Saffron, or more specifically, saffron spices, comes from the saffron flower of the Crocus Sativus plant. Crocus sativus is called the saffron crocus by most people. The bright red stigmas and styles, known as “threads,” are collected and dried for use as a seasoning and coloring agent in food.
Saffron has been the most expensive spice by weight for a long time. Even though there are still some questions about where saffron came from, most people think it came from Iran. But Greece and Mesopotamia have also been named as possible places where this plant came from.
The Saffron crocus spread slowly across much of Eurasia and was later brought to parts of North Africa, North America, and Oceania. The phytochemicals picrocrocin and safranal give saffron its taste and smell, which is either like iodoform or like hay. It also has crocin, a carotenoid pigment that gives foods and fabrics a rich golden yellow color. A botanical treatise written in Assyrian in the 7th century BC shows that it has been traded and used for a long time.
Saffron flower price
In the 21st century, Iran makes about 90% of all the saffron in the world. At US $5,000 or more per kg, saffron is the most expensive spice in the world.
What is Saffron
Crocus sativus, which has been tamed, is a perennial plant that blooms in the fall and is not found in the wild. It probably comes from the autumn-blooming Crocus cartwrightianus in the eastern Mediterranean, which is also known as “wild saffron” and is thought to have come from either Crete or Central Asia.
Other possible sources are C. thomasii and C. pallasii. As a genetically identical clone, it spread slowly across most of Eurasia. It is a sterile triploid form, which means that each individual has three sets of chromosomes that are the same. C. sativus has eight chromosomal bodies in each set, for a total of 24.
The purple flowers of C. sativus can’t make seeds because they are sterile. This means that the plant needs help to reproduce: clusters of corms, which are underground organs that store starch and look like bulbs, must be dug up, split, and replanted. A corm lives for one season and produces up to ten “cormlets,” which can grow into new plants the next season.
The compact corms are small, brown globules that can be as big as 5 cm (2 in) in diameter. They have a flat base and are covered in a dense mat of parallel fibers called the “corm tunic.” Corms also have thin, net-like fibers that grow up to 5 cm (2 in) above the neck of the plant.
The plant grows 5–11 white leaves that don’t make food and are called cataphylls. On the crocus flower, these membrane-like structures cover and protect 5 to 11 true leaves as they open and grow. The latter are thin, straight, blade-like green leaves that are 1–3 mm (1/32–1/8 in) in diameter and grow after the flowers open (“hysteranthous”) or at the same time as the flowers bloom (“synanthous”).
Some people think that Crocus sativus cataphylls show up before the flowers bloom when the plant is watered early in the growing season. Its flower-making parts, called floral axes, have bracteoles, which are specialized leaves that grow from the flower stems, which are called pedicels.
In the spring, after the plant has rested, it sends up its true leaves, which can be up to 40 cm (16 in) long each. It doesn’t get its brightly colored flowers until October, when most other flowering plants have already sent out their seeds. The flowers range from a light pastel lilac to a darker, more striped mauve. The flowers smell sweet, almost like honey.
When the plants flower, they are 20–30 cm (8–12 in) tall and have up to four flowers. Each flower has a three-pronged style that is 25–30 mm (1–1+3/16 in) long. The end of each prong is a bright red stigma, which is the end of a carpel.
Where is Saffron grown
Crocus cartwrightianus is likely the ancestor of the saffron crocus, which doesn’t grow in the wild. It is a triploid that is male sterile and “self-incompatible.” It has meiosis that doesn’t work right, so it can’t reproduce sexually on its own. It can only reproduce vegetatively by “dividing and setting” a starter clone or by crossing with another species.
Crocus sativus grows well in the Mediterranean maquis, an ecotype that looks a lot like the North American chaparral, and in other places with hot, dry summer breezes that blow over semi-arid lands. It can still live through cold winters, withstanding frosts as low as (minus) -10 °C (14 °F) and short periods of snow cover.
Growing saffron outside of places like Kashmir, India, which gets an average of 1,000–1,500 mm (40–60 in) of rain a year, requires irrigation. Growing areas in Greece (500 mm or 20 in) and Spain (400 mm or 16 in) are much drier than the main growing areas in Iran.
