Mad About Saffron

Last year a dozen Crocus sativus, the saffron crocus, were ordered from High Country Gardens and promptly planted when they arrived on September 21. (Are you impressed with that little bit of journal keeping?  Since the blogging began last December the journal entries have been sadly lacking.)  The only thing that came up were leaves, strappy grasslike affairs. The flowering must have been missed. What a disappointment. But because we know that gardening is about patience, the reward for waiting came this year. Above is a photo of the first bloom.Research told us to harvest the saffron threads, which are the three red stigmas produced by each flower, when the dew has dried and the flower is still fully open. It said to use tweezers. This is a delicate operation, especially when holding a camera in one hand. My friend Laurie told me that she had read about the padding of saffron packets with the yellow bits. I can see how this could happen in a large scale operation for my harvest also snagged some yellow bits, they were quickly discarded so as not to taint the product.Here you can see the upper left flower with the saffron removed, two more to go.The entire patch is shown in this shot. Three out of twelve flowers opened the first day. The rest opened yesterday. They are growing in the raised bed by the front walk where I will notice it. There are little bamboo skewers that are placed around the perimeter of the planting to show where the bulbs are after the foliage goes dormant during the summer and to deter the devil squirrels from digging there. The leaves are showing now and will persist through the winter. The bloom period is extremely short. There is no time to waste if you want to have some of this delicacy for cooking.Most of the remaining buds have opened. Saffron has been used as a seasoning, dye, fragrance and medicine for thousands of years by many cultures. It takes fourteen thousand stigmas to make one ounce of saffron. Commercial harvest is very labor intensive, I can vouch for that, making this one of the costliest crops in the world. But a small amount is all that is needed for home use.The harvester has been here as you can see, for the red stigmas are all missing from these blooms. The blossoms are still attractive and add to the fall color of the landscape.Here is the haul. Three stigmas per flower times twelve flowers will give me thirty six threads to work with. It is hoped that the numbers will increase over the years with digging and dividing the bulbs after the foliage withers in the summer. The stigmas will be dried in a dark warm place, the shed sounds like a good candidate for that. It is plenty warm in there and a cardboard box will provide the darkness. After the drying we will try a nice rice dish and add a few threads to the water. Fresh saffron is something that has never graced my palate, anticipation whets our appetite.Feeling a little left out are these crocus that also bloom in the fall, Crocus speciosus. We planted our first batch of these three years ago and were amazed at how quickly they came up and bloomed, about five weeks from an early August planting. The white tipped bud emerges from the ground containing light lavender petals. Unlike the C. sativus, whose leaves show at the same time as the flowers, the leaves of C. speciosus  pop out later, as the flowers fade.The stigmas of these are eye catching but do not have the cache of the C. sativus. Always the bridesmaid, right specie?
Frances
~~~
Our title is from the song “Mellow Yellow” by Donovan.

(Update 2010: We did use the saffron threads, all in one rice and chicken dish with onions and peppers. It was delicious. In 2009 there were no flowers, only leaves. This year they are sticking up out of the ground, right on schedule and look to have flowers inside. I will report back later if that is the case.)

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42 Responses to Mad About Saffron

  1. I didn’t know that they were so pretty, I wonder if I could have a try with them in this climate. At Christmas we eat a lot of Saffron buns and they are so tasty. Very nice post.

    Hi Tyra, though short lived, they are quite attractive, do give them a try. I don’t know of other uses besides rice dishes. I will look up saffron buns, thanks.

    Frances

  2. http://waxholm.blogspot.com/2007/12/swedish-saffron-bread.html

    Look at these lovely buns Frances

    Hi Tyra, those look wonderful! I have to tell you that this comment was kicked into the spam catcher because of the wording and because it contained a link. I had to look twice to see that it was from you LOL
    Frances

  3. titania says:

    That is really great, Frances that you can harvest your own Saffron. Not many can! Are you cooking a delicious Risotto Milanese? The flowers are very beautiful too. With time the bulbs will increase and your Saffron harvest as well!

    Hi Titania, thanks. I don’t know what to cook with it yet, I will look up the dish you mentioned to see if it is doable for me. I am expecting the crocus to increase, I like to see their cheering faces as I go out the front door.
