By: Susan Patterson, Master Gardener
Saffron is an ancient spice that has been used as a flavor for food and also as a dye. The Moors introduced saffron to Spain, where it is commonly used to prepare Spanish national foods, including Arroz con Pollo and Paella. Saffron comes from the three stigmas of the fall blooming Crocus sativus plant.
Although the plant is easy to grow, saffron is the most expensive of all spices. To obtain saffron, the stigmas must be handpicked, contributing to the preciousness of this spice. Crocus plants can be grown in the garden or you can put this crocus bulb in containers.
Growing Saffron Crocus Flowers in the Garden
Growing saffron outdoors requires soil that drains well and a sunny or partly sunny location. Plant the crocus bulbs about 3 inches (8 cm.) deep and 2 inches (5 cm.) apart. Crocus bulbs are small and have a slightly rounded top. Plant the bulbs with the pointed top facing upwards. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which side is up. If this happens, just plant the bulb on its side; the root action will pull the plant upwards.
Water the bulbs once planted and keep the soil moist. The plant will appear in early spring and produce leaves but no flowers. Once the hot weather hits, the leaves dry up and the plant becomes dormant until the fall. Then when cooler weather arrives, there is a new set of leaves and a beautiful lavender flower. This is when the saffron should be harvested. Do not remove the foliage right away, but wait until later in the season.
Container Grown Saffron
Potted saffron crocuses are a beautiful addition to any autumn garden. It’s vital that you choose an appropriately sized container for the number of bulbs you wish to plant, and you should also fill the container with somewhat loamy soil. Crocuses will not do well if they are soggy.
Place the containers where the plants will receive at least five hours of sunlight daily. Plant the bulbs 2 inches (5 cm.) deep and 2 inches (5 cm.) apart and keep the soil moist but not overly saturated.
Do not remove the foliage right away after blooming, but wait until late in the season to cut the yellow leaves.
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Saffron Crocus (Crocus sativus) blooms in autumn with lovely lilac petals enclosing three deep orange-red stigmas per flower. These are the source of what we know of as saffron, the world’s most expensive spice. Not only are these lovely crocuses a source of visual candy in the fall, but you can harvest the spice yourself and enjoy them in recipes throughout the year. Plant your saffron Crocus bulbs as soon as they arrive in late summer. They will sprout and grow in about 6-10 weeks (sometimes in as little as 4-6 weeks), putting on a colorful fall display. If there is danger of frost in your area, plant in containers that can be brought indoors.
14 Beautiful Crocus Varieties
While some gardeners mark the vernal equinox on their calendar as a sort of unofficial start to the flower gardening season, those who plant their favorite crocus varieties may be rewarded a two full months earlier than that. Short on stature but big on charm, crocus flowers require little more than an undisturbed space in the landscape where they can gradually multiply into handsome colonies.
The Crocus genus comprises at least 90 species that grow from bulb-like corms. Of these, a relatively small group is commonly cultivated for garden use, including some that are spring bloomers: C. tommasinianus (snow crocus), C. vernus (Dutch crocus), and C. chrysanthus (golden crocus or snow crocus). There are also some fall-blooming crocus species, including C. sativus (saffron crocus).
Crocuses have been in cultivation since the 1500s, and there are hundreds of varieties available — consider these 14 crocus varieties for your garden.
In warmer growing zones, you won't have much luck growing crocuses by planting them in the ground in the fall, the way they do in the North. Like some other spring bulbs, crocus bulbs need a chilling period in order to flower. You can, however, grow crocuses as annual plants, planting fresh bulbs each year.
Most crocuses need 10–14 weeks at temperatures of 35–40 degrees. Create these conditions by storing crocus bulbs in a refrigerator beginning in late October and then planting them in the late winter for early spring bloom. Make sure not to store crocus bulbs near fruit, which gives off ethylene gas that damages the embryonic flowers inside the bulbs.
What is Saffron (and Why is it So Expensive)?
Saffron is the dried stigma of a particular crocus flower species: Crocus sativus.
The reason saffron is so expensive is that it takes an average of 150,000 flowers to create just 1 kilogram (about 2 pounds) of the spice. Picking those flowers requires 40 hours of labor, and most small-scale farmers only produce this limited quantity every year.
The blooms are hand-picked, and then the stigmas are pulled out of the flower by hand and left to air dry. In Sardinia, the stigmas are rubbed with a little olive oil to help preserve them before they’re left out to dry.
You don't have to wait for spring to enjoy crocus blooms in your garden. According to Amanda Duncan, horticulturalist with Fast Growing Trees, there are also a few fall-blooming varieties. "Fall blooming (often called saffron crocus) are less desirable than spring but are a nice autumn surprise when they appear," she says. "Colors include, blue, yellow, purple, pink, white, and striped two-inch wide by two- to-six-inches tall." The fall blooming variety can pull double-duty and be put to use in your kitchen as well. "Saffron crocus can be harvested as a spice for cooking."
Roethling says that crocus are a favorite among four-legged critters, who can get quite hungry after a long winter. "To protect the [corms], mix PermaTil into the soils," she says. "PermaTil is a baked slate rock aggregate and unbreakable." Underground pests like voles can't penetrate through it, so they'll move along to find other food sources. "For critters above the ground, find a spray containing hot pepper," she says. "You may have to spray repeatedly depending on the weather and for the wildlife to take a hint." Dimitrov says you can also try "dried blood" or "bone meal." The products are usually sold as soil amendments or fertilizers, but they can double as animal repellants as well.