Herb to Know: Safflower

| October/November 1997

• Carthamus tinctorius
• (KAR-thuh-muss tink-TOR-ee-uss)
• Family Compositae
• Annual

Few herb gardeners grow safflower these days, though you might very well have a bottle of its seed oil sitting on a kitchen shelf or have eaten candy or other food dyed with its bright flowers. In past centuries, however, safflower was much cultivated as a dye plant and also used medicinally.

The genus Carthamus comprises fourteen annual and a few perennial herbs native to Asia and the Mediterranean region. The generic name comes from Arabic and Hebrew words meaning “to paint”.

C. tinctorius (tinctorius means “dyer’s”) is believed to be native to Central Asia. Plant remains found in Egyptian tombs date to 3500 b.c. The species was introduced into Europe from Egypt in 1551. It has been cultivated in China, Japan, India, and Egypt for its dye and is now cultivated in Europe and California for its seed oil.

Safflower is a thistly, upright plant that produces 3-foot-tall, smooth, branched stalks from a basal rosette. The plant is about 15 inches across. The alternate, ovate leaves are toothed with small spines and pointed at the tips. In June and July, each branch bears more than twelve flower heads 1 to 11/2 inches across. In each head, chaffy, prickly bracts surround a tuft of golden orange florets. Spineless varieties are available, as are those with white or yellow flowers. The oblong seeds, 1/4 inch long, look like little sunflower seeds.

Safflower has been called bastard, false, or poor man’s saffron because it has been used as a substitute or adulterant of true saffron (Crocus sativus), whose tiny, expensive stigmas provide an inimitable flavor as well as a vivid yellow dye. Although safflower flower heads may be used to color sauces and vinegars, their flavor is very bland compared to the real thing.

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