Herb to Know: Safflower

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• 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.

Uses For Safflower

Safflower is grown today mainly for its seed oil, which is high in polyunsaturated fatty acids; a diet high in polyunsaturates has been found to lower total blood cholesterol. The oil is also used in margarines and salad oils, as well as in the manufacture of paints, varnishes, and soaps.

The powdered dried flowers have been mixed with talcum powder to make rouge, and they have been used to add reddish color to food and liqueurs. The Chinese dyed silk with safflower, and the Egyptians produced brilliant red linen cloth from the plant. Textiles found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen are believed to have been dyed with safflower.

Two dyes for fibers can be extracted from a batch of flowers. A yellow dyebath is obtained by soaking the flowers in a mild vinegar solution for a few hours or overnight. Using alum as a mordant also produces yellow. To get a red, the flowers from the yellow dyebath are rinsed and soaked again for a few hours in an alkaline solution of ammonia or washing soda, then vinegar is added to neutralize the dyebath and turn it bright red. More detailed instructions can be found in A Weaver’s Garden, by Rita Buchanan (Interweave Press, 1987).

Buchanan notes that the red dye once colored cloth tapes used to tie legal documents together: the original “red tape”. If you already have enough red tape in your life, you can use your safflower dyes to color silk or cotton fabrics pretty shades of red, orange, or yellow. Unfortunately, the dyes will fade in time.

The leaves and young shoots may be eaten as a potherb. The seeds are fried and made into chutney or may be used as a rennet substitute to curdle milk. The flowers are long-lasting in fresh arrangements or easy to dry for use in dried arrangements or other crafts.

Except for the health benefits of its seed oil, safflower isn’t known for its medicinal qualities these days. In the past, a tea made from the flowers was given to reduce fevers by inducing sweating, especially in childhood diseases such as measles. A mixture of the seed juice and chicken stock or water was given to relieve constipation and respiratory problems. Safflower also has been used to treat ear and menstrual disorders and, externally, to soothe bruises, wounds, and painful or paralyzed joints. Scientists confirm its use in lowering fever but question its effectiveness as a laxative.

Growing Safflower

Safflower is easy to grow. Select a site in full sun. Safflower will grow in just about any kind of soil but may get root rot if drainage is poor. It is quite drought resistant. Sow seeds outdoors in early to midspring as plants don’t transplant well. Cover with 1/4 inch of soil. Thin seedlings to 8 inches apart. The plants grow quickly and will bloom in about twelve weeks from seed.

Pick flowers for drying before they are completely open or, for contrast, before they have begun to open at all. Because the stems are stiff, you can dry them upright if you like. If you plan to try dyeing with the flowers, harvest petals daily for several weeks, spreading them out to dry on newspaper or paper towels and then saving the loose dried petals until you have enough for a dyebath. You will need an amount of petals about equal in weight to the fabric you’re planning to dye.

Seed Surces

• The Flowery Branch, PO Box 1330, Flowery Branch, GA 30542. Catalog $4. Carthamus tinctorius and ‘Lasting White’, with creamy white flowers.
• J. L. Hudson, Seedsman, Star Rt. 2, Box 337, La Honda, CA 94020. Catalog $1. C. tinctorius.
• Park Seed, 1 Parkton Ave., Greenwood, SC 29647-0001. Catalog free. Early-blooming cultivar with fewer spines and orange, yellow, or white flowers.
• Richters, Goodwood, ON, Canada L0C 1A0. Catalog free. C. tinctorius.
• Thompson and Morgan Inc., PO Box 1308, Jackson, NJ 08527-0308. Catalog free. C. tinctorius and ‘Orange and Cream’, a mix of both colors.

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