The golden threads of saffron currently sell in the Bay Area for $130 an ounce. That works out to over $2000 a pound. And you can grow your own. For free.
While you can certainly buy saffron for less, there’s no denying that it is one of the world’s most expensive spices. One of the biggest reasons for these prices is that harvesting the threads is very labor intensive. Also, it takes approximately 4000 flowers to create one ounce of saffron threads.
What is saffron?
First, a quick flower review: the male part is called the stamen, which is made up of the anther and filament. The stamen usually surrounds the female part, or the pistil. The pistil is usually in the center of a flower and is made up of the stigma, style, and ovary. Saffron threads are the dried styles and stigmas of a specific crocus flower species.
How saffron crocus plants grow
Farmed primarily in Iran, saffron crocus plants prefer full, blistering sun in the summer, heavy rains in spring, and they can tolerate a surprising amount of cold in the winter. The two things they don’t like are shade and soggy soil. Saffron crocus flowers are sterile, which means they cannot produce viable seeds. Instead, crocus plants reproduce by creating corms. Corms are similar to bulbs. Each corm lives for only one season, but each one can produce up to 10 cormlets. Cormlets are usually small and brown, covered with a fibrous coating called a ‘corm tunic’.
How to grow saffron crocus
Plant your saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) bulbs in June in a sunny, well-drained location. Keep in mind that these plants will continue to propagate (potentially) for decades. Crocus corms should be planted 3 to 6 inches deep, depending on the variety, with the pointy end up. Once a bed of saffron crocuses is established, these cormlets will need to be dug up and divided every so often, to prevent overcrowding.
Saffron crocus pests and diseases
Squirrels. Of course, squirrels. Also, rats, moles, birds, nematodes, and other bulb eaters can damage crocus corms in the ground. The only diseases that seem to affect crocus are rust and corm rot.
In mid-autumn, purple blooms will begin to emerge. Each morning, check your crocus plants for new flowers. Within each flower, you will find three golden saffron threads. Gently pluck them from the flower and place the threads in a paper envelope so that they can dry in darkness. I keep my saffron threads in my spice cabinet, where it is nearly always dark and dry.
These unobtrusive flowers spend most of their year underground. Come fall, dark green spikes emerge, followed by lovely purple blooms, and a jackpot for your spice cabinet. Put some in this year for yourself!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!