The saffron crocus is native to the Mediterranean and Western Asia. It has long been the most expensive spice in the world by weight, ten times more costly than vanilla. The reason saffron carries a hefty price tag is that its production is extremely labor intensive. It takes 80,000 crocus flowers to make only 500 grams of saffron after toasting. Despite its cost, many herbalists and natural health enthusiasts consider saffron’s health benefits to be worth their weight in gold.
Saffron is a spice derived from the flower of Crocus sativus, commonly known as the saffron crocus. Crocus is a genus in the family Iridaceae. Saffron crocus grows to 20–30 cm (8–12 in) and bears up to four flowers, each with three vivid crimson stigmas, which are the distal end of a carpel. Together with the styles, or stalks that connect the stigmas to their host plant, the dried stigmas are used mainly in various cuisines as a seasoning and colouring agent. Saffron, long among the world’s most costly spices by weight, is native to Greece or Southwest Asia and was first cultivated in Greece. As a genetically monomorphic clone, it was slowly propagated throughout much of Eurasia and was later brought to parts of North Africa, North America, and Oceania.
The saffron crocus, unknown in the wild, likely descends from Crocus cartwrightianus, which originated in Crete; C. thomasii and C. pallasii are other possible precursors. The saffron crocus is a triploid that is “self-incompatible” and male sterile; it undergoes aberrant meiosis and is hence incapable of independent sexual reproduction—all propagation is by vegetative multiplication via manual “divide-and-set” of a starter clone or by interspecific hybridisation. If C. sativus is a mutant form of C. cartwrightianus, then it may have emerged via plant breeding, which would have selected for elongated stigmas, in late Bronze Age Crete. Saffron’s taste and iodoform- or hay-like fragrance result from the chemicals picrocrocin and safranal. It also contains a carotenoid dye, crocin, which imparts a rich golden-yellow hue to dishes and textiles. Its recorded history is attested in a 7th-century BC Assyrian botanical treatise compiled under Ashurbanipal, and it has been traded and used for over four millennia. Iran now accounts for approximately 90% of the world production of saffron.
A degree of uncertainty surrounds the origin of the English word, “saffron” although it can be traced to have stemmed immediately from 12th-century Old French term “safran” which, in turn, comes from the Latin word safranum. Safranum comes from the Persian intercessor za’ferân. Old Persian is the first language in which the use of saffron in cooking is recorded, with references dating back thousands of years.
The domesticated saffron crocus, Crocus sativus, is an autumn-flowering perennial plant unknown in the wild. Its progenitors are possibly the eastern Mediterranean autumn-flowering Crocus cartwrightianus, which is also known as “wild saffron” and originated in Greece. The saffron crocus likely resulted when C. cartwrightianus was subjected to extensive artificial selection by growers seeking longer stigmas. C. thomasii and C. pallasii are other possible sources.
It is a sterile triploid form, which means that three homologous sets of chromosomes compose each specimen’s genetic complement; C. sativus bears eight chromosomal bodies per set, making for 24 in total. Being sterile, the purple flowers of C. sativus fail to produce viable seeds; reproduction hinges on human assistance: corms, underground, bulb-like, starch-storing organs, must be dug up, broken apart, and replanted. A corm survives for one season, producing via this vegetative division up to ten “cormlets” that can grow into new plants in the next season. The compact corms are small, brown globules that can measure as large as 5 cm (2.0 in) in diameter, have a flat base, and are shrouded in a dense mat of parallel fibres; this coat is referred to as the “corm tunic”. Corms also bear vertical fibres, thin and net-like, that grow up to 5 cm above the plant’s neck.
