Saffron | Description, Cultivation, Health benefits and Uses

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Saffron | Saffron Health benefits, 
Description, Cultivation and Uses


The flower of the Crocus sativus, sometimes called the saffron crocus, is the source of the spice known as saffron. The vibrant red stigma and styles, sometimes known as "threads," are harvested and dried for use primarily as food flavour and colouring. The most expensive spice in the world by weight has long been saffron. Saffron is thought to have originated in Iran, despite the fact that certain questions concerning its origin still exist. However, Greece and Mesopotamia have also been suggested as the possible regions of origin of this plant. The Saffron crocus slowly propagated throughout much of Eurasia and was later brought to parts of North Africa, North America, and Oceania.


The phytochemicals picrocrocin and safranal are responsible for saffron's flavour and iodoform- or hay-like aroma. Additionally, it includes the carotenoid pigment crocin, which gives textiles and dishes a deep golden-yellow tint. Its recorded history is attested in a 7th-century BC Assyrian botanical treatise, and it has been traded and used for thousands of years. In the 21st century, Iran produces some 90% of the world's total of saffron. Saffron is the priciest spice in the world, costing at least US$5,000 per kg.


The origin of the English term saffron is somewhat unclear. It might stem from the 12th-century Old French term safran, which comes from the Latin word safranum, from the Arabic zafaran, which comes from the Persian word zarparan, meaning "gold strung" (implying either the golden stamens of the flower or the golden colour it creates when used as a flavor).

Some doubts remain about the origin of saffron, but it is believed that it originated in Iran. Greece and Mesopotamia, however, have also been mentioned as potential origin areas. According to Harold McGee, it was domesticated during the Bronze Age in or close to Greece. The wild saffron plant Crocus cartwrightianus, commonly known as C. sativus, may be a triploid variety of that plant. The Saffron crocus slowly propagated throughout much of Eurasia and was later brought to parts of North Africa, North America, and Oceania.


The domesticated saffron crocus, Crocus sativus, is a perennial plant with fall flowers that is not found in nature. It likely descended from the Crocus cartwrightianus, often known as "wild saffron," which blooms in the autumn and was first seen in Crete or Central Asia. Other potential sources include C. thomasii and C. pallasii. It slowly spread across most of Eurasia as a genetic monomorphic clone.

It is a sterile triploid form, which implies that each specimen's genetic makeup consists of three homologous sets of chromosomes; C. sativus has eight chromosomal bodies per set, for a total of 24. Being sterile, the purple flowers of C. sativus fail to produce viable seeds; hence, reproduction hinges on human assistance: clusters of corms, underground, bulb-like, starch-storing organs, must be dug up, divided, and replanted. A corm can produce up to ten "cormlets" by vegetative division during the course of one season, each of which can develop into a new plant the following year. The compact corms are small, brown globules that can grow up to 5 cm in diameter, have a flat base, and are covered in what is known as a "corm tunic"—a dense mat of parallel fibres. Additionally, corms have thin, net-like vertical fibres that extend up to 5 cm above the plant's nectar. 

The plant sprouts white in color, non-photosynthetic leaves known as cataphylls. These membrane-like structures cover and protect 5 to 11 true leaves as they bud and develop on the crocus flower. The latter are thin, straight, and blade-like green foliage leaves, which either expand after the flowers have opened ("hysteranthous") or do so simultaneously with their blooming ("synanthous"). C. Some people believe that sativus cataphylls appear before blooming when the plant is irrigated relatively early in the growing season. Its pedicels, or flower stems, which are known as the floral axes or flower-bearing structures, carry bracteoles, or specialised leaves. The plant aestivates in the spring and then sends up its genuine leaves, which can grow to be up to 40 cm (16 in) long. Its wonderfully coloured blossoms, which range from a light pastel shade of lilac to a deeper and more striated mauve, only bloom in October, after the majority of other flowering plants have dispersed their seeds. The blossoms have a fragrant sweetness, like honey. The plants have up to four flowers and are 20–30 cm tall when they flower. Each flower produces a three-pronged style that is between 25 and 30 mm long. A brilliant crimson stigma that acts as the distal end of a carpel terminates each prong. 


