Family: Iridaceae, Crocus sativus L.

Source: Simon, J.E., A.F. Chadwick and L.E. Craker. 1984. Herbs: An Indexed Bibliography. 1971-1980. The Scientific Literature on Selected Herbs, and Aromatic and Medicinal Plants of the Temperate Zone. Archon Books, 770 pp., Hamden, CT.

Saffron, Crocus sativus L. is a perennial herb known ,only in cultivation. The plant has been prized since antiquity for the yellow-colored dyestuff that comes from the flower stigmas. Also known as saffron crocus, the species is principally grown in Spain, but is also cultivated in Greece, Turkey, India, France, Italy, and the People's Republic of China. The low-growing, cormous plant, whose linear upright leaves reach heights of 0.15 to 0.3 meters, has fragrant flowers.

The reported life zone of saffron is 6 to 19 degrees centigrade with an annual precipitation of 0.1 to 1.1 meter and a soil pH of 5.8 to 7.8 (4.1-31). The crop grows best in well-drained soils of medium fertility (14.1-31). Planted from early spring to autumn from corms, the plants can remain undisturbed for three to five years before they need to be divided. Blossoming lasts only a few weeks, and flowers must be collected daily as they open in order to remove the stigmas. Approximately 210,000 dried stigmas from 70,000 flowers make one pound of true saffron (11.1-128).

Saffron contains a volatile oil, picrococin, crocin, a fixed oil, and wax (1.1-275, 14.1-35). The volatile oil consists of safranal, oxysafranal, pinene, 1,8-cineole isophorone, napthalene and other compounds (1.1-275). Extracted saffron is a red-orange color, and has an aromatic odor and a bitter taste. Principal coloring pigments of saffron include crocin, crocetin, carotene, lycopene, zeaxanthin, and picrocrocin (11.1-126).

Saffron, available commercially as individual stigmas, ground, or crushed, is used in cookery as a spice, in flavoring aperitif beverages, and to color such foods as butter, cheese, rice, sauces, and soups (11.1-75). The high cost of saffron production encourages the use of turmeric and the synthetic colorant tartrazine as alternatives to saffron (11.1-75).

As a medicinal plant, saffron has traditionally been considered an anodyne, antispasmodic, aphrodisiac, diaphoretic, emmenagogue, expectorant, and sedative (11.1-101). The plant has been used as a folk remedy against scarlet fever, smallpox, colds, insomnia, asthma, tumors, and cancer (14.1-16). Saffron is reported to contain a poison of the central nervous system and kidneys that can prove fatal (11.1-136, 11.1-101).

Autumn or meadow crocus, Colchicum autumnale L., is a poisonous plant not related to saffron. Fake or American saffron actually refers to safflower, Carthamus tinctorius L., whose flower heads yield a dye used as an adulterant to true saffron.

Saffron is generally recognized as safe as a natural seasoning or flavoring and plant extract (21 CFR sections 182.10, 182.20 [1982]).

[Note: References listed above in parentheses can be found in full in the original reference].

Aromatic and Medicinal Plants Index

Last modified 6-Dec-1997