The plant grows to a height of 20–30 cm (8–12 in), and sprouts 5–11 white and non-photosynthetic leaves known as cataphylls. These membrane-like structures cover and protect the crocus’s 5 to 11 true leaves as they bud and develop. The latter are thin, straight, and blade-like green foliage leaves, which are 1–3 mm in diameter, either expand after the flowers have opened (“hysteranthous”) or do so simultaneously with their blooming (“synanthous”). C. sativus cataphylls are suspected by some to manifest prior to blooming when the plant is irrigated relatively early in the growing season. Its floral axes, or flower-bearing structures, bear bracteoles, or specialised leaves that sprout from the flower stems; the latter are known as pedicels.
After aestivating in spring, the plant sends up its true leaves, each up to 40 cm (16 in) in length. In autumn, purple buds appear. Only in October, after most other flowering plants have released their seeds, do its brilliantly hued flowers develop; they range from a light pastel shade of lilac to a darker and more striated mauve. The flowers possess a sweet, honey-like fragrance. Upon flowering, plants average less than 30 cm (12 in) in height. A three-pronged style emerges from each flower. Each prong terminates with a vivid crimson stigma 25–30 mm (0.98–1.2 in) in length.
Saffron contains more than 150 volatile and aroma-yielding compounds. It also has many nonvolatile active components, many of which are carotenoids, including zeaxanthin, lycopene, and various a- and ß-carotenes. However, saffron’s golden yellow-orange colour is primarily the result of a-crocin. This crocin is trans-crocetin di-(ß-D-gentiobiosyl) ester; it bears the systematic (IUPAC) name 8,8-diapo-8,8-carotenoic acid. This means that the crocin underlying saffron’s aroma is a digentiobiose ester of the carotenoid crocetin. Crocins themselves are a series of hydrophilic carotenoids that are either monoglycosyl or diglycosyl polyene esters of crocetin.
Crocetin is a conjugated polyene dicarboxylic acid that is hydrophobic, and thus oil-soluble. When crocetin is esterified with two water-soluble gentiobioses, which are sugars, a product results that is itself water-soluble. The resultant a-crocin is a carotenoid pigment that may comprise more than 10% of dry saffron’s mass. The two esterified gentiobioses make a-crocin ideal for colouring water-based and non-fatty foods such as rice dishes.
When saffron is dried after its harvest, the heat, combined with enzymatic action, splits picrocrocin to yield D–glucose and a free safranal molecule. Safranal, a volatile oil, gives saffron much of its distinctive aroma. Safranal is less bitter than picrocrocin and may comprise up to 70% of dry saffron’s volatile fraction in some samples. A second element underlying saffron’s aroma is 2-hydroxy-4,4,6-trimethyl-2,5-cyclohexadien-1-one, the scent of which has been described as “saffron, dried hay like”. Chemists found this to be the most powerful contributor to saffron’s fragrance despite its being present in a lesser quantity than safranal. Dry saffron is highly sensitive to fluctuating pH levels, and rapidly breaks down chemically in the presence of light and oxidizing agents. It must therefore be stored away in air-tight containers in order to minimise contact with atmospheric oxygen. Saffron is somewhat more resistant to heat.
Saffron is graded via laboratory measurement of crocin (colour), picrocrocin (taste), and safranal (fragrance) content. Determination of non-stigma content (“floral waste content”) and other extraneous matter such as inorganic material (“ash”) are also key. Grading standards are set by the International Organization for Standardization, a federation of national standards bodies. ISO 3632 deals exclusively with saffron and establishes four empirical colour intensity grades: IV (poorest), III, II, and I (finest quality). Samples are assigned grades by gauging the spice’s crocin content, revealed by measurements of crocin-specific spectroscopic absorbance. Graders measure absorbances of 440-nm light by dry saffron samples. Higher absorbances imply greater crocin concentration, and thus a greater colourative intensity. These data are measured through spectrophotometry reports at certified testing laboratories worldwide. These colour grades proceed from grades with absorbances lower than 80 (for all category IV saffron) up to 190 or greater (for category I). The world’s finest samples (the selected most red-maroon tips of stigmas picked from the finest flowers) receive absorbance scores in excess of 250. Market prices for saffron types follow directly from these ISO scores. However, many growers, traders, and consumers reject such lab test numbers. They prefer a more holistic method of sampling batches of thread for taste, aroma, pliability, and other traits in a fashion similar to that practised by practised wine tasters.