The timing of the rainy seasons in the area makes this possible. Spring rains are plentiful and summers are dry, which is ideal. Rain right before saffron flowers increases yields, but rain or cold weather during flowers makes them sick and lowers yields.
Constantly wet and hot weather is bad for the crops, and rabbits, rats, and birds dig up corms, which is also bad. Other dangers include nematodes, leaf rusts, and corm rot. Bacillus subtilis inoculation may still help growers in some ways, such as by speeding up corm growth and increasing biomass yield from stigmas.
Saffron plants do not do well in the shade; they do best in full sun. The best fields are those that slope toward the sun (i.e., south-sloping in the Northern Hemisphere). Most plants are planted in the Northern Hemisphere in June.Corms are put in the ground 7–15 cm (3–6 in) deep, and roots, stems, and leaves can all grow between October and February. Planting depth, corn spacing, and climate are three of the most important things that affect yields.
The saffron from mother corms that are planted deeper is of better quality, but they make fewer flower buds and daughter corms. The best results come from planting 15 cm (6 in) deep and 2–3 cm (3/4–1+1/4 in) apart in rows. The best results come from planting 8–10 cm (3–4 in) deep for flowers and corms. Growers in Greece, Morocco, and Spain all use different depths and spacings that work for their areas.
Crocus sativus grows best in clay-calcareous soils that are friable, loose, low-density, well-watered, well-drained, and high in organic matter. Drainage is helped by traditional raised beds. In the past, 20–30 tonnes per hectare (9–13 short tons per acre) of manure were used to increase the amount of organic matter in the soil.
After that, corms were planted, and there was no more manure added. After being dormant all summer, the corms send up their narrow leaves and start to bloom at the beginning of fall. They only bloom in the middle of fall. Harvests have to happen quickly because flowers that bloom at dawn quickly wilt as the day goes on. All plants bloom between one and two weeks apart. After being taken out, stigmas are quickly dried and, if possible, put in airtight containers.
Why is Saffron so expensive
World markets keep the price of saffron high because it takes a lot of work to harvest. About 440,000 saffron stigmas per kilogram (200,000 stigmas/lb) must be picked by hand, which is the same as picking 150,000 crocus flowers per kilogram (70,000 flowers/lb). It takes 40 hours of work to pick 150,000 flowers.
For example, one freshly picked crocus flower produces about 30 mg of fresh saffron or 7 mg of dried saffron; about 150 flowers produce 1 g (1/32 oz) of dry saffron threads; 450 g (1 lb) of flowers is needed to make 12 g (7/16 oz) of dried saffron; fresh saffron only produces 13 g/kg (0.2 oz/lb) of dried.
Spiced with saffron, Phytochemistry and the way plants taste and smell: Saffron has about 28 volatile, smelly compounds, most of which are ketones and aldehydes. Safranal is the main compound that gives it its smell. Nonvolatile phytochemicals found in saffron include the carotenoids zeaxanthin, lycopene, and various a- and ß-carotenes, as well as crocetin and its glycoside crocein, which are the most biologically active components.
Crocetin is quickly absorbed because it is smaller than the other carotenoids and dissolves more easily in water. A-crocin is mostly what gives saffron its yellow-orange color. This crocin is known as trans-crocetin di-(ß-D-gentiobiosyl) ester and is classified as carotenoic acid. This means that the smell of saffron comes from crocin, which is a digentiobiose ester of crocetin.
Crocins are a group of water-loving carotenoids that come from crocetin and are either monoglycosyl or diglycosyl polyene esters. Crocetin is a conjugated polyene dicarboxylic acid that doesn’t like water and can dissolve in oil because of this property.
When crocetin is combined with two water-soluble sugars called gentiobioses, a water-soluble product is made. A-crocin is a carotenoid pigment that is made as a result. It may make up more than 10% of the mass of dry saffron. Because it has two esterified gentiobioses, a-crocin is great for coloring foods that don’t have a lot of fat, like rice dishes. The strong taste of saffron comes from the bitter glucoside picrocrocin.