Unknown in the wild, the saffron crocus is most likely descended from Crocus cartwrightianus. It is a triploid that is "self-incompatible" and male sterile; it goes through aberrant meiosis and is therefore unable to reproduce sexually on its own; all vegetative multiplication is done manually by "dividing and setting" a starter clone, or by interspecific hybridization.

Crocus sativus grows on semi-arid soils with hot, dry summer breezes, such as the Mediterranean maquis, an ecotype that superficially resembles the North American chaparral. It can, however, withstand cold winters, withstanding frosts as low as 10 °C and brief periods of snow cover. Irrigation is required if grown outside of moist environments such as Kashmir, where annual rainfall averages 1,000–1,500 mm; saffron-growing regions in Greece (500 mm or 20 in annually) and Spain (400 mm) are far drier than the main cultivating Iranian regions. This is made possible by the timing of the region's wet seasons; ideal conditions are for heavy spring rains and dry summers. Saffron harvests are increased by rain just before flowering; rainy or cold weather during flowering encourages illness and lowers yields. Crops are harmed by prolonged dampness and heat, and corms are dug up by rabbits, rodents, and birds, who also inflict damage. Other dangers include nematodes, leaf rusts, and corm rot. But because Bacillus subtilis inoculation accelerates corm growth and boosts stigma biomass yield, growers might benefit in some way from it.

The plants grow best in full sunlight; they do badly in shaded environments. The best fields are those that slope toward the sun (i.e., south-sloping in the Northern Hemisphere). In the Northern Hemisphere, planting occurs primarily in June; corms are inserted 7–15 cm (3-6 in) deep; their roots, stems, and leaves can form between October and February. Critical elements in affecting yields are planting depth, corm spacing, and climate. Mother corms planted deeper yield higher-quality saffron, though they form fewer flower buds than daughter corms. Italian growers optimise thread yield by planting 15 cm  deep and in rows 2–3 cm apart; depths of 8–10 cm  optimise flower and corm production. Growers from Greece, Morocco, and Spain use certain depths and spacings that are appropriate for their environments.

Sativus sativus prefers friable, loose, low-density, well-watered, and well-drained clay-calcareous soils with high organic content. Traditional raised beds promote good drainage. Soil organic content was historically boosted via the application of some 20–30 tonnes per hectare (9–13 short tonnes per acre) of manure. Corms were then planted after which no more manure was applied. The corms go into dormancy over the summer, then in the early autumn, they start to bud and put up their slender leaves. They only blossom in the middle of fall. Harvests must be completed swiftly because flowers quickly wilt throughout the day after blooming at dawn. Within a span of one to two weeks, all plants blossom. After extraction, stigmas are promptly dried and, ideally, packed in airtight containers.

Saffron Flower


Sargol saffron, the strongest Iranian grade. The high retail value of saffron is maintained in world markets because of labor-intensive harvesting methods, which require some 440,000 hand-picked saffron stigmas per kilogramme (200,000 stigmas/lb) – equivalently, 150,000 crocus flowers per kilogramme (70,000 flowers/lb). The labour required to pluck 150,000 flowers takes 40 hours.

A freshly harvested crocus flower typically generates 30 mg of fresh saffron or 7 mg of dried saffron; about 150 flowers yield 1 g of dry saffron threads; 450 g of flowers are required to produce 12 g of dried saffron; and only 13 g/kg of dried spice is produced from fresh saffron.


Phytochemistry and sensory properties

The majority of the 28 volatile and aroma-producing chemicals in saffron are ketones and aldehydes. Safranal, the primary molecule responsible for the saffron scent 4-ketoisophorone, and dihydrooxophorone are its key aroma-active constituents. Additionally, saffron includes nonvolatile phytochemicals, the most physiologically active of which are crocetin and its glycoside crocein, as well as the carotenoids zeaxanthin, lycopene, and other - and -carotenes. Crocetin is absorbed more quickly than the other carotenoids because it is smaller and more water-soluble.