Despite such attempts at quality control and standardisation, an extensive history of saffron adulteration—particularly among the cheapest grades—continues into modern times. Adulteration was first documented in Europe’s Middle Ages, when those found selling adulterated saffron were executed under the Safranschou code. Typical methods include mixing in extraneous substances like beets, pomegranate fibres, red-dyed silk fibres, or the saffron crocus’s tasteless and odourless yellow stamens. Other methods included dousing saffron fibres with viscid substances like honey or vegetable oil. However, powdered saffron is more prone to adulteration, with turmeric, paprika, and other powders used as diluting fillers. Adulteration can also consist of selling mislabelled mixes of different saffron grades. Thus, in India, high-grade Kashmiri saffron is often sold and mixed with cheaper Iranian imports; these mixes are then marketed as pure Kashmiri saffron, a development that has cost Kashmiri growers much of their income.
The various saffron crocus cultivars give rise to thread types that are often regionally distributed and characteristically distinct. Varieties from Spain, including the tradenames “Spanish Superior” and “Creme”, are generally mellower in colour, flavour, and aroma; they are graded by government-imposed standards. Italian varieties are slightly more potent than Spanish; the most intense varieties tend to be Iranian. Various “boutique” crops are available from New Zealand, France, Switzerland, England, the United States, and other countries, some of them organically grown. In the U.S., Pennsylvania Dutch saffron—known for its “earthy” notes—is marketed in small quantities.
Consumers may regard certain cultivars as “premium” quality. The “Aquila” saffron, or zafferano dell’Aquila, is defined by high safranal and crocin content, distinctive thread shape, unusually pungent aroma, and intense colour; it is grown exclusively on eight hectares in the Navelli Valley of Italy’s Abruzzo region, near L’Aquila. It was first introduced to Italy by a Dominican monk from Inquisition-era Spain. But the biggest saffron cultivation in Italy is in San Gavino Monreale, Sardinia, where it is grown on 40 hectares, representing 60% of Italian production; it too has unusually high crocin, picrocrocin, and safranal content. Another is the “Mongra” or “Lacha” saffron of Kashmir (Crocus sativus ‘Cashmirianus’), which is among the most difficult for consumers to obtain. Repeated droughts, blights, and crop failures in the Indian-controlled areas of Kashmir combine with an Indian export ban to contribute to its prohibitive overseas prices. Kashmiri saffron is recognisable by its dark maroon-purple hue; it is among the world’s darkest, which hints at strong flavour, aroma, and colourative effect.
European saffron cultivation plummeted after the Roman Empire went into eclipse. As with France, the spread of Islamic civilization may have helped reintroduce the crop to Spain and Italy. The 14th-century Black Death caused demand for saffron-based medicaments to peak, and large quantities of threads had to be imported via Venetian and Genoan ships from southern and Mediterranean lands such as Rhodes; the theft of one such shipment by noblemen sparked the fourteen-week long “Saffron War”. The conflict and resulting fear of rampant saffron piracy spurred corm cultivation in Basel; it thereby grew prosperous. The crop then spread to Nuremberg, where endemic and insalubrious adulteration brought on the Safranschou code—whereby culprits were variously fined, imprisoned, and executed. The corms soon spread throughout England, especially Norfolk and Suffolk. The Essex town of Saffron Walden, named for its new speciality crop, emerged as England’s prime saffron growing and trading centre. However, an influx of more exotic spices—chocolate, coffee, tea, and vanilla—from newly contacted Eastern and overseas countries caused European cultivation and usage of saffron to decline. Only in southern France, Italy, and Spain did the clone significantly endure.
