A field of delicate, purple flowers might not seem to be a likely source for one of the world’s most expensive spices, but saffron is — if nothing else — full of surprises. Grow and harvest your own saffron to truly access the history, beauty, complexity, and purposes of this plant.
Saffron comes from the saffron crocus plant (Crocus sativus), and once harvested and dried it makes its way into a host of memorable dishes, from paella to risotto. It’s a staple of Mediterranean, Spanish, and Indian cuisines, and it’s also important to Swedish culinary traditions during the holiday season.
In addition to its prized value in cooking, saffron is known for its historic medicinal applications. Over the centuries, the spice has been used to treat an array of ailments, including depression, asthma, and heartburn, and it’s even said to have some cancer-fighting properties.
Another benefit, for those who savor aesthetics: Saffron crocus is a beautiful flower that adds a burst of unexpected color to the autumn garden.
But let’s turn to some numbers. Although it’s difficult to calculate an exact figure, it’s estimated that it takes more than 70,000 saffron crocus flowers to achieve a single pound of commercial saffron spice. That same pound, when sold, could cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars, depending on the market and quality of the saffron.
Surprised? Here’s another number that you might not expect: The majority of the world’s current saffron production — 85 percent of it, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations — takes place in Iran. Saffron is also grown in parts of Europe (Spain and Italy are notable examples), but production in the United States is insignificant by comparison.
With all of those factors in play, you might assume that a spice as valuable as saffron would be impossible to grow, an unattainable gardening dream. But growing and harvesting saffron at home is a goal that is well within reach. Learn how it’s done, and reap the benefits of growing and using these beautiful blooms to enhance your garden and your food.
How to Grow Saffron Crocus
At first glance, saffron crocus might not seem much different than other crocus plants you already have in your garden. But don’t be fooled — your favorite spring-blooming crocus varieties, such as Dutch crocus (Crocus vernus), might be widely grown and recognized, but they aren’t saffron.
Saffron crocus is a perennial that blooms in the fall and contains the source of the saffron spice: three thin, orange-red stigmas. This trio of stigmas is the only edible portion of the saffron crocus plant; every other part, including the leaves and the blossoms, has been reported to be inedible and even poisonous.
Saffron crocus is propagated by corms (which are similar but not identical to bulbs, due to slightly different structures). In perfect conditions, each corm produces a flower, and each flower produces three saffron stigmas. It takes about 50 to 60 flowers to produce 1 tablespoon of saffron spice. Keep in mind, however, that over time the underground corms develop additional corms, which can later be divided and replanted to multiply your saffron crocus production in subsequent years.
Gardeners familiar with the traditional Dutch crocus know that it’s an incredibly hardy plant that laughs in the face of cold temperatures and bravely blooms even in volatile spring weather. Saffron crocus, on the other hand, requires sun, heat, and dry conditions to thrive. Don’t underestimate the importance of well-drained soil; saffron crocus corms are prone to rot if exposed to prolonged wetness.
Saffron crocus blooms in autumn in all Zones, but your location and growing Zone may influence your initial planting date. Nurseries ship saffron crocus corms at the appropriate time for late summer or early fall planting, and you’ll want to plant your corms immediately upon arrival, as they’re somewhat delicate. The general rule of thumb is to plant them six weeks before your first fall frost.
Plant your crocus corms in small groups, with each corm spaced approximately 3 to 4 inches away from the next. Aim for a planting depth of 2 to 4 inches, and plant each corm with the pointed end facing the sky. You can water the corms after planting, but after that it’s best to limit watering until the leaves begin to pop from the soil.
After your corms are planted, just sit back and wait. They probably won’t bloom the first year, but you’ll see foliage the following spring, which will die back, and the saffron flowers will form that fall.
It sounds easy, but as with any gardening endeavor, potential problems exist. Wet conditions, as noted, can prevent the corms from blooming, and cold temperatures — especially frost — can be damaging. Saffron crocus is considered hardy to Zone 6 (some sources say Zone 5), but care must be taken to protect the corms from frost. If you’d like to attempt growing saffron crocus in Zones 3, 4, or 5, you’ll need to consider planting in containers so that the corms can be transported to a warmer location during winter months. Thick layers of mulch can also help to protect the planted corms from cold conditions, and can be used both indoors and outdoors.
How to Harvest and Process Saffron
If you’re growing saffron on a small scale, harvesting is nothing but a pleasant morning’s work in order to achieve a more-than-ample return on your investment. But for commercial saffron farms with acres of individual plants, the harvesting process requires the dedicated efforts of a hardworking team of harvesters who hand-pick the individual flowers and then hand-pick every saffron thread from the blossoms. Some believe this labor-intensive harvesting process is largely what commands the high price of saffron.
Harvesting saffron is a precise process, yet it’s surprisingly simple. When the crocus blooms (which occurs during a short window in late fall), it’s time to harvest. Select a warm and sunny morning for the task of harvesting. Pick each individual crocus blossom by hand, and then carefully harvest (“pluck,” if you will) each blossom’s trio of orange-red stigmas by hand or with tweezers.
Saffron in and of itself is a precious commodity; saffron that you’ve harvested with your own hands is doubly so, which is why you’ll want to preserve it carefully. Thankfully, drying saffron is another simple task. Scatter your fresh saffron threads in a thin layer over paper towels, and leave them in a dry and preferably warm place until they’re completely dry (about one month). Store your thoroughly dried saffron in an airtight container, and keep it handy for use in your favorite dishes.
While undoubtedly a hands-on task, incorporating saffron crocus into your garden and harvesting its stigmas is an easy and rewarding process. Instead of turning to high-priced spice sellers, consider starting some saffron crocus plants yourself, and watch both your garden and your dishes come alive.
Ready to join the ranks of saffron enthusiasts? You can obtain saffron crocus corms from a variety of sources. A word of caution: Always be certain that you’re ordering the correct corms. Crocus sativus is not the only autumn-blooming variety of crocus, but it’s the only one that contains the edible stigmas.
• Learn how to use saffron in this Veggie Supreme Paella Recipe.
Samantha Johnson is the author of several books, including The Beginner’s Guide to Vegetable Gardening. She lives in northern Wisconsin on a former dairy farm.