Saffron has been valued by many cultures throughout history. Roman emperors would not bathe in water that was not scented with saffron. They also covered the floor of their theaters with the flowers of this valued crocus.
Europeans found use for this plant through classical cuisine. This included gasagage payasa from India, paella from Spain, and Lithuanian krupnikas or spiced honey liqueur from Eastern Europe.
Today, saffron is out of the reach of many cooks due to its cost. It can cost around $70.00 per ounce and for many that means ouch to the culinary budget but it does not have to be this way. The solution to this culinary problem is not complicated or requires a lot of money or skill but instead just a little time.
Saffron or Crocus sativus is a bulb that is easy to grow inside or out. The corms or bulbs can be found in many seed catalogues but to make it worth the gardeners while order at least 50 bulbs or purchase a “starter kit.” Before starting on this gardening endeavor, make sure that garden area is in planting zones 6-9.
A good area to start with is a two-foot by five-foot garden space. Prepare the garden soil so that the soil is well drained with lots of compost. Plant the bulbs or corms six inches apart and three inches deep. To add seasonal color, plant on top of the area with an annual such as Portulaca grandiflora or moss rose and/or assorted types of purslane. Since this crocus only blooms in the fall, planting a colorful annual will help control weeds and add a splash of color.
Once the bulbs or corms are planted, keep the area slightly moist but not wet. This is very important during times of drought. When late summer arrives and many annuals are finishing up, the Crocus sativus will poke its head up first as grass-like foliage and then purple blooms will appear. Newly planted bulbs will only produce one bloom. As the crocus bed ages the bulbs will produce up eight blooms each. After four years the bulbs will need to be dug up and divided.
Growing Crocus sativus is just as easy to grow in a container but make sure there is proper drainage in the container. Place drainage material in the bottom of the container and then place a small amount of soil in the bottom. Then plant the corms of the Crocus sativus in the container and top with an all-purpose potting soil. Place the container in a sunny window or outdoors and wait for the blooms.
To harvest the saffron, pick the flowers in the early morning and pull out the stigmas. Each bloom will produce three scarlet stigmas that can be used fresh or dried. If the gardener wants to dry saffron for later use, place the picked stigmas on a paper towel. Place the paper towel in a warm, dry room for several days. Once the stigmas are completely dry, place in an airtight container and store away from direct sunlight.
While Crocus sativus does take some work it is well worth the effort not only from its colorful blooms but also from a culinary perspective. So take the time this spring and try your hand at growing your own herbal gold or saffron.