A part of an aldehyde called safranal and a carbohydrate come together to make picrocrocin. It kills insects and other pests and contains up to 4% dry saffron. Picrocrocin is the glycoside of the terpene aldehyde safranal. It is a cut-off version of the carotenoid zeaxanthin that is made by oxidative cleavage.
When saffron is dried after it has been picked, the heat and enzymes break up the picrocrocin into D-glucose and a free molecule of safranal. A volatile oil called safranal gives saffron much of its unique smell. Safranal is less bitter than picrocrocin, and in some samples, it may make up as much as 70% of the volatile part of dry saffron. A second molecule that gives saffron its smell, which has been described as smelling like dried hay.
Chemists have found that this is the stinkiest part of saffron, even though it is there in less quantity than safranal. Dry saffron is very sensitive to changes in pH and chemically breaks down quickly when exposed to light and things that break down molecules. So, it needs to be kept in containers that don’t let air in so that it doesn’t get too much oxygen from the air. Saffron can handle heat a little better.
Grades of saffron and ISO 3632 groups: Not all saffron is made the same way or has the same strength. Strength depends on a number of things, like how many styles you pick and whether or not you have a red stigma. Also important is how old the saffron is. Because the color and flavor are concentrated in the red stigmas, adding more styles makes the saffron less strong gram for gram.
Saffron from Iran, Spain, and Kashmir is put into different grades based on how much red stigma and how much yellow stigma it has. Iranian saffron comes in four grades: sargol, which has only red stigma tips and is the strongest; pushal or pushali, which has red stigmas and some yellow style and is less strong; “bunch” saffron, which has red stigmas and a lot of yellow style and is presented in a small bundle like a miniature wheatsheaf; and konge, which has only red stigma tips and is the weakest (yellow style only, claimed to have aroma but with very little, if any coloring potential).
Coupe saffron, which is the strongest, is similar to Iranian sargol. Mancha saffron is similar to Iranian pushal. Rio, standard, and Sierra saffron are less strong than coupe saffron. In the Spanish classification system, the word “mancha” can mean either a general grade of saffron or a very high-quality saffron grown in Spain and coming from a certain place.
Real La Mancha saffron is grown in Spain and has PDO status, which is written on the package. Spanish growers fought hard for Protected Status because they thought that repackaged Iranian saffron sold as “Spanish Mancha saffron” in Spain hurt the reputation of the real La Mancha brand.
Indian saffron that had been imported from Iran was blended with local saffron and marketed in Kashmir under the name “Kashmir brand” for a greater price. In Kashmir, India, the two main types of saffron are mongra (just the stigma) and lachha (stigmas attached to other parts of the style).
Countries that don’t make as much saffron don’t have words for the different grades and may only make one grade. Artisanal saffron farmers in Europe and New Zealand have been able to make up for the higher cost of labor by focusing on quality and only selling very high-grade saffron.
In addition to being described by how it is picked, saffron can also be put into groups based on the international standard ISO 3632. This is done by measuring the amount of crocin (which gives saffron its color), picrocrocin (which gives it its taste), and safranal (which gives it its smell) in a lab.
But grading information isn’t always clear on the packaging, and not much of the saffron you can buy in the UK is marked with an ISO category. Customers can’t compare prices and buy saffron as well as they could because they don’t have enough information.
Under ISO 3632, it is also important to figure out the amount of non-stigma content (“floral waste content”) and other extraneous matter, such as inorganic material (“ash”). The International Organization for Standardization, which is a group of national standards bodies, sets the standards for grades. ISO 3632 only talks about saffron and sets up three categories: III (the worst quality), II, and I. (finest quality).
There used to be a category IV that came after category III. Samples are put into categories based on how much crocin and picrocrocin they have, which can be found out by measuring a certain spectrophotometric absorbance. Safranal is treated a little bit differently. Instead of having threshold levels for each category, samples must give a reading of 20–50 for all categories.
Spectrophotometry reports at certified testing labs around the world are used to measure this data. Higher absorbances mean that there are more crocin, picrocrocin, and safranal, which means that the dyeing potential and strength per gram are higher. The “coloring strength” of saffron is the absorbance reading of crocin. The color strength of saffron can be less than 80 (for all category IV saffron) or more than 200 (for category I).
