The Healing Benefits of Saffron and How to Grow It

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  • Regarded as the world’s most expensive spice by weight, saffron is actually the stigmas of the purple crocus flower, which blooms once a year
  • Harvesting saffron is a labor-intensive job because the fragile red-orange stigmas require handpicking; it takes about 170,000 flowers to produce a single pound of saffron
  • About 90 percent of the world’s supply of saffron is grown in arid fields across Iran and most of it is hand-picked by women earning $5 per day
  • Due to its high cost and the fact saffron is often adulterated with look-alike ingredients, you may want to try growing this prized herb at home
  • Given well-draining soil and plenty of sun, you can easily grow saffron crocus in your garden in USDA hardiness zones 5 to 9

By Dr. Mercola

Saffron, which is regarded as the world's most expensive spice by weight, is actually the stigmas of the purple crocus flower (Crocus sativus), which blooms once a year. Due to the fragile stigmas needing to be picked by hand, harvesting saffron is a labor-intensive job. As mentioned in the featured video, given the fact each saffron crocus plant contains just three stigmas it takes about 170,000 flowers to produce a single pound of this costly spice.

Notably, about 90 percent of the world's supply of saffron is grown in arid fields across Iran. Most of the crop is harvested by women who earn about $5 per day picking saffron threads by hand. Other countries producing saffron include Afghanistan, Italy, Morocco, Spain, the Netherlands and the U.S. Saffron gives many rice dishes, including paella, its characteristic taste and golden-yellow color. In addition, this prized herb is featured in bouillabaisse, a traditional French fish stew.

When buying saffron, it's best to choose the thread form over the ground spice because it has a longer shelf life. Beware of look-alike ingredients that may be mixed in including red marigold petals, stigmas from lilies or turmeric. None of these "fakes" will impart the distinctive color or flavor of saffron. To ensure you have access to high-quality saffron, you may want to consider growing your own.

What Makes Saffron Special?

If you are not familiar with this prized spice, which is a member of the iris family of plants, you may wonder what makes the bright orange-red stigmas of the saffron crocus so special. According to National Geographic:1

  • The delicate purple crocus is a sterile triploid, meaning it cannot grow in the wild, nor can it reproduce without human intervention
  • Being sterile, the plants are unable to produce viable seeds, which means reproduction can only take place when clusters of "corms" (bulbs) are dug up, divided and replanted
  • Each plant produces just three stigmas/threads; as mentioned above, about 170,000 flowers are needed to produce 1 pound of saffron threads
  • Saffron is a labor-intensive crop — the plants must be painstakingly propagated and harvested by hand — which explains why high-quality saffron sells for upward of $16 per gram

While it's difficult to pinpoint exactly when and where the cultivation of saffron began, according to one source2 it can be traced back to the Persian word zarparān, which means "having golden stigmas." Ancient texts, dating back thousands of years, also refer to saffron. The offering of adulterated saffron has been a long-standing problem, so much so that the "Safranschou code" was implemented in the Middle Ages to fine, imprison and sometimes even execute those suspected of putting forth fake saffron.3

For millennia, pharaohs, monks, kings and queens have bathed in saffron-scented water, consumed food and drink laced with saffron, offered prayers and sacrifices involving saffron, slept in beds adorned with saffron threads and wore saffron perfumes and saffron-dyed clothing.4 At various times in history, saffron was in such great demand and so highly prized that various thefts and wars have been noted. According to the Independent:5

  • In the mid-1300s, the Black Death, a global epidemic of bubonic plague, caused the demand for medicinal saffron in Europe to outpace supply; at the time, the spice also was used to alleviate illnesses such as insomnia and stomach ailments
  • In 1374, the theft of a shipment of saffron resulted in a 14-week "Saffron War" between Basel and Austria
  • Pirates were said to value saffron more than gold and it was equally prized by American colonists after it was adopted for cultivation by the Pennsylvania Dutch in the 16th century

Tips on Buying Saffron

Because saffron is famously expensive, you may be shocked at the price of it at your local grocery store. You can often find it somewhat more affordably in halal or Middle Eastern markets. Below are some tips on buying saffron:6

For a longer shelf life, choose saffron threads over the ground spice

Select a high-quality brand, or if purchasing it loose from a spice vendor, always buy from a reputable seller

Beware of the many saffron look-alikes, including red marigold petals, lily stigmas and turmeric

Due to its short shelf life, purchase saffron threads in small quantities and commit to use it within a six-month period

Look for saffron threads of deep-red shades and avoid varieties mixed with the yellow styles; the styles, which are attached to the stigmas, add no value or flavor

Choose threads uniform in appearance — wide and flat on one end and tapered at the other

When buying them loose, select saffron threads with a pleasant, fragrant aroma and avoid any with a musty odor

Pick threads that are dry to the touch and a little brittle; keep in mind moisture will cause the threads to become spongy and less fragrant

Why Is Saffron so Good for You?