Saffron's predominant source of -crocin is responsible for its yellow-orange hue. Trans-crocetin di-(-D-gentiobiosyl) ester, also known as 8,8-diapo-8,8-carotenoic acid, is the crocin in question (IUPAC). This indicates that the digentiobiose ester of the carotenoid crocetin is what gives saffron its distinctive scent. The hydrophilic carotenoids known as crocins are a group of crocetin mono- or diglycosyl polyene esters. Crocetin is a hydrophobic, oil-soluble conjugated polyene dicarboxylic acid. A substance that is also water soluble is produced when crocetin is esterified with two sugars called gentiobioses. The resultant -crocin is a carotenoid pigment that may make up more than 10% of dry saffron's mass. The two esterified gentiobioses in -crocin make it perfect for colouring non-fatty, water-based meals like rice dishes.

The strong flavour of saffron is due to the bitter glucoside picrocrocin. Safranal, an aldehyde submolecule with the systematic name 2,6,6-trimethylcyclohexa-1,3-diene-1-carbaldehyde, and a carbohydrate combine to form picrocrocin (C16H26O7; 4-(-D-glucopyranosyloxy)-2,6,6-trimethylcyclohex-1-ene-1-carbaldehyde). It can make up to 4% of dry saffron and has insecticidal and pesticidal qualities. Picrocrocin is the glycoside of the terpene aldehyde safranal and is a shortened form of the carotenoid zeaxanthin formed via oxidative cleavage.

Following harvest, when saffron is dried, heat and enzymatic activity break picrocrocin to produce D-glucose and a free safranal molecule. The volatile oil safranal is mostly responsible for the saffron's characteristic scent. Safranal is less bitter than picrocrocin and may comprise up to 70% of dry saffron's volatile fraction in some samples. The smell of 2-hydroxy-4,4,6-trimethyl-2,5-cyclohexadien-1-one, a second component of the saffron aroma, has been compared to that of dried hay. Despite being present in lower concentrations than safranal, chemists found that this is the most potent component of saffron's aroma. Dry saffron is extremely sensitive to pH variations and deteriorates chemically quickly in the presence of light and oxidising chemicals. In order to reduce interaction with atmospheric oxygen, it must be kept in airtight containers. Saffron can withstand heat a little better.

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Types of Saffron

The numerous saffron crocus cultivars produce distinct thread types that are frequently locally scattered. Spanish varieties (not varieties in the botanical sense), notably those sold under the trade names "Spanish Superior" and "Creme," are rated according to government-imposed standards and are typically mellower in colour, flavour, and aroma. Spanish and Italian variants are a little stronger. Due to its particularly superior colour and flavour, With a three-century tradition of growing of a saffron known as Krokos Kozanis, Greece is a saffron producer that began exporting to the United States in 2017.

Trade saffron costs between $1,100 and $11,000 per kilogramme at wholesale and retail prices. In 1974, the average retail cost per kilogramme was $2,200 in Western nations.

Some cultivars may be considered to be of "premium" quality by consumers. High safranal and crocin content, a distinctive thread shape, an unusually pungent aroma, and intense colour are the characteristics of the "Aquila" saffron, also known as zafferano dell'Aquila, which is only grown on eight hectares in the Navelli Valley of the Abruzzo region of Italy, close to L'Aquila. A Dominican friar from the time of the Inquisition in Spain brought it to Italy for the first time. The largest saffron crop in Italy is located in San Gavino Monreale, Sardinia, where it is produced on 40 hectares and accounts for 60% of the country's output. This saffron also has an extremely high concentration of crocin, picrocrocin, and safranal.

One of the most challenging for consumers to find is the "Mongra" or "Lacha" saffron of Kashmir (Crocus sativus 'Cashmirianus'). [Reference needed] Its exorbitant pricing outside are a result of Kashmir's repeated droughts, pestilences, and crop failures as well as an Indian export restriction. The dark maroon-purple colour of Kashmiri saffron, which is among the darkest in the world, makes it easy to identify. The Indian government granted a geographical indication to Kashmir Valley saffron in 2020.

