Iridaceae (Iris Family)
Forms and Subspecies
A very late-blooming form has been described as the variety Crocus sativus L. var. α autumnalis. The saffron grown in Kashmir is referred to as Crocus sativus L. var. cashmirianus (Bowles 1952). The subspecies Crocus sativus ssp. cartwrightianus is said to be endemic in Greece (Baumann 1982, 158*).
The saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) is the source of the coveted and precious saffron spice, high dosages of which produce opium-like effects. (Woodcut from Tabernaemontanus, Neu Vollkommen Kräuter-Buch, 1731)
Crocus autumnalis Mill.
Crocus luteus L.
Abir (Persian), crocus (Roman), gewürzsafran, hay saffron, karcom (Hebrew), karkom, karkum (Persian), kesar (Sanskrit), kesara (Hindi), kesari, krokos (Greek), krokus, kumkumkesari, plam phool (Pakistani), saffron, saffron crocus, safrankrokus, sn-wt.t (ancient Egyptian), z’afarân (Arabic/Yemen), zafran
The saffron crocus is one of the very oldest of all cultivated plants. A wild form is no longer known (Czygan 1989, 413). Saffron was first mentioned in conjunction with the name of a city on the Euphrates: Azupirano, “Saffron City” (ca. 2300 B.C.E.). The plant was already being cultivated on Crete and Thera (Santorini) during the Minoan period (Basker and Negbi 1983, 228). Because of the plant’s color, the Greek scholar Carl Ruck believes that in Archaic Greece the saffron crocus was used entheogenically as a substitute for fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), which was originally venerated as sacred and eaten ritually (Ruck 1995, 133*). The earliest written record of saffron is presumably in the Iliad and in the Old Testament Song of Songs. The first documentation for Kashmir is from the fifth century B.C.E. (Basker and Negri 1983, 228).
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, saffron was used as an inebriant—certainly, a very expensive one—whose effects were said to be like those of opium (cf. Papaver somniferum). Although it is known that saffron has psychoactive properties, this aspect of the plant has been only little studied. The reason is the still very high price that true saffron commands (in comparison, cocaine is a veritable “middle-class” drug).
Because true saffron has always been extremely expensive, the coveted spice has often been counterfeited. Moreover, the name has been used for a wide variety of plants (Schneider 1974, 1:378*). In ancient times, saffron was an important source of dye, especially for coloring royal garments (Basker and Negbi 1983, 230). Saffron also played a role in perfumery, as Aristophanes has intimated (The Clouds, l.51).
True saffron consists of the stigmas of Crocus sativus. (Photograph: Karl-Christian Lyncker)
In the tenth century, saffron was cultivated in Spain and from there exported into all the countries of Europe (Hooper 1937, 107*). The Upper Valais (Switzerland) is a renowned and venerable area of saffron cultivation. The so-called krummenegga (“saffron fields”) are located there, having been established in 1420 by knights returning from the Crusades. In 1979, following long years of neglect, a saffron guild constituted itself with the aim of reinvigorating saffron cultivation (Vonarburg 1995).
Because the wild form is unknown, only the range of saffron culture can be given. This is established primarily in western Asia, Asia Minor, Turkey, Iran, Greece, India, and Spain.
Propagation occurs vegetatively by the separation of small tubers. The precise methods of cultivation are usually kept secret for economic reasons.
Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, which is why its cultivation has such great economic significance in the areas where it is grown. Twenty thousand stigmas yield a mere 125 g; according to a different calculation, 1 kilo of dried filaments requires some 60,000 flowers or 120,000 to 150,000 stigmas (Vonarburg 1995, 75).
This perennial tuberous plant blooms in the fall. It has very narrow and elongated leaves. The violet-veined flower sits at the end of the stalk. It has three yellow stamens, a thin yellow style, and three long, red, funnel-shaped stigmas that project from the flower.
The saffron crocus is very similar to the meadow saffron (= autumn crocus; Colchicum autumnale L.)109 and is easily confused with it, especially because this plant also blooms in the fall (Bowles 1952).
—Saffron (croci stigma, flores croci, crocus): the brick red stigma held together by a small piece of the style. The dried stigmas are approximately 20 to 40 mm long. They have a strong aromatic scent and a spicy-hot taste.
Two qualities are distinguished:
—Crocus electus (saffron tips, free of the remains of the styles)
—Crocus naturalis (with many pieces of styles)
The stigmas must be kept out of the light and stored in an airtight container, or the volatile essential oil will evaporate and the color will fade.
The entire flower is used for folk medicinal purposes.
Besides the Greek saffron, the Hippocratics mention an “Egyptian saffron” that was used externally. This likely is a reference to yellow safflower (Carthamus tinctorius L.), as the Egyptians themselves did not plant saffron (which they called the “blood of Hercules”). Instead, they imported it from Crete and southwest Asia. The saffron threads are often mistaken for or counterfeited by the petals of the safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) (Norman 1991, 33*). Curcuma (Curcuma longa L., Zingiberaceae) is known as saffron spice as well as Indian saffron. To add to the confusion, the autumn crocus is also known as meadow saffron (Basker and Nagbi 1983, 232).