Given the fact saffron is consumed in very small quantities, you may not think much of its nutritional benefits. In larger quantities, saffron is, however, a good source of iron, which purifies your blood and also helps your muscles store and use oxygen. It also contains magnesium, a mineral your body needs to maintain nerve and muscle function, regulate your heartbeat and promote bone health.

Saffron is high in manganese, which helps regulate your blood sugar, metabolize carbohydrates and absorb calcium, among other things. This vibrant red-orange spice also contains potassium, which is useful to support your adrenal and kidney function, and vitamins B6 and C. Vitamin B6 ensures your brain and nervous system function properly and helps make the hormones norepinephrine, which helps your body deal with stress and serotonin, which regulates your mood.

The vitamin C in saffron boosts your immune system and acts as a potent antioxidant and infection-fighter. In addition to those important vitamins and minerals, saffron contains more than 150 volatile plant compounds, including, most notably:

  • Crocin: A carotenoid chemical compound responsible for saffron's intense red-orange color, which is also an indicator of the powerful antioxidants and carotenoids in saffron that protect your body from free radical damage
  • Picrocrocin: A precursor of safranal, picrocrocin is the main substance responsible for saffron's distinctive earthy taste
  • Safranal: The compound known to provide saffron with its notable aroma

One source claims saffron was used historically to treat more than 90 ailments and has been used as a primary ingredient in herbal health remedies for more than 4,000 years.7 According to National Geographic, saffron has many beneficial uses:8

"Saffron has been used historically to treat everything from heartache to hemorrhoids ... Modern studies have shown the high levels of antioxidants found in saffron may help ward off inflammation in the body and it may be helpful in treating sexual dysfunction and depression. The jury's still out on its reported effects on cardiovascular disease and cancer."

How to Grow Saffron

While you may think saffron too exotic of a spice to grow in your flower bed or garden, you may not realize you can easily grow the saffron crocus from a bulb. In the U.S., saffron crocus blooms in the fall. Remember, each corm (bulb) produces only a single flower and each flower yields just three saffron threads. As such, you'll need to plant a generous number of bulbs to ensure a measurable amount of threads.

Purchase your saffron crocus bulbs from a reputable online retailer or nursery and expect to wait a year after planting for the flowers to bloom. Saffron crocus bulbs do not store well so plant them soon after receiving them, ideally in the early fall. Gardening experts suggest the following tips for growing this exquisite flower, which is best suited for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) hardiness zones 5 to 9:9,10,11

Fertilizing: Although not required, you can help your plants thrive by fertilizing them annually

Dividing: As soon as the flowers fade, you can gently dig up your corms, separate them and replant them immediately; while dividing the corms is not required annually, be sure to do it every few years to ensure they do not become overcrowded and therefore less productive

Mulching: Although saffron crocus is hardy to about to minus 15 degrees F (minus 26 degrees C), if you live in a region where temperatures regularly dip lower, you'll want to add a layer of mulch around the plants as soon as they finish blooming

Planting: Place your saffron bulbs in the ground at a depth of 3 to 5 inches with the pointy end of the corm facing up; depending on the variety grown, plants reach 3 to 12 inches in height

Soil: Saffron plants need rich, well-draining silty soil (pH 6.0 to 8.0); they will rot in swampy, poor-draining soil

Spacing: When planting saffron crocus bulbs, ensure at least 6 inches of spacing on all sides

Sun: Plant saffron crocus in an area receiving lots of direct sun

Yield: About 50 to 60 saffron flowers will produce around 1 tablespoon of saffron spice, so plan on a large growing area if you love saffron

Water: Your plants will do fine with minimal water and you need only water them during the blooming season if you live in an area prone to dry weather; the plants are dormant June through August so do not water them at that time

Saffron Crocus Diseases and Pests

Saffron crocus, as with other bulb-based plants, is prone to damage from bulb-eating critters such as birds, moles, nematodes, rats and squirrels. Rabbits have been known to nibble on the flowers and leaves. The only diseases affecting saffron crocus are rust and corm rot, which is caused by fungal infections such as fusarium, Rhizoctonia crocorum and violet root rot.12

These diseases generally appear in the third or fourth years after planting. Since they do not respond to fungicides (and I would not recommend using fungicides anyway), you can combat these diseases by digging up any remaining healthy bulbs and replanting them in a new location.

