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How to Grow Saffron
Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice. It has beautiful golden-red threads and a pound of dried saffron goes for about $5,000, about 25 percent of the price of a pound of gold. Thankfully, saffron is sold by the gram.
Saffron is collected from the stigma of one type of flower: the blue saffron crocus. It is quite easy to understand why saffron is the most expensive spice in the world when you consider that it takes 80,000 crocus flowers and a quarter million dried stigmas to produce one pound of saffron!
One of the things that make saffron so expensive is the labor involved in harvest and the sheer acreage needed to produce even a small amount. Approximately eighty thousand flowers, or a football field-sized patch, must be grown to produce just one pound. During the two-week season of harvest, the flowers must be picked each morning and hand-plucked of the three stigmas in each blossom.
**It makes sense to grow your own saffron. It is a pretty easy plant to grow (so long as you keep it on the dry side from September until harvest time in late October), it has beautiful flowers, and the plant multiplies each year so you will get more and more saffron as the years go on. Also, who doesn’t love purple flowers and green foliage in the late fall?!
**A standard starter kit of 50 saffron bulbs will cost around $40 or $50, and will produce less than a tablespoon of seasoning from the first harvest. Each year, however, you will get more blossoms and more saffron from these bulbs, increasing from one or two blooms per bulb the first year, to eight blooms or more by the third year.
**The bulbs, otherwise known as corms, are planted in late spring, 4–6 in deep in well-prepared, well-drained soil, in full sun or only partially shaded sites.
**Saffron can be grown successfully in zones 6-9. It originally grew in a dry Mediterranean climate, so if you have a colder, wetter climate, you will simply need to take more precautions.
**You can either grow a patch of these pretty flowers by themselves, or you can place them with lettuces, cucumbers, or radishes, i.e. plants that flourish when the blue saffron crocus is dormant. It is dormant from June until early September.
**Saffron Crocus can be grown in areas with colder winters than Zone 6, but the corms must be lifted and brought indoors for the winter. After the first few frosts, but before the ground has frozen solid, carefully dig out the corms, place them in a wooden crate or plastic tub, and completely cover with dry peat moss or sand. Store in a cool dry place, such as a basement. Plant them out again in the spring after all danger of frost has passed, but do not water until you see new growth in early autumn.
**About 40 bulbs will yield a tablespoon’s worth of stigmas in a season. You will usually use about 10 stigmas per recipe. Each plant gives you three stigmas, so you will start out with enough saffron for approximately 6 recipes after your first season.
**The plants propagate quickly so your yields will grow fast after each year. By the third year, you will probably be giving saffron threads away to neighbors and friends. Corms multiply from one year to the next, from one corm one can get 5 corms after 3 years.
**This crocus is unique because most crocus flowers bloom in early spring and blue saffron crocus blooms in the late fall, usually around Halloween (late October). You need to prevent high humidity and/or hard frost at flowering time, a period of only about three weeks.
**It is a good idea to divide your crocus plants every four years or so. This will help out the health of the plants.
**Like other bulb plants, pests such as rabbits, mice, squirrels, and moles love this plant and will eat your bulbs if they can. Use similar strategies to those you use for other bulb plants to prevent these problems. This includes burying chicken wire both under and over your bulbs, fencing, etc.
**The only other problem for this plant is fungus issues. This happens if the plant gets too much water from September until harvest. Simply prevent too much water damage in the fall season and you should not have any problems.
**After blooming has finished for the season, leave the foliage in place. Do not cut it off! The leaves will gather sunlight, create food through photosynthesis, and strengthen the bulbs for the future.
**If, late in the season, the leaves yellow and die back, the foliage may be removed at this point. Your bulbs will rest for a few months before beginning the next growing cycle. In warmer areas, the foliage may stay green until mid-spring when it will yellow and die back. When leaves are absent and the bulbs are dormant, withhold water.
**If you only have a small crop of blue saffron crocus plants, you can harvest by taking tweezers to each plant and plucking out the three stigmas.
**If you have a larger crop, you can pick the flowers once they have bloomed and use the tweezers to pluck out the stigmas while sitting somewhere comfortably.
**Pick the red stigmas (not the yellow parts) of the plant, and dry them in your oven or in a dehydrator.
**You can also use them fresh for cooking if you want.
**Another simple way to dry them is to place the threads on a piece of paper towel for several days in a warm, dry place until they are fully dried.
**Saffron will peak in taste if you let it be stored away for one month before use.
**Store saffron in a dark, cool location in an air tight bottle (brown or cobalt tinted bottles are best). When properly stored, saffron will stay potent for three years or possibly longer.
**To use saffron, steep the threads in hot liquid (water, broth, or milk, depending on the recipe) for about 20 minutes. Add both the threads and the steeping liquid early in the cooking or baking process, and the threads will continue to release their color and flavor.
I hope you enjoyed my information on How to Grow Saffron! Don’t forget to check out the rest of my Spice Series! Also, check out more about the culinary uses of Saffron and the medicinal benefits of Saffron here.