    Frances

  4. Sylvia (England) says:

    Beautiful flowers and lovely pictures. I haven’t had any luck with Crocus speciosus, just a few flowers the first year and then disappeared. You have inspired me to try again next year. I am impressed with the saffron harvest!

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)

    Hi Sylvia, thanks. The first batch of the species barely returned for me too, but I read that they needed excellent drainage so moved them to a sandier site and they have done better. The raised bed by the front door was filled in with leftover sand from the stonework mixed with the clay soil that is our normal condition. It was worked better for both crocuses.
    Frances

  5. lisa at greenbow says:

    Interesting post Frances. I have never thought about harvesting saffron. I never use it in cooking. I thought it took hundreds or thousands of them to get the spice to cook with. I will be interested to hear if you can taste the amount you have harvested. They are a beautiful plant. Both of the flowers are actually and what different foilage.

    Hi Lisa, thanks. I never thought about it either, but liked the crocus species so much and saw that the photo of the saffron was so pretty with those red stigmas. Now that I have it, I might as well use it, right?
    Frances

  6. Gail says:

    Frances,

    I love both these little crocus plants. The saffron stigmas contrast beautifully with the petals of its flower, but sure do taste good in a rice dish! We buy an imported saffron that is very dear! I think this merits you a sustainability award;-) Gail

    Hi Gail, they are sweet, aren’t they? I was reading that much of the world’s saffron comes from Iran, it is a major crop there. It does prefer sandy soil, see my reply to Sylvia’s comment about how I am able to grow it. Strictly by pure coincidence LOL.
    Frances

  7. Cameron says:

    You’re very patient! I love cooking with saffron. On a trip to Morocco, I remember seeing the saffron (and other spices) in the marketplace. When I get home from my current vacation on Hatteras Island, I can email you some recipes that use saffron — if you are interested. Cameron

    Hi Cameron, we have no choice but to be patient as gardeners, don’t you agree? I would love to have some recipes, having never used it before. And a trip to Morocco, wow, that must have been exciting!
    Frances

  8. Barbarapc says:

    My hat is off to you – should I ever need surgery – I’m going to see if you can assist – not only doing the finicky harvest, but the photo-chronicle as well! Have you decided what you’ll make? Great post.

    Hi Barabara, thanks and welcome. The photo shows my hand totally missing the target, I couldn’t see well enough to actually get a picture of the tweezers, yes they are surgical tweezers!, grasping the stigmas LOL
    Frances

  9. Marnie says:

    I was totally ignorant about the origins of saffron. That was very interesting. It sounds like a person could easily grow enough for seasoning their own meals.
    Marnie

    Hi Marnie, thanks. I am not sure how much saffron is needed for cooking, but will be giving it a try. I love the flowers in the fall was the real reason they were purchased, the harvest is a bonus.
    Frances

  10. Rose says:

    Frances, I always learn something new! I didn’t know this is where saffron came from, and I didn’t know there were crocuses that bloomed in August. I know saffron is very expensive; looks like you have a goldmine there:)
    I did recognize the title’s reference–I’ve been humming that song since I saw your title in my blogroll:) Brings back memories of my college days…

    Hi Rose, thanks. Watch out for the college day memories, they tend to linger on! LOL If not a goldmine, maybe some good ingredients for some tasty dishes. I will have to choose the recipe carefully, since we will have to wait another year to get more. I have no idea how much to use either, hope the recipe will tell that too.
    Frances

  11. Racquel says:

    Beautiful Saffron Crocuses! I love that you are going to dry the saffron threads & use them in your cooking. I’ve never had fresh saffron either, what a treat for you!

    Hi Racquel, thanks. I have never even bought saffron, so I am a real novice here. But like everything else, there is lots of info on the internet so it will be fun learning how to use it. Hope it lives up to the hype. ;->
    Frances

  12. Lzyjo says:

    They’re beautiful! I’m been wanting to plant some and your post makes it all the more imperative. I once read, pirates would steal saffron from merchant ships because it was worth more than gold and far easier to carry.

