Saffron

Typically seen as a luxury spice, saffron also has medicinal value. Explore this plant's history, lore, practical uses, how to grow it, and more.

Quick Facts
General Information
  • Common name(s)Saffron, saffron crocus
  • Scientific nameCrocus sativus
  • Plant typeHerb
  • Native regionNorth Africa/Middle East
  • Main producer(s)Iran
  • Main Economic UseCulinary
Saffron

Saffron came originally from Europe and Asia, and it has been domesticated and cultivated by humans since ancient times. Nowadays, many people and most high-end restaurants around the world keep it in their kitchens in order to take advantage of its color and taste, although they may not be familiar with its immense medicinal value.

Saffron Medicinal Properties

Quick Facts (Medicinal Properties)
  • Medicinal actionHypotensive, Sedative
  • Key constituentsCrocin
  • Ways to useCapsules, Hot infusions/tisanes, Food, Freshly ground, Powder, Essential oil, Dried
  • Medicinal rating(3) Reasonably useful plant
  • Safety rankingSafe

Health Benefits of Saffron

Considered one of the most expensive herbs in the modern world, saffron is not only aromatic, it has numerous medicinal purposes, such as:

  • Inducing sleep. Saffron has sedative effects that not only induce, but can improve overall quality of sleep.

  • Lowering blood pressure. Studies show that saffron can lower blood pressure for those suffering from hypertension.

In addition, many recent studies have shown saffron can be of help for:

  • Relieving asthma. Taking saffron medicinally can relieve coughs and asthma symptoms.

  • Increasing sex drive. Saffron's aromatic properties can increase libido in some individuals.

  • Improving memory. Studies have shown that incorporating saffron into your diet can help improve memory and other mental functions.

How It Works

Saffron contains more than 150 volatile compounds, mainly terpenes, terpene alcohol, and their esters. However, the main active compound in saffron is crocin, responsible for the color and most of the pharmacological effects of the herb.

Saffron has mainly anti-inflammatory and mildly sedative properties, thanks to the action of crocin on GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) production. GABA is the main neurotransmitter in charge of lowering excitable activity in the central nervous system, which in turn induces sleep and lowers anxiety symptoms. At the same time, crocin lessens the effect of inflammatory processes, mainly muscle pain, and also helps reduce blood pressure.

In addition, saffron contains large amounts of carotenoids, including zeaxanthin and lycopene, which are necessary for healthy eyesight and may help relieve arthritis pains.

Saffron reduce the negative effects of insomnia due to the presence of crocin, which acts as a sedative.

Lemon balm and valerian are herbs with similar sedative properties, and are often used, alone or combined with other plants, for treating sleep disorders and anxiety.

Saffron Side Effects

Saffron is likely safe for most individuals when taken medicinally. Potential side effects include dry mouth, anxiety, dizziness, drowsiness, nausea, upset stomach, change in appetite, and headaches. Excessive saffron dosages can trigger severe reactions, including the yellowing of the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes, as well as vomiting and diarrhea.

Cautions

  • Individuals heart conditions or low blood pressure should exercise caution when taking saffron, since it can lower blood pressure.

  • Because saffron can affect mood, individuals with bipolar disorder should consult a physician before taking saffron medicinally, since it can interact with certain medications.

  • Individuals who are allergic to lolium, olea (includes olive), and salsola plant species should exercise caution when taking saffron, since it can trigger allergic reactions.

  • Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should consult a physician before taking saffron medicinally since excessive amounts can cause irregular vaginal bleeding.

How to Consume Saffron

Quick Facts (How to Consume)
  • Edible partsFlowers
  • Edible usesFlavoring, Coloring
  • TasteEarthy

The most effective way of obtaining the health benefits of saffron is in medicinal forms of consumption, where the properties are more concentrated. However, as it is a very popular spice, some of its benefits can be reaped consuming it with food.

Natural Forms

  • Raw. Both fresh stems and flowers of saffron can relieve insomnia and improve libido, as well as soothing asthma and coughs.

  • Freshly ground. When it is freshly ground, saffron can help regulate blood pressure and increases sex drive.

  • Infusions. When steeped in hot water, saffron sedative properties, can help treat sleep disorders. This preparation also lowers blood pressure.

Herbal Remedies & Supplements

  • Essential oil. This product of saffron flowers' steam distillation is commonly used as a mild sedative and anti-depressive, as well as for the for the topical treatment of acne.

  • Capsules. In its most concentrated medicinal form, saffron capsules can be used to induce sleep. In supplemental form, saffron can also help improve memory.

Buying

Quick Facts (Buying)
  • Where to buySupermarkets, Online herb stores

Natural Forms

Raw saffron is easy to find in most grocery stores or local markets around the world. The most common presentations of saffron are either in threads or powdered.

Herbal Remedies & Supplements

Saffron essential oil, as well as saffron capsules, can be purchased in specialized health stores or through online retailers. Each brand of saffron supplement may come with different concentrations, so it is important to read labels carefully.