The best saffron in the world comes from the most red-maroon tips of stigmas picked from the best flowers. This saffron has a coloring strength of more than 250, which is more than three times stronger than category IV saffron. Based on these ISO categories, prices for different kinds of saffron are set on the market. Most sargol and coupe saffron would be in category I of ISO 3632.
Most likely, Pushal and Mancha would be put in category II. Many saffron labels don’t show either the ISO 3632 category or the coloring strength, which is a way to measure how much crocin is in the spice. But a lot of growers, traders, and customers don’t believe these lab test numbers. Some people like to test batches of threads for taste, smell, pliability, and other characteristics in a way that is similar to how experienced wine tasters do it.
But the ISO 3632 grade and coloring strength information lets people compare the quality of different brands of saffron right away, without having to buy and try the saffron. Given that different kinds of saffron can have a wide range of coloring strengths, consumers can figure out how much they are getting for their money by looking at the price per unit of coloring strength rather than the price per gram.
The Adulteration of Saffron
Even though quality control and standardization have been tried, saffron has been tampered with for a long time, especially the cheaper grades. This is still happening today. Adulteration was first recorded during the Middle Ages in Europe, when people who sold fake saffron were put to death under the Safranschou code.
Typical methods include adding things like beetroot, pomegranate fibers, red-dyed silk fibers, or the yellow stamens of the saffron crocus, which have no taste or smell. To make saffron fibers heavier, you can also soak them in sticky substances like honey or vegetable oil. Powdered saffron is more likely to be mixed with other things like turmeric, paprika, and other spices.
Mislabeling a mix of different grades of saffron and selling it as one grade is also a form of adulteration. So, high-quality Kashmiri saffron is often sold and mixed with cheaper saffron from Iran. These mixes are then sold as pure Kashmiri saffron, which has cost Kashmiri growers a lot of money. Safflower is often used instead of saffron and is sometimes sold as saffron.
People are allegedly making fakes of the spice out of horse hair, corn silk, or shredded paper. Tartrazine, also known as sunset yellow, has been used to color powdered saffron that isn’t real. In the last few years, gardenia fruit coloring extract has been found in saffron sold on the European market.
This kind of fraud is hard to spot because the gardenia extracts contain flavonoids and crocines that are similar to those found in saffron. Using HPLC and mass spectrometry, methods have been developed to find geniposide, a compound that is found in the fruits of the gardenia plant but not in saffron.
Types of Saffron
Different types of saffron crocus cultivars produce different kinds of thread that are often found in different places and have their own unique qualities. Varieties (not varieties in the botanical sense) from Spain, including the tradenames “Spanish Superior” and “Creme”, are generally mellower in color, flavor, and aroma; they are graded by government-imposed standards.
The Italian varieties are a little stronger than the Spanish ones. Greek saffron from the town of Krokos is protected by PDO because it has a strong flavor and a beautiful color. From New Zealand, France, Switzerland, England, the United States, and other places, you can get different “boutique” crops, some of which are grown organically. In the US, small amounts of Pennsylvania Dutch saffron, which is known for its “earthy” notes, are sold.
Some cultivars may be seen as “premium” by consumers. The “Aquila” saffron, also called “zafferano dell’Aquila,” has a high level of safranal and crocin, a thread-like shape, a strong smell, and a deep color. It is grown only on eight hectares in the Navelli Valley of Italy’s Abruzzo region, near L’Aquila.
A Dominican friar from Spain during the time of the Inquisition brought it to Italy for the first time. But the most saffron is grown in San Gavino Monreale, Sardinia, on 40 hectares, which is 60% of Italy’s total production. This saffron also has an unusually high amount of crocin, picrocrocin, and safranal. The “Mongra” or “Lacha” saffron of Kashmir (Crocus sativus ‘Cashmirianus), which is one of the hardest for consumers to get, is another example.
Repeated droughts, blights, and crop failures in Kashmir, along with a ban on exports by India, make its prices in other countries too high to buy. Kashmiri saffron is easy to spot because it has a dark maroon-purple color, making it one of the darkest in the world. The Government of India gave Kashmir Valley saffron a geographical indication in 2020.
