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Saffron Crocus

( Originally Published 1933 )


Iridaceae Perennial

This is a fall-flowering crocus distinguished from all others of its kind by the fact that the three-parted, orange-scarlet stigmas hang down outside the perianth as if falling through by their own weight. In late October, at Peekskill, when the frosts have blighted the dahlias, it is a delight to come upon the delicate grayish-purple blossoms, so like the first crocuses of spring, in the otherwise devastated garden.

Corm. The crocus is a bulbous plant, having a small satiny brown corm with a dimple at its base, covered with lengthwise straw-colored fibers, as if to protect it. From each corm rise three to six scapes with as many flowers and several leaves.

Stem. The stem and flower are about three to four inches high.

Leaf. The leaves are grass-like, have a white midrib, and are twelve to seventeen inches long, so long that they fall over. They come in the spring without the flowers and then die down.

Flower. A tuft of leaves and one single flower rises from a pale whitish spathe with two bract-like envelopes. The flowers, as Ibn Al Awam says, are shaped "like a long nut" or goblet not much opened at the mouth. The margins are wavy at the tips and are lavender striated a deeper color. There are three yellow stamens, and the yellow anthers are borne on flat, broad, lavender filaments. The pistil has an orange-scarlet stigma divided deeply into three parts, which is the saffron of commerce. The little flower has a sweet scent, faintly like that of a lily, with a little heliotrope, and something of violet. All writers agree that it smells less strongly in northern climates.


The saffron crocus has a famous past, and was valued for its color, flavor, and fragrance by the Mediterranean people probably even before the Phoenicians carried it over their trade routes. It is mentioned in the "Iliad" and by Theocritus and Theophrastus, who noticed that it grew best along the roadsides and in well-worn places, and presumed this was because it liked to be trodden upon. At Egyptian banquets, lotus and saffron flowers were strewn on the floors and in Roman days it was customary to sprinkle the theaters with saffron water. Ibn Baithar said it was a stimulant, and that when mixed with wine it caused people to gesticulate like animals. I wonder if this was the drink given to Ulysses's men by Circe. In Nürnberg, in 1444 and 1456, people went to the stake for adulterating saffron. In Ireland the women are said to wash their sheets in saffron water to strengthen the limbs.


Medicine. It is mentioned in the "National Dispensary" and is official in most pharmacopoeias but not in the United States. It is occasionally used for flatulent dyspepsia. The Pennsylvania Germans make a tea of it to bring out the measles. Elsewhere in the United States it is made into a mouth rinse for cases of thrush.

Perfume. Saffron oil is strong in the odor of saffron, of a somewhat culinary tone, says Poucher, and is attractive when mixed with the Oriental type of perfumes. It is now too expensive for coloring, and is replaced by tetrazine yellow.

Food. The dried saffron, to my palate, tastes like a disinfectant. When blended, however, with other condiments, it gives a definitely agreeable tone to the food which Southerners like, and it colors everything a brilliant yellow. John Evelyn in his "Acetaria" says, "Those of Spain and Italy we know generally make use of this flower, mingling its golden tincture with almost everything they eat . . ." And this is still true to-day. The Germans are said to flavor potpie and noodle soup with it. In Corn-wall, England, "saffron cakes" are made with it. In Spain many dishes are gilded with saffron.


The saffron crocus is now grown from Spain to Kashmir, but mostly in Spain, according to Bowles, the authority on the crocus. It was formerly a small garden crop in Lancaster and Laban counties Pennsylvania. Bowles says it is sterile and should be increased by the corms, as does Vilmorin, who says it sometimes sets seed. I planted the seed and it did not germinate, but that may be my fault. Bowles says it does best in a sunny, sheltered bed and should be divided every three or four years or it will produce nothing but leaves, and the corms will dwindle in size. For us it does very well and increases rapidly in the flower bed and is not planted in the grass. As with all bulbs, the leaves should be allowed to ripen before cutting them off. The corms can be bought at almost every bulb house in America.

Harvest. The flowers are picked as soon as they open and the stigmas are cut off with the finger nails and then dried in the sun or over a fire. Since this is tedious work and since 500,000 flowers are required for one pound of saffron, which, in the United States in January, 1927, cost nineteen to twenty dollars a pound, it is hardly profitable to grow the saffron crocus commercially.

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