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 male 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!
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.
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!