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Saffron
(Crocus sativus)


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About Saffron

Saffron flower

Saffron purchased at retail is monstrously expensive: around $86 for a quarter-ounce. But, amazingly, it's easy to grow in the home garden. (What makes it expensive at retail is not any difficulty in growing the plant--it's just a variety of autumn crocus--but the hand labor required to harvest the spice itself in quantity; but in quantities suited for household consumption, and for occasional much-appreciated gifts, it's no big deal.)

Saffron crocus bulbs are now available from several well-known home-garden seedsmen, who usually ship at the right time of year for planting. The bulbs you receive should be about the size of a healthy garlic clove.

There are only two easy "secrets" to readily growing your own saffron: 1) do not let dormant bulbs get materially wet, much less sit in wet ground; and 2) harvest timely. (We'll elaborate below.) A Spanish commercial saffron-grower's web site says "The cultivation of saffron needs an extreme climate; hot and dry weather in summer and cold in winter." Sound like any place we know?


Cultivars

Modern saffron is entirely hybrid and does not set seed at all--all propagation is vegetative. "Cultivars" are very rarely mentioned by home-garden seedsmen in connection with saffron, though there are certainly plenty enough out there; premier types from around the saffron-growing world include "Aquila" (Italy), "Mongra" aka "Lacha" (Kashmir--Crocus sativa Cashmirianus, said to be an especially fine producer in northern gardens), "Superior" and "Creme" (Spain), and "Pennsylvania Dutch" (U.S.--known for its "earthy" notes). Bulbs offered at retail in North America are all (so far as we found) unidentified by cultivar, and are unlikely to be any of those prized sorts.

There is, so far as we can tell, a single North American vendor, Odyssey Bulbs, that claims to deliver true Crocus sativa Cashmirianus bulbs (and Garden Watchdog has several positives and no negatives for them); the price is higher than most vendors charge, but if it's as claimed (and he guarantees it), it's worth it. They also offer "generic" saffron-crocus bulbs, but as this is a one-time expense, stick with the best.

What is most important, however, is that you buy bulbs only from a reputable seed house, making quite sure that what you buy are saffron crocuses, not autumn meadow crocuses (sometimes confusingly also called saffron crocuses); be utterly sure you are getting real Crocus sativus, not Colchicum autumnale.


Planting

To grow saffron successfully, especially in our climate, it is essential to understand its life cycle. That cycle is like this: in the autumn, it sends up flowers that very soon die back; those are soon followed by "leaves" (which look a lot like a vigorous clump of grass, or perhaps scallions), which continue to grow through the winter, often reaching 18 to 24 inches; in spring, perhaps around April, the growth portion of its annual cycle ends, the leaves die down, and the underground bulb goes "dormant" for the warm months; then, with the return of autumn, the bulb breaks dormancy and sends up new flowers, and the cycle starts over. We need to know this because the one thing that will for sure kill off saffron is having its bulb be damp for any nontrivial amount of time during the plant's dormant period. If a dormant saffron bulb sits in wet soil, it will very quickly rot completely away, leaving naught but a damp husk for the puzzled gardener's probing fingers to find. So from roughly April to September (more exactly judged by the plant's actual performance), it needs to be in bone-dry soil.

Saffron is a variety of autumn crocus, which means--duh--that it flowers in the autumn; and it is from those flowers that we extract the precious threads that are what we call "saffron". Saffron crocuses do not set seed, and so must be propagated vegetatively, by planting what are called "corms" (bulbs). Corms are initially planted in late summer or early autumn (your supplier should send them to you at the correct time, but it is as well to consult with them about your exact location and climate).

Because we get rain hereabouts during their dormant period, plus it is doubtful that the plants could overwinter, we must grow saffron crocuses in containers. What size container and how many you need depend on your household's demand for saffron. Experienced cooks will generally know how many threads they're likely to use in an average year, but for a rule of thumb reckon like this. You get three threads from each saffron plant; and figure on three dried threads per person for a main dish flavored with saffron. So, as an example, a family of four having a saffron-spiced main dish on average once every couple of months, 24 plants would be needed: 3 threads/person x 4 persons x 6 meals a year / 3 threads a plant. We are two people who like saffron, so we halve that persons count but double the frequency, and also get a need for two dozen plants. Keep in mind that corms multiply each season, so in a very few years you'll have a good deal more than you started with (and it makes a great gift for anyone who cooks much). You will also want to divide and replant your saffron corms every four to five years (the plants can live up to 15 years, but it's best to keep them "fresh".)

