy. We think this article has been unjustly neglected as there is no doubt it possesses valuable medicinal powers. Joined with nervines and tonics, it is, doubtless, useful in hysteria and hypochondriasis.” The doctors comments that it is good in hysteria is consistent with many doctors of the past. It was seen as being powerful medicine when the emotions were out of whack, but again, in very small doses. Horton also says it is very fragrant. Perhaps there is something wrong with my smeller. Try it for yourself!
There are so many people suffering from mental problems in the modern age that saffron might need to be rediscovered. The sales figures for antidepressants in America indicates that a major chunk of the nation is depressed and unable to cope with life unaided by strong medication. As we seem to need emotional medicine, it would pay to hear what another physician had to say about it in the relm of the emotions. DR. E.B.Nash M.D. said this of it. “In hysterical conditions in which there is great changeableness of mental symptoms. The patient is alternately cheerful or depressed. In the former state she will sing, dance, jump, laugh, whistle, love and want to kiss everybody. In the later she will cry, get into a rage, abuse her friends, and then repeat it, etc. Crocus for these alternate mental states, resembles aconite, ingnatia, and nux moschata, but with crocus there is another peculiar symptom, viz., sensation as of something moving or hopping about in the stomach, abdomen, uterus or chest. Often this sensation of movement is so positive that the patient mistakes it for the movements of a fetus, and is sure she is in a family way. If the mind symptoms above described are present, don’t be too ready to promise a baby, but give a dose of crocus and await developments.
Crocus is one of our remedies for chronic affections. They are twitchings of single sets of muscles, twitchings of eyelids especially. These twitchings are very common in hysterical subjects, and there are many remedies for them, so that one could not of course prescribe on that alone. There are, however, remedies which are suited to hysteria and also other nervous diseases, in which twitchings are very prominent and crocus is one of them.”
Because it is largely a forgotten herb, not much research has been done on how it works. We know what gives it colour and fragrance and that is about it. We also know that the ancients physician after ancient physician recommended it for all sorts of emotional problems, especially those marked with hysteria. There is a lot of hysteria going around these days and saffron might be a good option to bring people back down to earth. I use one strand of saffron in one cup of hot water every day to help people calm down a bit. It should be used in times of crisis more than as a regularly taken medicine. However, when hysteria strikes, saffron is very useful.
The plant is native to Greece and Asia minor , though its use as a spice lead to its spread throughout the Mediterranean . Spain and Italy both produce it commercially today. For the most part, the plant produces a delicate light blue flower in late October, depending on the weather and location. The plants like mountainous regions and they literally take over a pasture or field by means of their spreading corms or bulbs. In the modern world, saffron harvesters go into the saffron fields each and every day to collect the flowers that have opened that day. The picked flowers have to be neutered within a few hours of picking or the bloom melts into a mushy mess in which the sex bits are hopelessly enmeshed.
Disclaimer: The author makes no guarantees as to the the curative effect of any herb or tonic on this website, and no visitor should attempt to use any of the information herein provided as treatment for any illness, weakness, or disease without first consulting a physician or health care provider. Pregnant women should always consult first with a health care professional before taking any treatment.