    Hi Izyjo, thanks and welcome. Thanks for the heads up about the pirates, I will hide it well if any board my kitchen! ;->
    Frances

  13. tina says:

    You are whetting my appetite too to find out what it tastes like! That is so cool! I have colchium but no saffron. I had no idea. You are the pro with those pictures doing that delicate job.

    Hi Tina, thanks. I am anxious for that first taste too. I will have to find the perfect recipe. I like those colchiums, but they are so expensive for just one bulb, I went with the pack of fifteen species instead. Then learned about the sativus and thought it would be fun to try. I have to laugh about the picture, I was trying to get a shot of the tweezer grasping the red bits, and I missed HA
    Frances

  14. Siria says:

    Hi Frances! I always learn something new here. I use saffron in cooking rice dishes quite a bit as I am of Cuban heritage ~ actually born there. I never really thought of where they came from…very interesting! Enjoy your harvest.

    Hi Siria, thanks. I wondered about your lovely name, that is good to know. We have a small Cuban restaurant in town that we love, the food is so flavorful, the woman is Cuban and her husband is Italian so they have a mix of both cuisines. They only prepare four dishes daily, but they are fresh and delicious and often sell out before I can get in there for takeout! It looks like a rice dish is the way to best use the saffron, any suggestions?
    Frances

  15. Brenda Kula says:

    When I clicked on this post in Google Reader, I actually gasped. That top photo is so beautiful I don’t even have words to paraphrase it.
    Brenda

    Hi Brenda, thanks. The flowers are not large, about the size of a silver dollar, remember those, how about half dollars? Two to three inches in diameter and only six to eight inches tall, similar to the spring crocus I guess I should have said. The purple color is a little more blue than the capture, but they are quite photogenic.
    Frances

  16. nancybond says:

    What a gorgeous little flower — no wonder saffron is so expensive! It seems so magical to have crocus in the fall.

    Hi Nancy, it is fun to have those fall fellars! ;-> I am hoping that a little goes a long way with the harvest.
    Frances

  17. I had Saffron Crocuses, but the slug & sowbugs always destroyed the flowers before they had a chance to bloom. I gave up on them. This year I decided I needed them again, but I delayed too long & missed the WOO (window of opportunity). As we say (too often) in Chicago, “Wait til next year!

    Hi MMD, It has been so dry here that the slugs have been less of a problem, especially in that raised bed. I am experimenting with dryer lint as a slug deterrant, is there spellcheck here? around my prized primroses under the deck. I make a circle around the base with the lint. It looks odd but so far seems to be working. Now I need to dye it brown, hey those walnuts can be put to good use! Maybe a new spot for the saffron crocus next time, fool the insect fiends.
    Frances

  18. deb says:

    Hi Frances, Great post. I had a little saffron crocus a few years ago, but sadly misplaced it. Yes, I am known for misplacing plants. It is probably out there right now blooming and I am missing it. I shall go in search of it right now.

    Hi Debbi, thanks. Hope you found your lost crocus, how funny. ;->
    Frances

  19. Kylee says:

    What an interesting post! I’ve got some fall-blooming crocus, although they haven’t yet broken ground. Last year was the first year they bloomed. The year before, I just got foliage.
    The saffron bloom is gorgeous!

    Hi kylee, thanks. I am so glad to see you came over here to the new place, welcome. Those fall crocus wait and wait and then pop out all at once and bloom right away then are gone. They could be missed if they were in an out of the way spot. I did plant some under a tree out in the garden and they were over run with grape hyacinths. The ones featured are planted where there is no competition, although I did put a few Valerie Finnis grape hyacinths in there too, uh oh! The first year all I got was foliage too, maybe that’s what they do. We shall see if there are flowers next year, hopefully there will be even more. If not, it’s back to the drawing board.
    Frances

  20. Cindy says:

    How very exciting. I can’t wait to hear of your culinary endeavors with the saffron, and how much is actually needed to flavor a dish.

    Hi Cindy, that is something I am not sure about either. I will let it dry first, most of the recipes will surely call for it to be dried. I will have to do some checking, unless someone gives me some tips on using it.
    Frances

  21. Phillip says:

    Very interesting Frances – I didn’t know that saffron came from crocus. You learn something new very day! It is very pretty. I’m tempted to order some for myself. You will have to do a post when you eat them. I don’t think I know what they taste like.