We use two deep 1' x 2' planter boxes (for those two dozen bulbs); those can be moved from indoors to outdoors twice a year without herniating. The planter-box soil should be rich, friable, mildly alkaline, and--above all--well-drained (good potting soil is probably fine). You can plant your corms 3 inches deep and about 2 to 3 inches apart. (So, in each 1' x 2' box we put two parallel rows of 6 corms.) The bulbs are small and more or less round but with slight pointed tops; be sure to plant them with the points facing upwards. Water well but not lavishly after planting.


Growing

In later autumn, fairly soon after your initial planting, the plants will come up and flower, but this first crop will have few or, often, no saffron threads. The flowers are short-lived (and, to many, very attractive), but soon after those flowers have bloomed and died, leaves will appear; they will be long and thin, looking like grass (or perhaps scallions). Those leaves will typically stay green and growing (up to 18" or even 24" long in the end) for some months, roughly into early springtime. Do not cut back those leaves even though the flower is long gone; wait for them to die back on their own (when they're well brown and dead, you can cut them back to the ground, so in the autumn you'll be able to see the new growth when it emerges.)

If weeds poke up, cultivate but with great care: shallowly, with a light hand.

When the plants' leaves do start to die back, the plant is entering its dormant period, which will last through the entire summer. During that dormancy, the plants must be kept thoroughly dry; if they are not, the corms will quickly rot away, and when the frustrated gardener, seeing no bloom in autumn, explores the soil, there is literally nothing left there (or perhaps just a dry husk). Stop watering at the first sign that the leaves are browning and dying.

When dormancy ends, you will know it because you will see new growth emerging; that is the time to resume normal watering. Remember that saffron originated, and still thrives, in areas of the world that receive just 15 to 18 inches of rainfall a year, so a lot of water is unnecessary. Once they sprout in the fall, don’t let the soil dry out, but equally be careful not to over-water. (Some say about an inch of water a week, but even that may be a bit much.)

And we emphasize again: don't try to grow saffron by the calendar: let the plants themselves tell you where they are in their cycle. When the grassy leaves stop growing and begin browning and dying back, stop watering; when new growth appears, start watering modestly but steadily. Those things will happen in the spring and autumn, respectively, but the dates are up to the plants, not you.

When the plants do break dormancy in the autumn, you can take the planter boxes outside to get sunshine for their growth (try to harden them off a bit before leaving them outside full time); when not dormant, saffron more or less requires good, full sun. Also try to keep them shielded from wind if at all possible--and don't forget to protect them from varmints (including household pets). Don't take them back inside till it gets really cold, say around 20° F (it is said that saffron can tolerate frosts as low as 14° F and even short periods of snow cover); and when you do bring them in, give them as much light as possible till the leaves finally die back.


Harvesting

Saffron thread-picking

This is crucial: when a saffron-crocus flower opens, harvest the saffron threads immediately. "Immediately" means just what it says. The next day after flowering is too late. Obviously, in autumn you need to monitor your saffron plants closely, at least once a day till every last one has flowered for the season. (Actually, you should keep watching your saffrons even after all bulbs have yielded a flower: it might happen that you get lucky and get a second, or even a third flower from a given bulb.)

Each flower will yield three stigmas (filaments or threads), which dangle from the throat of the flower (see the images above and to the right). When you find a newly opened flower, wait till any morning dew has thoroughly evaporated, then cut the flower (sorry); some folk harvest the threads direct from the growing flower, but that multiples your efforts--painstaking at the best of times--substantially. Remove cut flowers to a convenient, breeze-free work area--say a well-lit kitchen counter--then take a pair of tweezers and gently and carefully extract the three red-orange filaments, or threads, that you find in each flower--each of which should be about an inch long. Make sure to take only the red threads: don't mix in any of the yellow parts (harmless, but they dilute the actual saffron). Have a a secure container for plucked threads--at the least, an envelope--ready to hand, lest any blow away.

It is further important to thoroughly dry harvested threads before bottling them up for storage. Some sun-dry them (taking due care that the ultra-fine threads can't get blown away). Others use applied heat, which is OK if it's gentle heat applied over some time--remember, we want to dry the threads, not roast them. Perhaps the easiest technique is to lay them on a paper towel, with a sheet of glass or clear plastic over them to keep them from blowing away, then leave them on a sunny countertop for a while.

Though we don't usually discuss use, we will note that when cooking with saffron, you must not just toss it into the dish: either toast the strands and grind them to a powder that you sprinkle on, or infuse them in liquid, (Beyond that, we refer you to cookbooks.)


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