Nearly all saffron is grown in a region stretching from Kashmir in the east to Spain in the west. 250 t (250,000 kg) were manufactured globally in 2014. Iran is the source of 90–93% of the world's production, much of which is exported.

Saffron Production

Greece and Afghanistan had a surge in cultivation in the twenty-first century. India and Morocco were supplemental producers. Saffron is grown extensively in Basilicata, Sardegna, and Tuscany, although it is mostly produced in Southern Italy, particularly in the Abruzzo region (especially in San Gimignano). Only a few locations, such the Swiss village of Mund, whose annual output is only a few kilogrammes, continue the laborious harvest in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland due to prohibitively high labour costs and an abundance of Iranian imports. Australia (primarily the state of Tasmania), Canada, Central Africa, China, Egypt, some of England, France, Israel, Mexico, New Zealand, Sweden (Gotland), Turkey (primarily in and around the town of Safranbolu), and the United States are among the countries where saffron is produced on a small scale (California and Pennsylvania). With a three-century tradition of growing of a saffron known as Krokos Kozanis, Greece is a saffron producer that began exporting to the United States in 2017.

Trade saffron costs between $1,100 and $11,000 per kilogramme at wholesale and retail prices. In 1974, the average retail cost per kilogramme was $2,200 in Western nations. In February 2013, a retail bottle containing 1.7 g could be purchased for $16.26, or the equivalent of $9,560/kg, or as little as about $4,400/kg  in larger quantities. There are between 150,000 and 440,000 threads per kilogramme. Vivid crimson coloration, slight moistness, elasticity, and lack of broken-off thread debris are all traits of fresh saffron.

Saffron Uses

Traditional medicine has long used saffron as a herb. Saffron has also been used in perfumes and as a fabric dye, especially in China and India. In India, it is employed for religious purposes.

Connoisseurs frequently compare the perfume of saffron to metallic honey with grassy or hay-like undertones, and they also describe the flavour as sweet and hay-like. Additionally, saffron gives meals a brilliant yellow-orange colour. Persian, Indian, European, and Arab cuisines all frequently use saffron. Confectioneries and liquors also often include saffron. Saffron is used in dishes ranging from the jewelled rice and khoresh of Iran, the Milanese risotto of Italy, the paella of Spain, the bouillabaisse of France, and the biryani with various meat accompaniments in South Asia. The creation of the Golden Ham, a priceless dry-cured ham prepared with saffron from San Gimignano, is one of the most prestigious uses for saffron. Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius, sometimes known as "Portuguese saffron" or "açafro"), annatto, and turmeric are common alternatives to saffron (Curcuma longa). Due of its yellow-orange hue, turmeric was frequently referred to as "Indian saffron" in Medieval Europe.

Saffron Nutrition

65% of dried saffron is composed of carbs, 6% of fat, 11% of protein (table), and 12% of water. Manganese makes up 29 percent of the Daily Value in one tablespoon (2 grammes; a far bigger amount than is expected to be consumed in regular use), but the level of other micronutrients is quite low.

Saffron Toxicity

Saffron is not hazardous to humans in amounts less than 1.5 g, but it can become toxic in amounts larger than 5 g. Dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea are symptoms of mild toxicity; however, at larger doses, spontaneous bleeding and a decreased platelet count are possible side effects.


If saffron is not kept in an airtight, cool, and dark environment, it will not go bad but will start to lose its flavour after six months. The flavour can be preserved in freezer storage for up to two years. 


In 2017, research was conducted on the genes and transcription factors that make up the carotenoid synthesis pathway that gives saffron its distinctive colour, flavour, and aroma.

 Saffron constituents, such as crocin, crocetin, and safranal, were under investigation for their potential to affect mental depression. Saffron has also been studied for its possible effect on cardiovascular risk factors, such as lipid profile, blood glucose, weight, and erectile dysfunction, but there is no high-quality clinical evidence for such effects, as of 2020.


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