    Hi Phillip, thanks. I have never cooked with saffron before and have been doing some research about how much to use. It looks like 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crumbled dried threads to the liquid of rice or pasta. I found a recipe for saffron aoli that sounded really good. I only know that it makes things yellow. I will do an update after we give it a try.
    Frances

  22. Lola says:

    The pics are lovely Frances. The added bonus of the saffron is great. You sure have a steady hand. I have heard that you use very, very little of Saffron as it is soooo expensive. Do let us know how it turns out.

    Hi Lola, thanks. That’s funny about a steady hand, I am very bad about holding still. That is probably why I have to take so many photos to get one good one. LOL Most of the recipes I have seen call for 1/4 teaspoon of crumbled dried threads. I don’t have very much and the rain today spoiled what few flowers were left. Maybe they will dry out and I can pluck some more. Hope I don’t like it too much, I might have to buy more bulbs, although people have said that they will multiply. I will do a taste test later on.
    Frances

  23. Siria says:

    Hi Frances! That restaurant sounds really GOOD! I bet their food is fabulous. For a rice dish, paella is always tasty and although a recipe might call for certain meat/seafood/shellfish, I would just use what you like. My kids always loved chicken and shrimp, so that is what I usually made mine with. If they weren’t around, I would add other things my husband and I liked. It is a very festive dish. I make mine with Valencia style rice rather than long grain rice. I’m sure you can find it at any grocery store. It is also known as short grain or pearl rice, and is very similar to the rice you would make a risotto with (at my Publix I buy the Mahatma brand). I bet that lovely couple at the restaurant might share some good recipes with you for a paella or risotto dish!

    Hi Siria, it is really good food. The place is very small and nothing fancy. They are only open for lunch since they are downtown and that is where most of their business comes from, courthouse lawyers and such and shopkeepers. I will look for that rice at the store. I have also seen recipes using orzo and couscous, might be interesting.
    Frances

  24. skeeter says:

    Your tweezers reminded me of the childhood game Operation! I was steady and really good at that game so I bet I would be a good saffron harvester..lol…

    Hi Skeeter, now that’s a good one! HA You would definitely be a good harvester. Now all you need is some saffron.
    Frances

  25. Chloe.M says:

    Frances,

    I absolutely LOVE your blog!

    The pictures of the saffron flowers are too beautiful, as are the crocus.

    Chloe

    Hi Chloe, why thank you, what a nice thing to say. The colors of the fall crocus are standouts with the beginnings of leaf changes here.
    Frances

  26. I am GREEN with Envy here, Frances! I planted saffron crocus a few years in a row, with no luck… but then, the darned chipmunks are terrors here. I don’t think that they understand things which are there to impede them… lol.

    By the way, I’m sorry to report that my lily bulbs did NOT produce any viable seed this year. (Boo!) I’ll have to go out with a paintbrush next year and see if I can help them along a bit. Not sure what happened with those, because the short stargazer lookalikes have bursting-full seedpods right now. 😦

    Hi Kim, green becomes you! :-> We don’t have chipmunks but the squirrels are numerous and aggresive with the walnut trees around here that produce huge nuts that need burying. They will dig anywhere the soil is soft. I have been using chickenwire but you might try hardware cloth for the smaller chipmunks. The bamboo skewers were often moved around and I feared the worst. We also have had good luck with cat poop from the litter box put into the vole holes, now there’s a win win. LOL

    Bummer about your lily seeds, maybe next year. I have loads of pods though from the Regales, Golden Splendor and Black Beauty. I can’t wait to see if I can get some to germinate. I appreciate your watching for them anyway.

    Frances

  27. Randy says:

    Frances,
    There is no end to your imagination or talent! I’ve never had saffron before, you have my curiosity peaked now. Wonderful pictures and post. 🙂

    Hi Randy my friend, thanks so much. I am looking forward to having at least one dish prepared with my very own saffron, not knowing what to expect in the way it tastes. I will do an update.
    Frances

  28. What a fun little harvest that was. Must try to get some of those crocus sativus bulbs too if only for the very pretty flowers, the saffron is a wonderful bonus. Happy cooking with your own harvest of saffron, Frances!

