How to Cultivate Saffron
Freshly Blooming Saffron
Growing the Most Expensive Spice in the World
When I happen to mention that I'm growing my own saffron, most people are really surprised. There's something about the idea of spices that automatically transmits mental images of faraway places and really hot climates. Or something like that.
However, it is a very real fact that in the Pacific Northwest of the USA it is completely possible to grow saffron. Yep, that saffron: the most expensive spice in the whole world.
As a hobby gardener, it's neither difficult nor too expensive to give this a try, so if you are curious, please read on to see how I got started, how to get a saffron bed ready, what growing is like, and when and how to harvest. And let's not forget a few comments on cooking and eating either...
Know Your Saffron Crocus
You don't want to confuse the saffron crocus for other species. Namely, because the other varietals can be poisonous if eaten. Saffron crocus are known by the Latin name Crocus sativa or Crocus sativus. They bloom in the fall, anywhere from late September to early November depending on your regional climate.
As you are going for a productive crop here, and not just something decorative, these aren't the sorts of bulbs you want to put into containers. They really need more depth and room if they are going to do their spicy thing. Also, they can be damaged by cold over the winter if you have them in pots. Saffron goes dormant in the summer, and you don't have to worry about watering then. You do have to worry if you don't have good drainage as these bulbs can rot if they get too moist during their off-season.
My very first attempt was in a large outdoor container and after planting them a year earlier, and nothing happened! I dug up the container to try and see what happened, but couldn't find a single bulb. Either they rotted away completely, or squirrels dug them up and ate them without leaving a hole in the dirt or any sort of sign. It was an unsatisfactory first year, to say the least.
Just What Makes Saffron So Precious? It's a Spice, a Dye, and a Medicine
Here's a Gallery Showing How I Got Started With the Growing ProcessClick thumbnail to view full-size
Here are some video guides to the different parts of the saffron growing process. Everybody does it a little bit differently, so it's great to get a few different points of view.
Weeding: Your Key to Growing Success
When it comes to saffron, the most important part of the tending/growing process is weeding. The bulbs are dormant for the majority of the year and you need to protect them. Weeds will not only gobble up nutrients in the soil, but the biggest danger is having your bulbs pierced by shoots of grass growing underground. Keeping your saffron bed weed-free in the off-season can be a big chore, but it pays off!
Harvesting Your Saffron From Blossom to PickingClick thumbnail to view full-size
Drying Your Spice Is Super Easy
Very small measuring spoons
Cooking With Saffron
If there's one thing that's common to just about any recipe where you use saffron, it's that you don't ever use a lot of it. All those teeny-tiny amounts can be confusing to cooks, and a majority of people who cook with this exotic spice most often confess that when it comes to the measuring part, they sort of guess and wing it.
The second you see a recipe that calls for large quantities of saffron, you know you are dealing with something where historically they were using adulterated saffron, some true spice diluted and mixed with fillers.
Never just throw your saffron threads into a dish. This wastes much of the rich flavor. You want to soak the threads in near-boiling water or other liquid for at least 20 minutes. This allows the threads to fully open and release the maximum flavor, scent, and color. If you grind up the threads before soaking, it breaks down the cell structures and allows more of the plant material to interact with the liquid.
How To Use Your Spice
For most people, growing their own saffron is going to be fun and will bring them a small amount of saffron for their home cooking. If you happen to have acreage, and can cultivate thousands of bulbs, you might consider selling your saffron to restaurants. In order to be able to go into the saffron biz, you need acreage devoted to this tiny flower.
What you see here is the total of my first year's harvest. If I had a kitchen scale that measured tenths or hundredths of a gram, I would be able to tell you exactly what my yield was, but with what I have, the answer is "not even a gram."
It takes somewhere between 50,000 and 75,000 flowers to get enough stigmas harvested to make a pound of saffron. The market prices per ounce of saffron are higher than the price for an ounce of gold.
Saffron bulbs do multiply over the years. You will want to dig up the bulbs and split them every three years. Some people choose to replant their crop, expanding the corm patch every few years, while others find that they prefer to sell the bulbs to other interested gardeners.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2013 Rae Schwarz