Europeans introduced saffron to the Americas when immigrant members of the Schwenkfelder Church left Europe with a trunk containing its corms; church members had widely grown it in Europe. By 1730, the Pennsylvania Dutch were cultivating saffron throughout eastern Pennsylvania. Spanish colonies in the Caribbean bought large amounts of this new American saffron, and high demand ensured that saffron’s list price on the Philadelphia commodities exchange was set equal to that of gold. The trade with the Caribbean later collapsed in the aftermath of the War of 1812, when many saffron-bearing merchant vessels were destroyed. Yet the Pennsylvania Dutch continued to grow lesser amounts of saffron for local trade and use in their cakes, noodles, and chicken or trout dishes. American saffron cultivation survived into modern times mainly in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
Almost all saffron grows in a belt bounded by the Mediterranean in the west and the rugged region encompassing Iran and Kashmir in the east. The other continents, except Antarctica, produce smaller amounts. Some 300 t (300,000 kg) of dried whole threads and powder are gleaned yearly, of which 50 t (50,000 kg) is top-grade “coupe” saffron. Iran answers for around 90–93% of global production and exports much of it. A few of Iran’s drier eastern and southeastern provinces, including Fars, Kerman, and those in the Khorasan region, glean the bulk of modern global production. In 2005, the second-ranked Greece produced 5.7 t (5,700.0 kg), while Morocco and Kashmir, tied for third rank, each produced 2.3 t (2,300.0 kg).
Saffron’s aroma is often described by connoisseurs as reminiscent of metallic honey with grassy or hay-like notes, while its taste has also been noted as hay-like and sweet. Saffron also contributes a luminous yellow-orange colouring to foods. Saffron is widely used in Indian, Persian, European, Arab, and Turkish cuisines. Confectioneries and liquors also often include saffron. Common saffron substitutes include safflower (Carthamus tinctorius, which is often sold as “Portuguese saffron” or “açafrão”), annatto, and turmeric (Curcuma longa). Saffron has also been used as a fabric dye, particularly in China and India, and in perfumery. It is used for religious purposes in India, and is widely used in cooking in many cuisines, ranging from the Milanese risotto of Italy to the bouillabaisse of France to the biryani with various meat accompaniments in South Asia.
Saffron has a long medicinal history as part of traditional healing; several modern research studies have hinted that the spice has possible anticarcinogenic (cancer-suppressing), anti-mutagenic (mutation-preventing), immunomodulating, and antioxidant-like properties. Saffron stigmas, and even petals, may be helpful for depression. Early studies show that saffron may protect the eyes from the direct effects of bright light and retinal stress apart from slowing down macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa. (Most saffron-related research refers to the stigmas, but this is often not made explicit in research papers.) Other controlled research studies have indicated that saffron may have many potential medicinal properties.
Amazing Benefits Of Saffron
Depression. Taking specific saffron extracts (Novin Zaferan Co, Iran) seem to improve symptoms of major depression after 6-8 weeks of treatment. Some studies suggest that saffron might be as effective as taking a low-dose prescription antidepressant such as fluoxetine or imipramine.
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Some clinical research shows that taking a specific saffron extract (Department of Cultivation and Development of Institute of Medicinal Plants, Iran) significantly improves symptoms of PMS after two menstrual cycles.
Menstrual discomfort. Some clinical research shows the taking a specific product containing saffron, anise, and celery seed (SCA, Gol Daro Herbal Medicine Laboratory) reduces pain severity and duration during the menstrual cycle.
Alzheimer’s disease. Some research shows that taking a specific saffron product (IMPIRAN, Iran) might improve symptoms about as well as the prescription drug donepezil (Aricept) over 22 weeks of treatment.
Digestion: Saffron is helpful in the improvement of digestion and appetite, because it helps in improving circulation to the organs of digestion. It coats the membranes of stomach and colon which help in soothing gastrointestinal colic and acidity. Kidney and liver problem: This spice s found to be extremely beneficial for the treatment of kidney, bladder and liver disorders. Saffron is considered as a blood purifier.