Growing

Quick Facts (Growing)
  • Life cycleAnnual
  • Harvested partsFlowers
  • Light requirementsFull sun
  • SoilLoamy sand
  • Soil pH6.1 – 6.5 (Slightly acidic), 6.6 – 7.3 (Neutral), 7.4 – 7.8 (Slightly alkaline)
  • Growing habitatTemperate climates
  • USDA Plant Hardiness Zones6a (From −23.3 °C (−10 °F) to −20.6 °C (−5 °F)), 6b (From −20.6 °C (−5 °F) to −17.8 °C (0 °F)), 7a (From −17.8 °C (0 °F) to −15 °C (5 °F)), 7b (From −15 °C (5 °F) to −12.2 °C (10 °F)), 8a (From −12.2 °C (10 °F) to −9.4 °C (15 °F)), 8b (From −9.4 °C (15 °F) to −6.7 °C (20 °F))
  • Propagation techniquesCuttings
  • Potential diseasesRoot rot

For those who wish to cultivate this beautiful plant, saffron is quite easy to grow. Because of its expense and relative ease of growth, growing saffron can be an attractive option for gardeners. Learn more about how to grow saffron in the growing guidelines below:

Growing Guidelines

  • Saffron does best in temperate regions, with full sun exposure.

  • Saffron should be planted in well-drained soil, with a pH of 6.0 - 8.0. If saffron crocus is planted in swampy or poor draining soil, it will rot.

  • Saffron grows best in hot and dry conditions, though it can survive winters as cold as -10°C (14°F).

  • It should be planted four inches (10 cm) deep, and seeds should be separated four to six inches (10 - 15 cm) away from each other.

  • Saffron is high susceptible to fungus contamination, so it is important to check for it regularly.

Additional Information

Plant Biology

Saffron, known primarily as one of the most expensive spices in the world, has numerous characteristics that make it incredibly distinctive. Growing up to 8 to 12 inches (2030 cm), and sprouts 5 to 11 white, non-photosynthetic leaves known as cataphylls. Its flowers are sweet, fragrant smelling are typically purple, ranging from light lilac to darker mauve in shade. The flowers typically bloom in the autumn months.

  • Classification

    Scientifically known as Crocus sativus, saffron is a member of the Iridaceae family, which contains perennial plants that have either a bulb, rhizome, or corm, including approximately 1,500 species, some of them  well-known ornamental herbs, such as Irises, Crocus, an Freesia.

  • Varieties of Saffron

    Saffron species are often regionally distributed and characteristically distinct, but most fall within the Spanish, Iranian, or Italian varieties. Among culinary connoisseurs, the saffron varieties produced in Spain are prized for their mellower flavor, while the Italian varieties are regarded as possessing a more potent aroma, and the Iranian saffron is considered the most intense. The 'Aquila' variety is regarded as the premium saffron, and it is characterized by a high safranal and crocin content.

Historical Information

Researchers believe its use as a food crop can be traced back to temperate regions of Greece approximately 3,500 years ago. During prehistoric times, it was used in pigments for depictions on ancient constructions. There is documented evidence of saffron being used to treat over 90 illnesses over the course of 4,000 years. In the 10th century BCE, saffron was woven into fabrics, and in 500 BCE, it began being used throughout South Asia in different foods. During the times of the Roman Empire, saffron started gaining popularity in Europe, and it subsequently spread throughout the rest of the world.

Economic Data

Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. Most of the world's saffron is grown east of the Mediterranean, though small amounts are grown in every continent in the world, aside from Antarctica. Annually, about 660,000 pounds (300,000 kg) of saffron are gleaned. Iran is the top producer of saffron, accounting for over 90% of it, followed by Greece, Kashmir, and Morocco. Saffron's stamens are the most commercialized part of this plant. However, all parts of the plant are sold commercially.

Because of how expensive it is, many crooks have sold fake saffron to turn huge profits. In the 15th century, saffron counterfeiters in Germany were sentenced to death, since saffron was, and still is, more valuable than gold.

Bibliography

  • Phytomedicine, The effect of saffron, Crocus sativus stigma, extract and its constituents, safranal and crocin on sexual behaviors in normal male rats, 2008
  • Iranian Journal of Basic Medical Sciences, Safety Evaluation of Crocin (a constituent of saffron) Tablets in Healthy Volunteers, 2013
  • Herbs: An Indexed Bibliography
  • Journal of Experimental Pharmacology, Effectiveness of nootropic drugs with cholinergic activity in treatment of cognitive deficit: a review
  • Behavioural Brain Research, Crocus sativus L. extracts antagonize memory impairments in different behavioural tasks in the rat, 2006
  • Pharmacognosy Review, Crocus sativus L.: A comprehensive review
  • HortScience, Healing, Health, and Horticulture: Introduction to the Workshop, 2010
  • International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Crocus sativus L. (Saffron) in the Treatment of Premenstrual Syndrome: A Double-Blind, Randomised, and Placebo-Controlled Trial, 2008
  • Mansfeld's Encyclopedia of Agricultural and Horticultural Crops
  • The Contemporary Encyclopedia of Herbs and Spices
  • The Healing Garden
  • Nutrition Journal, Satiereal, a Crocus sativus L. Extract, Reduces Snacking and Increases Satiety in a Randomised Placebo-Controlled Study of Mildly Overweight, Healthy Women, 2010