Crop Showcase: Saffron

Here at the high tunnels, we cultivate a wide variety of plants, including these unremarkable looking tufts of grass that may just be weeds…

Just kidding. These are the foliage of Crocus sativus, an autumn-flowering plant that produces the spice saffron. The harvested portion of the spice are the vibrant red-orange styles, which conduct pollen from the stigmata to the ovaries. Each saffron flower will only produce 3 tiny styles, and each must be picked by hand. This combination of low yield and intensive labor make this the most expensive spice in the world by weight.

The history of saffron stretches back more than 3000 years, when it is estimated to have been domesticated from the wild Crocus cartwrightianus, from sources either near the Mediterranean or Central Asia. In that time, saffron has become unique from other crocuses in that it has 3 sets of chromosomes, known as triploid. This makes the plant male sterile and therefore unable to reproduce sexually. Cultivation of the saffron crocus therefore relies on dividing the corms, which are underground stems, to propagate new plants. Besides its use as a spice, saffron has long been used as both an internal and external medicine, a dye, a cosmetic, an aphrodisiac, and as an item for religious offerings.

The plant was widely grown throughout Europe, North Africa and Asia throughout the Classical era, but waned in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. Cultivation was subsequently revived 13th century and shortly after the demand for saffron as medicine skyrocketed during the Black Plague, where it was thought to be a cure. Saffron was first brought to America by European settlers around 1730, and cultivation has continued in small quantities to this day.

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