    Hi YE, thanks. Key word here being little. There were a couple more flowers yesterday but the rain turned them to mush, not complaining about rain at all. I hope they will dry out enough to add to the meager harvest. I have some recipes at hand with high hopes for delicousness.
    Frances

  29. Patsi says:

    Beautiful !
    Amazing !
    You are definitely entertaining.

    Hi Patsi, thanks so much. Glad you enjoyed it.
    Frances

  30. walk2write says:

    When you mentioned that you put bamboo sticks around the bulbs to remember their location and keep away the squirrels, a picture came to mind of the squirrels sitting down to dine on the bulbs using the bamboo as chopsticks! They’re so clever, it wouldn’t surprise me at all. I love the blue color of the flowers.

    Ha W2W, that is quite a vision. The squirrels are rascals around here and would do such a thing. Two years ago I thought the skewers would keep them out of the containers just planted with pansies, but they just dug them up too. I then went to birch twigs since those drop all the time. That did work but was unsightly. Rocks work the best around the pansies planted in the fall. Chickenwire for bulbs. The squirrels are not around the front as much as the back where there are lots of large trees for them to scamper in, they are my nemesis. Those flowers are actually much bluer, the camera did not capture the true color.
    Frances

  31. Jean says:

    That’s it, I must have some! I love the taste of saffron but had no idea how beautiful the flowers would be. I love those long stigmas but would sacrifice them for my kitchen. 🙂

    Hi Jean, yes do get some. The flowers only last a couple of days anyway and are still pretty without the red stigmas.

    Frances

  32. joey says:

    I am most impressed by this stunning post, Frances. I had no idea how labor intensive harvesting saffron is (it’s a good thing you didn’t sneeze) … and your photos … stunning. You’re an amazing woman!

    Hi Joey, thanks HA for those supportive words. I was worried about sneezing too. It is like when they tell you at the doctor’s office to be perfectly still, I start twitching! I appreciate your sweet comment!
    Frances

  33. Daphne Gould says:

    Wow I never would have even thought I could grow saffron crocus. I had thought they were not very hardy, but it turns out they are. Hmm I’ll have to think about it. Usually my squirrels dig up any crocuses I try to plant, but it would be such a fun and unusual harvest. And they look so pretty.

    Hi Daphne, thanks. Do try the saffron crocus, but be sure and cover them with chickenwire for our squirrels anyway, that freshly disturbed soil is a magnet for them. All of the fall crocus are looking very pretty now and I think the last saffron threads have been plucked. There seems to be such a small pile of them, but should be enough for four or five dishes. Can’t wait to try it out!
    Frances

  34. Debi says:

    WOW!!! WOW!!! I’ve never though we “could” raise our own crop of saffron crocus but baby this sounds like a fun project to try. Thanks for the inspiration, Frances.

    Hi Debi, thanks. Yes do try to grow your own saffron. I have a nice little batch that is drying, emphasis on little, but am excited to try a few dishes using it. And the flowers are quite attractive, all good!
    Frances

  35. Pam/Digging says:

    Very interesting, Frances. I never knew that’s how saffron is harvested. The flowers are prettier with the red stigmas attached, but you are right that they are still nice without.

    Hi Pam, now that is is dried it is such a small amount, too. We need more bulbs!
    Frances

  36. Asieh says:

    Hi, I love saffron 🙂 I like this romantic Spice and its history.
    It would be grateful if you could visit my blog.
    cheers,
    Asieh

    Hi Asieh, thanks for visiting. I have removed the links rather than just spamming this comment.

  37. Somehow I never got around growing or even thinking about herb outside my kitchen. However, I do believe that these gorgeous saffron flowers will inspire me to revamp / rethink my gardening strategy to incorporate eatables such as these.

    Thanks Hanna. The bloom time is quite short, you have to be ready with the tweezers when they start to open. But very pretty.
    Frances

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  40. Golnaz says:

    That is great to know you can grow your own Saffron. Can you please let me know how I can do it also. thank you,

    Thanks. Click on the link to the first post about how the saffron crocus was grown here, Mad About Saffron is the name, the link is in the first caption. Good luck!
    Frances

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