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Helpful Herbs: Saffron

An expensive and lavish spice, Saffron can actually be grown in your backyard. Hardy in zones 6-9, this special spice can be cultivated in a greenhouse farther north.

The spice Saffron is harvested from the Saffron Crocus plant, a delicate bulb that sprouts purple flowers in the late fall. The purple petals are adored with bright red "pistils", which are harvested and collected to make the spice we all know.

Saffron bulbs, which can be purchased from a nursery, should be sown in well drained soil or an indoor container. They thrive with full sun and do not tolerate excessive moisture, needing only very occasional watering. Often they will not bloom in the first year, but as your bulbs mature you should be rewarded with more and more blossoms. Easy keepers, Saffron Crocus are a perennial that only needs watering during dry spells.

The reason that Saffron spice is expensive is that its harvest is labor intensive, and yields a very small amount per plant. The only part of the purple blossom that is useful are the three bright red filaments or pistils. The remaining yellow stamens and purple petals can be left on the plant, and the pistils must be removed with great care, usually using tweezers.

Filaments are dried in a cool, dry place for about a half an hour before being ready for storage. It takes 150 flowers to yield one gram of dried saffron, or 60 blossoms will yield about a tablespoon.

Once you've collected and dried your Saffron, you can make it part of your cooking. Dried Saffron is soaked before being used in a dish, and it has a slightly bitter honey-like flavor. A little bit of Saffron goes a long way, and many recipes call for only two or three threads. A pinch of Saffron can be included to add flavor to grains and pastas, giving them a more Mediterranean taste. It is also a favorite flavor in desserts such as custards, where it works much like using vanilla in a recipe. It is part of many Persian, Indian, and Arabic dishes and gives any recipe a unique taste.

Outside of the kitchen, Saffron is commonly used as a dye. In China and India, the plant is a used as a way to turn cloth orange or yellow. While there have been many efforts to find a cheaper alternative to Saffron, the vibrant orange color hasn't been matched by other herbs or chemicals.

Saffron has a variety of medicinal benefits. Studies have shown the it helps to relieve depression, and that it lowers blood pressure. Saffron has also been found to treat menstrual cramps, and a tea of the threads helps to treat coughs and colds. Saffron in the diet can help to calm stomach aches.

In traditional medicine, Saffron was used to soothe asthma and bruises, and in Morocco has been used for centuries to treat the pains associated with babies teething. Its reputation as an antidepressant has also led to rumors of aphrodisiac qualities.

Today, a pound of Saffron would sell for between $5,000 and $10,000. In ancient times, the spice was so precious that wars were fought in its name. Persian Saffron was used in sacrifices, and as a perfume by the very wealthy. Alexander the Great treated his wounds with Saffron and was said to bathe in water infused with its threads.

Saffron appears in many ancient texts, from the Minoans to the Mongols and the Greeks. In Ancient Egypt, Cleopatra bathed in Saffron and the Romans cultivated the plant extensively. Europeans began growing Saffron in the 14th Century, and it was considered a cure for the Black Plague. The demand for the spice at the time of the Plague was so high that battles were fought over its importation.

Whether as an antidepressant or an aphrodisiac, or in any of its other many uses, Saffron has been a spice in high demand through the ages. With a little bit of effort you can grow your own Saffron and enjoy a few threads of it in your recipes.


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