Save (Lots of!) Money by Growing Your Own Saffron

, written by Benedict Vanheems gb flag

Saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) flowers

Saffron doesn’t come cheap. In fact, it’s one of the most expensive spices in the world. It is often claimed that saffron is worth more than its weight in gold. It’s not – it’s currently around 15 to 20 times less. Nevertheless a modest pinch of saffron will still set you back considerably more than a fancy coffee.

The reason behind the lofty price tag is the intricate way in which it is harvested. One saffron bulb produces a single flower, which in turn yields just three spindly stigmas – the female part of the flower that makes up the spice. Each stigma has to be delicately plucked from the flower, requiring time and effort an order of magnitude greater than that required for any other spice.

But a few strands of saffron go a very long way, and growing this pretty autumn-flowering bulb isn’t difficult. So it’s well worth its value – and well worth growing.

The Saffron Crocus Flower

Saffron is harvested from the saffron crocus, scientific name Crocus sativus. This is a different plant entirely from the autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale), also known somewhat confusingly as meadow saffron. Do double-check that you are buying the right one, as autumn crocuses are poisonous. The bulbs are widely available online, where you should be able to confidently confirm you have found the right one.

You will need quite a few bulbs to produce even a teaspoon of the spice; expect to plant about 50 bulbs to fill one. That may seem like a lot, but on the flip side saffron crocuses are ready multipliers, taking just a couple of years to bulk out and reward you with enough saffron for a weekly paella!

“Saffron
Only autumn-flowering Crocus sativus produces saffron

The flowers themselves are very pretty. Solitary, dainty and blushing to a rich mauve, they typically appear only after autumn is well underway. As the petals unfurl the crimson stigmas within are finally revealed, all wiry and exposed, like delicate antennae reaching out into the wide-open world.

Growing Saffron Crocus

Plant saffron bulbs in free-draining soil that gets plenty of sunshine. Don’t push your luck. If your soil gets boggy or is reluctant to drain after a period of sustained rain then the bulbs are liable to simply rot away. Instead, plant them into containers of soil-based potting mix, raised off the ground on pot feet to ensure that all-important drainage.

Late summer is the best time of year to plant the bulbs. They may not flower in their first autumn but will burst reassuringly into life in early spring when the strappy leaves push through. The flowers that follow in mid-autumn are a welcome final ‘hurrah’ before winter’s bony chill.

Plant bulbs as soon as you have them, because they don’t keep for long. Use a trowel or dibber to make a hole about 10cm (4in) deep. Drop in one bulb (pointy end up) then fill the hole in. Bulbs should be spaced at least 15cm (6in) apart in all directions. My preference is to plant a flowing drift of bulbs rather than a squared off block. It’s more natural and especially fitting for a flower of such innocent charm.

For such a dainty-looking bloom saffron is exceptionally hardy, coping with temperatures well below freezing – in both Celsius and Fahrenheit. Once planted they won’t need any further input from you, though if your area is prone to drought give plants a water during any prolonged dry spell.

“Saffron”
It takes a lot of crocuses to make a small amount of saffron!

Harvesting and Storing Saffron

The best tool for collecting your saffron is a pair of tweezers. Warm up with a good stretch then get down onto your hands and knees for the fiddly yet ultimately rewarding job of harvesting. Carefully – take your time please – pluck each stigma from its flower. Don’t rush or you could tear the flower, though this shouldn’t harm the plant.

Your stash of stigmas will need to be dried before storing. Spread them out onto paper towels, laid somewhere warm and dry like a sunny windowsill. It takes a few days for them to dry completely, after which time they can then be decanted into airtight containers. Store them in a cool, dark cupboard or pantry.

Saffron is a beautiful spice that lends color and subtle perfume to a range of dishes spanning savory and sweet. With your own supply to hand you’ll be more inclined to explore the many culinary opportunities it offers, safe from that hefty price tag!

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Comments

 
"Nice article. But the stigma and style that are saffron are NOT the male parts of the flower :-) They are female."
Marie on Friday 23 October 2020
"Hi Marie. Glad you enjoyed the article. You are right, the stigma and style are definitely the female parts of the flower (we've fixed the typo now). While you might expect saffron spice to be composed of the to be the stamens - the male parts - owing to the length of the strands, they are in fact the female parts, which protrude further from the flower."
Ben Vanheems on Saturday 24 October 2020
"Hi, do you know where or how I can buy Kenyan Saffron Crocus or Seeds? I need Saffron that can grow and produce in a tropical climate."
David Martin on Tuesday 29 December 2020
"Greatly enjoyed your article, I am from a tropical country too - Malaysia to be exact. Where can I get good bulbs, the flowers are so lovely I am willing to give them a try."
Lisa Lee on Wednesday 30 December 2020
"Hi David and Lisa. I must apologise but I am uncertain where you would buy bulbs or seed from suitable for a tropical climate. My main concern is that crocuses typically require a period of chilling if they are to flower successfully. The lack of cold will prevent them from flowering, so you would need to refrigerate the bulbs before planting for a period of time - probably for at least six weeks, possibly more. I would suggest they may be fun to try, but perhaps not a great choice for a serious year-after-year crop."
Ben Vanheems on Wednesday 30 December 2020
"How much in value do you think is in the jar in the picture please"
Ian on Tuesday 19 January 2021
"As a very approximate guess Ian, I would suggest somewhere between £10-15, or US$14-20."
Ben Vanheems on Tuesday 19 January 2021
"Please include me in future discussions on Saffron growing"
DAVE KLEYNHANS on Saturday 20 February 2021
"Thanks Dave. By leaving a comment you should now be informed of future posts on this saffron thread."
Ben Vanheems on Saturday 20 February 2021
"Hi there, my neighbour gave me some bulbs in spring, saying that they were saffron. I planted them in a pot and now the delicate mauve crocus flowers have appeared. How can I tell whether they are edible or poisonous? "
Rosie Martin on Wednesday 7 April 2021
"Hi Rosie. Does it come into leaf in spring and the flower in the autumn? If it isn't flowering in the autumn then it isn't the saffron crocus. If it does flower in autumn it could potentially be the autumn crocus (colchicum), but the two look very different and a search online should show the difference between the two very clearly."
Ben Vanheems on Wednesday 7 April 2021

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