Harvesting Saffron

As mentioned, harvesting saffron is tedious, time-consuming work. After the crocus flowers bloom, you'll need to handpick the red-orange stigmas from each plant. For best results, use tweezers to carefully extract them. Obviously, harvesting large quantities of this spice will take time and a lot of effort near ground level.

Once picked, you can spread harvested stigmas on a cookie sheet to dry at room temperature until they crumble easily. The yellow stamens and purple petals of the saffron crocus have no use and can be composted.

Cooking With Saffron and How to Store It

Given its price point, it's good to know that with saffron, "a little goes a long way."  Generally, for most recipes, you'll need just a pinch of saffron threads, which should be soaked, dried and crushed before use. In traditional Moroccan cooking, given the fact saffron needs to stand up to other pungent seasonings, larger quantities are commonly used in certain dishes. When cooking with saffron, it's helpful to know 1 teaspoon of saffron threads equals about one-eighth teaspoon of ground saffron.

Most saffron sold from reputable sources is presented in glass jars, which is the perfect storage container. If you buy saffron loose, you will want to store it in a glass jar and maintain it in a cool, dark place. It will retain its flavor and potency for at least six months. After that, you can still use your saffron, but it will be increasingly less flavorful. Homegrown saffron is said to be more fragrant after it is stored in an airtight container away from light for at least one month before use.13

Saffron Is Beneficial for the Treatment of Depression, Heart Disease and More

If you are still not convinced saffron is a spice worth checking out, consider the following research on some of the health benefits of this time-tested herb:14,15

Cancer: The anticancer potential of saffron was highlighted in a 2013 study published in the journal Pharmaceutical Biology.16 After reviewing the current research on saffron, the researchers stated, "Saffron possesses free radical-scavenging properties and antitumor activities. Significant cancer chemopreventive effects have been shown … Based on current data, saffron … could be considered as a promising candidate for clinical anticancer trials."17

Dementia: Saffron contains two chemical plant compounds — crocetin and crocin — both of which are thought to support your brain's learning and memory functions. As noted in the video above, a 2010 study involving 46 patients with mild-to-moderate Alzheimer's disease found participants taking 15 milligrams of saffron twice a day for 16 weeks demonstrated "significantly better outcomes on cognitive function" than those receiving a placebo.18 The study authors said, "This … study suggests, at least in the short term, saffron is both safe and effective in [cases of] mild-to-moderate Alzheimer's disease."19

Depression: A 2014 systematic analysis20 involving six clinical studies on saffron and depression suggests the spice was as effective as antidepressant medications. The study authors stated, "Saffron's antidepressant effects potentially are due to its serotonergic, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, neuroendocrine and neuroprotective effects. Research conducted so far provides initial support for the use of saffron for the treatment of mild-to-moderate depression."21

Heart disease: Hypertensive lab rats were shown to benefit from an oral, daily dose of saffron in a 2015 Iranian study.22 Specifically, the rats received 200 milligrams of saffron daily per kilogram of body weight during a five-week period. Saffron prevented blood pressure from increasing beginning in the third week. About the outcomes, the researchers said, "Nutritional saffron prevented blood pressure increases and remodeling of the aorta in hypertensive rats. It may be useful for preventing hypertension."23

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS): A 2008 Iranian clinical trial24 investigating saffron as a treatment for PMS symptoms in women aged 20 to 45 with regular menstrual cycles suggests 15 milligrams of saffron taken twice daily is effective to relieve PMS symptoms.

A 2011 review published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology25 that evaluated several herbal remedies for PMS, as well as the more severe premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), validated saffron as an effective treatment for addressing bothersome symptoms. The study authors noted, "Single trials also support the use of … Crocus sativus [for PMS]."26