You already know saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world. It’s used in cooking — although when shelling out that kind of money for a seasoning agent, we should probably call it something other than “cooking,” like gastronomic fabrication or something else appropriately impressive. This little plant was once a popular fabric dye, and it also has medicinal value. Because it’s so costly, many gardeners believe it’s difficult to grow. Not true. Saffron is actually pretty easy to grow under the right conditions, which can be approximated (using useful cheats) a number of ways.
|Saffron bulbs (actually corms)|
Saffron is expensive because harvesting it in volume is a labor intensive, painstaking process. This isn’t a big deal for the casual gardener interested in growing a few dozen specimens, though. Follow me on an exploration of the undisputed queen of spices. As it’s an autumn blooming plant, you still have time to source stock and start your own saffron production project. If you’ve ever balked at spending a small fortune for cardamom pods, vanilla beans or that good cinnamon, you’ll love being able to grow saffron. The flavor is exceptional, and a pile of threads makes a nice gift for the cooks (sorry, chefs) in your extended family.
How to Grow Saffron Successfully
Saffron (Crocus sativus) can be cultivated outdoors in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 6 through 9. It will tolerate snow and cold temperatures to around 15 degrees Fahrenheit. During summer and early autumn, it requires heat and bright sunlight as well as rich soil that drains exceptionally well.
|Saffron going dormant|
Plants go dormant from about mid-April to August, give or take, and during that time should remain relatively dry (more on this in a minute). The bulbs become active again in late August to September, and flower in October through November. Plants have narrow, grass-like leaves with a slim, white stripe at the center of each. After the leaves develop, a small lavender flower appears, sporting three bright red stigmas. These are the useful part of the plant.
In late August, plant new bulbs 4 inches apart to a depth of 4 to 6 inches Water sparingly until leaves emerge, which can take up to 4 weeks.
Harvest stigmas from new flowers, and retain plants in place until all leaves decline and turn tan in March to April. Trim leaves away, and say goodnight to plants until August.
Tips and Workarounds
When growing saffron, there are some gotchas you should know about:
|First saffron bloom of the season|
1: Let bulbs sleep warm and dry. When saffron bulbs are dormant from April to August, they don’t like to get too wet. If you live where summer downpours are common, placing saffron directly in the soil can be risky. Instead, place the bulbs in a pot or other container, and cover it with a tarp during prolonged wet weather. A few showers are okay. If you keep an umbrella in your car all summer “just in case,” you may have cause to worry and should take the container approach.
2. Keep critters away. Saffron is a delicacy for garden critters, too. If you have problems keeping furry marauders away from your tulips, your saffron will be at risk unless you’re willing to place bulbs in a cage or other protective contraption — or keep them in a pot.
3. Avoid standing water. Saffron bulbs rot quickly in standing water. If you have heavy clay soil, it will require loosening with sand, and choose the highest sunny ground on your property.
4. Harvest like a pro. Saffron flowers appear quickly, and the stigmas are at their most flavorful within the first day or so of blooming. That means checking every morning and harvesting as needed throughout the season. Allow stigmas to dry for a week in a warm, dark place with good ventilation and no wind. (They’re light and blow away in even a faint breeze. You don’t want to be chasing them across the floor — believe me.)
5. Harvests can be small. It takes the stigmas from about 10 flowers (30 or so stigmas) for most recipes. You can do the math to determine your needs.
My Saffron Growing System
|Harvested Stigmas – Fresh (lower left) Dried (upper right)|
For my own setup, I’ve planted saffron in tubs with lids that I can stack. I hate to admit it, but these are plastic kitty litter tubs. When plants go dormant in April, I let the soil dry out, cover the tubs (each has a series of side holes drilled for ventilation) and put them under my deck. I water them once a month, or so. In August, I drag them out, take the covers off and water them every couple of days unless a kindly shower does the honors for me. This has worked since my outdoor specimens succumbed to a very wet spring and summer a couple of years ago. I’ve also considered just stacking the tubs in the garage during the dormant stage.
If you choose one new herb to grow this season, make it saffron. It’s fun and special. It brews into a delicious tea, and you’ll be able to make that type of lavish saffron choice if you grow it yourself. Oh, and if you have to start small with 10 or 20 bulbs, don’t feel too badly, dried saffron can last up to 5 years, so you can accumulate a stash. Once you try it with rice or fish, though, you’ll really want more — and more.
Pre-Order 2016 for 16 Pcs Saffron Bulbs – Get Beautifull Flowers and Your Own Spice (Fresh 2016 Delivey in June direct from our organic garden) Crocus Sativus Corms
Flowering Saffron Crocus – Courtesy of Flickr User Douglas Sprott https://www.flickr.com/photos/dugspr/6843968437/in/photolist
Saffron Bulbs — Courtesy of Flickr User Graibeard https://www.flickr.com/photos/graibeard/4485715720/in/photolist
All other photos by the author