Gas and acidity: Saffron is effective for providing relief from gas and acidity related problems.
Athritis: It helps in relieving inflammation of arthritis. Saffron also provides relief from joint pains. It is very helpful for athletes as it eases fatigue and muscle inflammation by helping the tissues to get rid of lactic acid which gets built up after strenuous exercise.
Insomnia: It is said that saffron is also a mild sedative which can be used for insomnia and even treat depression. Taking a pinch of saffron with milk before bed helps in sleep disorders like insomnia.
Fever: Saffron also contains the compound “crocin”, which scientists believe that helps in reducing fever. Crocin found in saffron also promotes learning, memory retention, and recall capacity.
Eye problem: Saffron improves eye and vision health. In a recent research study, every participant who took saffron had vision improvements. Notably, saffron has been reported to significantly helping vision in the instance of cataracts.
Gums: Massaging the gums with saffron helps in reduce soreness and inflammation of the mouth and the tongue.
Benefits of saffron in beauty treatment
- Take 1 teaspoon of sandalwood power, 2-3 strands of saffron, and 2 spoons of milk. Mix all ingredients together. Prior to applying this face mask, wash your face and wipe with a cloth. Apply this mask when the face is still wet. You can massage your skin thoroughly with this pampering face pack in a circular motion. Let it dry for 20 minutes and then rinse it off. Apply this sandal-saffron mask at least once a week for a radiant and smooth skin.
- Saffron is teeming with anti-bacterial qualities, which make it ideal for curing acne. Saffron’s exfoliating qualities make it a wonderful aid in clearing and brightening up the complexion.
- Soak up few stands of saffron in milk for 2 hours. Then smear this milk all over your face and neck. Wash off after few minutes. On continuous use, you skin will start getting fairer naturally.
- Saffron is an excellent skin lightening agent that helps to lighten your skin tone dramatically. You can make a skin lightening face mask with 2-3 strands of saffron, 1 pinch of sugar , 1 teaspoon of milk, 1 teaspoon of water and 2-3 drops of coconut oil or olive oil. Keep 2-3 strands of saffron in one teaspoon of water overnight. By morning, colour of water will turn yellow. Then add milk,sugar and coconut oil/olive oil to this. Dip a piece of bread in this mixture and wipe your face with this piece of bread. Small pieces of bread can stick to your face but it will come off easily when you wash the face. Keep this mix on your face for 15 minutes. This saffron mask freshens up the dull complexion instantly. It helps to ease off dark circles and fatigue lines. The immediate benefits of applying this nourishing saffron mask is that it helps in blood circulation resulting in a glowing skin.
- Soak up chirongi (Sunflower seeds) and saffron in milk overnight. Grind this mixture in the morning to apply on your skin. This face mask is very beneficial for making you skin fair and glowing.
- Massage your face with malai(milk cream) with two strands of saffron added to it. On continuous use ,you will notice fairer and radiant skin all over.
- If you mix few strands of saffron with milk and drink it regularly, your complexion will improve naturally.
- You can mix few strands of saffron with olive oil, almond oil or coconut oil to massage your skin. Massaging your face with any of these oils gives lighter and softer skin.
- You can mix one pinch of saffron with liquorice and milk. Apply this mix on your bald patches; this mask helps to arrest hair fall and promotes the growth of new hair.
- Apply honey with few strands of saffron added to it. Massage your face with magical face mask that acts as a home facial. It is very powerful home remedy that provides oxygen to the skin stimulating blood circulation. Use this facial mask for getting luminous complexion.
No spice is more special than saffron. Its scent is haunting, its unmistakable flavour earthy yet aristocratic and subtle. It straddles sweet and savoury effortlessly, and it bestows a striking golden hue on every dish it graces. A few strands of saffron will transform a long list of dishes, adding an x-factor to everything from risottos and milk puddings to rich curries and fish stews.