Every December, I smile as I remember my first encounter with saffron (Crocus sativus).
Saffron was never included in my herbs and spice rack until the year our exchange student, Magnus, announced that he “must bake Saint Lucia buns for December 13” as he presented me with a recipe written in Swedish — on Dec. 12. My youngest son, home from UT for Christmas break, went with Magnus to buy saffron at the nearby Kroger. Having no cell phones back then, they used the store phone to ask my permission before making the purchase of what continues to be known as the world’s most expensive spice. Said they didn’t want to cause me to faint!
With several strands of saffron left in the little glass jar, I became familiar with adding a bit of saffron to soups, stews, rice and pasta recipes to create a new look — and flavor. Saffron added to food gives a yellow color and an aromatic flavor. It’s been used for flavor and color for thousands of years in many cultures. Turmeric and safflower can be used for similar color but won’t produce the same flavor.
The spice comes from a fall-blooming, crocus flower which may be white or lilac. Each flower’s center has only three, red, threadlike stigmas/stigmata which become saffron after they are picked and dried. Labor intensive are the words used to describe the harvest, which is all done by hand and tweezers. This explains why saffron is so pricey.
We can grow this species, Crocus sativus, in Middle Tennessee, but don’t confuse it with another fall-blooming crocus, Colchicum, which is poisonous. Crocus corms are a favorite food of chipmunks, so planting with this in mind is a good idea. If voles are a problem, use sharp gravel mixed with the soil or plant in containers. Harvest the stigmas/stigmata as soon as the flowers open each morning.
A small glass jar can be used for storage after the stigmas are well dried. Each year, when the leaves turn brown, divide the corms and replant in a sunny location, with good compost added to the soil. Raised beds can help ensure good drainage.
Saffron can be used as a dye, but it would be an extravagant one.
The petals are used for some medicines as well as the stigmas.
Reading about the health benefits of saffron got my attention recently, and I plan to be using more of this spice in the future. Saffron is believed to be anti-bacterial, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory among other good things. Of course, there could be side effects such as allergic reactions for some people. Always use caution when trying a new spice.
Maybe next year I’ll bake those Saint Lucia buns again.
Happy gardening and Merry Christmas.
Gardening Partners is a non-profit founded in 2003 to serve Dickson County with gardening education and advice. Readers may submit gardening questions by email: [email protected], on the website: www.gardening.partners, or by mail: PO Box 471 Dickson TN 37056