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 nutritional and medicinal value.

Medicinal and Nutritional Information

Quick Facts (Medicinal and Nutritional Information)
  • Medicinal actionSedative
  • Key constituentsCrocin
  • Ways to useCapsules, Food, Freshly ground
  • 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 improve, such as:

  • 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

The main active compound in saffron is crocin, which promotes memory retention. Saffron contains large amounts of carotenoids, including zeaxanthin and lycopene, which are necessary for healthy eyesight and may help relieve arthritis pains.

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 also lessens the effect of inflammatory processes, mainly muscle pain. In addition, the presence of carotenoids helps prevent the damage to the retina caused by vitamin A deficiency.

CROCIN IS A SEDATIVE AND ANXIOLYTIC PHYTONUTRIENT.

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.

Remedies

Main preparations: Capsules, freshly ground, infusions, raw

  • Capsules. In its most concentrated medicinal form, saffron capsules can be used to induce sleep and reduce the negative effects of insomnia due to its presence of gamma-aminobutyric acid, which acts as a sedative. Saffron capsules can also improve memory thanks to its nootropic properties.
  • Freshly ground. When it is freshly ground, saffron has numerous medicinal purposes, which include lowering blood pressure thanks to its hypotensive properties. Its aromatic nature also makes it an aphrodisiac, which increases sex drive.
  • Infusions. When brewed into a hot tea, saffron infusions have powerful sedative properties, which can treat sleep disorders. It can also lower blood pressure due to its hypotensive properties.
  • Raw. It is uncommon to eat saffron stems raw, since they have a bitter taste. Medicinally, however, raw saffron stems can relieve insomnia thanks to its sedative properties, as well as relieve asthma and coughs thanks to its antitussive properties

Food

  • Stamens. In its most commercially popular form, saffron stamens are used medicinally to lower blood pressure thanks to its hypotensive properties, as well as improve memory thanks to its nootropic properties.
  • Flowers. Because saffron's flowers have a sweet, fragrant aroma, they are often considered an aphrodisiac, increasing sex drive in many individuals

Buying

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

Raw saffron is easy to find in most grocery stores or local markets around the world. The most common presentations of raw saffron are either its threads or powdered. The Aquila variety is thought of as the premium saffron, and is characterized by a high safranal and crocin content.

Saffron supplements are mainly found in specialized health stores. In addition, there is a wide variety of saffron supplement choices available through online retailers in both capsule and tablet form. Each brand of saffron supplement may come with different concentrations, so it is important to read labels carefully.

RAW SAFFRON IS EASY TO FIND IN MOST GROCERY STORES OR LOCAL MARKETS AROUND THE WORLD.

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 insect pestsRodents
  • 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 should be planted in well-drained soil that has a pH ranging from 6.0 – 8.0. A layer of approximately eight inches (20 cm) of manure or compost will help saffron development. 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 does best with full sun exposure
  • 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. The Iridaceae family contains other genera of well-known cultivated herbs, such as Freesia, Gladiolus, and Crocus.

  • Varieties and Subspecies 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, Italian varieties are regarded as possessing a more potent aroma, and Iranian saffron is considered the most intense.

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 fifteenth century, saffron counterfeiters in Germany were sentenced to death, since saffron was and still is more valuable than gold.

Bibliography

  • 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
  • The Healing Garden
  • The Contemporary Encyclopedia of Herbs and Spices
  • Mansfeld's Encyclopedia of Agricultural and Horticultural Crops
  • 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
  • National Institutes of Health. ((2006). Crocus sativus L. extracts antagonize memory impairments in different behavioural tasks in the rat Retrieved on June 24, 2016 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16860406
  • National Institutes of Health. (2012). Effectiveness of nootropic drugs with cholinergic activity in treatment of cognitive deficit: a review Retrieved on June 24, 2016 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4863555/
  • National Institutes of Health. (2008). The effect of saffron, Crocus sativus stigma, extract and its constituents, safranal and crocin on sexual behaviors in normal male rats Retrieved on June 24, 2016 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17962007
  • Purdue University. (1997). Saffron Retrieved on June 24, 2016 from https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/med-aro/factsheets/SAFFRON.html
  • Purdue Univeristy. (2010). Healing, Health, and Horticulture: Introduction to the Workshop Retrieved on June 24, 2016 from https://hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/janick-papers/Healing,Health,Hort.Workshop.pdf