Almost all saffron grows in a belt that goes from Spain in the west to Kashmir in the east. In 2014, the world made 250 ton, or 250,000 kg. Iran is responsible for 90–93% of the world’s production, and they export most of what they make.
In the 21st century, there was more farming in Greece and Afghanistan. Morocco and India did not make much. Most of Italy’s saffron comes from the south, especially the Abruzzo region. However, a lot of it is also grown in Basilicata, Sardegna, and Tuscany (especially in San Gimignano).
Only a few places in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland still do this labor-intensive harvest, like the Swiss village of Mund, which only makes a few kilograms a year. This is because labor costs are too high and there are a lot of imports from Iran.
Small-scale saffron production can be found in the U.S., Canada, Central Africa, China, Egypt, parts of England, France, Israel, Mexico, New Zealand, Sweden (Gotland), and Turkey (mostly around the town of Safranbolu) (California and Pennsylvania). Greece is a producer of saffron and has been growing Krokos Kozanis saffron for more than 300 years. In 2017, Greece started sending saffron to the US.
Wholesale and retail prices for saffron range from $1,100 to $11,000 per kg (or $500 to $5,000 per pound). In 1974, the average price at a store in the West was $2,200/kg ($1,000/lb).
In February 2013, a bottle of 1.7 g (1/16 oz) could be bought at a store for $16.26, which was the same as $9,560/kg ($4,336/lb) or as little as $4,400/kg ($2,000/lb) for larger amounts.
There are between 150,000 and 440,000 threads per kilogram (70,000 and 200,000 threads per pound). Fresh saffron has a bright red color, a little bit of moisture, elasticity, and no broken-off thread pieces.
Uses of Saffron
Saffron has been used as medicine for a long time. Saffron has also been used to make perfumes and dye fabrics, especially in China and India. In India, it is used for religious purposes.
Consumption of saffron
People who know about spices often say that the smell of saffron smells like metallic honey with grassy or hay-like notes, and that it tastes like hay and is sweet. Foods that have saffron also have a bright yellow-orange color. Saffron is used a lot in Indian, European, Arab, and Persian cooking. Saffron is also often used in sweets and drinks.
Saffron is used in a wide range of dishes, from Iran’s jewelled rice and khoresh to Italy’s Milanese risotto, Spain’s paella, France’s bouillabaisse, and South Asia’s biryani with different kinds of meat. One of the best ways to use saffron is to make the Golden Ham, an expensive dry-cured ham from San Gimignano that is made with saffron.
Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius), which is often sold as “Portuguese saffron” or “acafrao,” annatto, and turmeric are all common saffron substitutes (Curcuma longa). Turmeric was called “Indian saffron” in Medieval Europe because of its yellow-orange color.
Saffron Benefits / Nutrition
Dried saffron is made up of 65% carbohydrates, 6% fat, 11% protein, and 12% water. Manganese is present as 29% of the Daily Value in one tablespoon (2 grams; a much larger quantity than is likely to be ingested in normal use), while other micronutrients have negligible content.
Toxicity in Saffron
If a person eats less than 1.5 g (1/16 oz) of saffron, it won’t hurt them. But if they eat more than 5 g (3/16 oz), it can start to hurt them. Mild toxicity can cause dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. At higher doses, the number of platelets in the blood can drop and bleeding can happen on its own.
Storage of Saffron
Saffron doesn’t go bad, but it will lose its flavor after six months if it isn’t kept in a cool, dark, and airtight place. Up to two years of flavor can be kept in the freezer.
In 2017, researchers looked at the genes and transcription factors that are part of the pathway for carotenoid synthesis. This pathway is what gives saffron its color, taste, and smell.
Saffron flower benefits
Some of the parts of saffron, like crocin, crocetin, and safranal, were looked at to see if they could help with depression. Saffron has also been looked at for its possible positive effects on cardiovascular risk factors like lipid profile, blood glucose, weight, and erectile dysfunction, but as of 2020, there isn’t any strong, high-quality clinical evidence to support these claims.