Preparation and Dosage
In ancient times, saffron was used primarily as a wine additive (cf. Vitis vinifera) that provided an additional inebriating effect (Norman 1991, 33*). Saffron is an important ingredient in laudanum or tinctura opii crocata (cf. Papaver somniferum, soporific sponge). Saffron is also found in the so-called Swedish herb mixes (cf. theriac) as well as Oriental joy pills and other aphrodisiacs. In ancient China, saffron was used as an additive to sake.
A Greek papyrus from the Egyptian Arsinoites (third century B.C.E.) contains a recipe; unfortunately, there is no information about what the mixture should be used for:
The plaster of Dionysus: two drams of copper oxide, three obols of rosebud hearts (perhaps specifically Rosa gallica), three obols of saffron, one-half obol poppy juice (Papaver somniferum), three obols of white (acacia) gum (Gummi arabicum). Stir these (things) in wine as smoothly as possible (and) make ointments, apply. (In Hengstl et al. 1978, 272)
Perhaps this was some type of aphrodisiac ointment, for saffron has always enjoyed a reputation as an aphrodisiac and agent of love.
To date, no risks have been documented at a maximum daily dosage of 1.5 g. Twenty grams is given as a lethal dose, while 10 g can induce abortion (per Monographie der Kommission E; cf. Czygan 1989, 414).
The roots of the ritual use of saffron, which was regarded as sacred, lie in Minoan Crete and Thera, and most likely in the entire range of the Minoan culture. As the many saffron frescoes in different shrines suggest, saffron had an important ritual significance on Crete and Thera. The saffron crocus was apparently associated with the priestly veneration of the Minoan goddess, with the worship of nature, and with fertility. Wall paintings from Thera make it clear that priestesses carried out the saffron harvest (Doumas 1992). It is possible that saffron was also involved in the ritual embalming and preparation of the dead in Egypt.
“To the Aither
—a smoking offering of saffron—
You high-reaching house of Zeus,
Indestructible in eternal power,
Bearer of the stars, the sun,
Vanquisher of all, fire-breathing,
substance which ignites all life!
most noble primeval substance of the universe,
magnificent first seed, bearer of light,
flaming from the fire of the stars—
To you sounds my pleading call:
Oh show your cheerful visage!”
“Emperor Marcus Aurelius bathed in saffron water, because it beautified the skin and supposedly also increased male potency. The celebration halls were adorned with crocuses as an auspicious sign for the orgy that the carousal would hopefully turn into, and crocus flowers were placed in the hair.”
DER MAGISCHE GARTEN [THE MAGICAL GARDEN]
“Saffron, which is often used in the home kitchen to color food dishes, takes the place of opium for children. It is frequently used as an analgesic and antispasmodic, as an agent to promote menstruation and uterine spasms, and externally for inflammations of the glands (breasts), panaritis, hemorrhoidal knots, some eye ailments, and facial pain. In high dosages, it induces abortion.”
HAGERS HANDBUCH DER PHARMAZIEUTISCHEN PRAXIS KOMMENTAR TO THE DEUTSCHE APOTHEKER BUCH, FIRST EDITION
Saffron was sacred to the goddess Hecate, for Orphic hymns invoked the ruler of the shadows as the “sea goddess in saffron robes.” In the Orphic mysteries, part of the cult of Dionysos (cf. Vitis vinifera), saffron was a ritual incense that was burned during the recitation or singing of hymns.
To date, we know of no traditional or ritual use of saffron as a psychoactive substance.
Both the saffron crocus and its harvest are subjects of Minoan wall paintings (Marinatos 1984). The saffron paintings from Thera (Santorini, Xestes 3, Room 3a, first floor) reflect the loving manner in which the plant was treated (Doumas 1992, 152ff.; Douskos 1980).
Garments dyed with saffron have been preserved from antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the early modern period. In contrast, the “saffron yellow” robes that Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka wear are not dyed with true saffron, as has been wrongly assumed (Basker and Negbi 1983).
The novel Die Safranhändlerin [The Saffron Merchantess], by H. Glaesener (1996), provides an amusing description of the world of the medieval spice trade.
The petals of the safflower (Carthamus tinctorius), which do not have any psychoactive effects, are a source of false saffron. (Woodcut from Fuchs, Läebliche abbildung und contrafaytung aller kreüter, 1545)
Saffron is one of the oldest and most used medicines of the Hippocratics. It was said to be an effective antidote for drunkenness (see Vitis vinifera) and to increase male potency. According to Pliny, saffron was a panacea and an aphrodisiac: “It induces sleep, has a gentle effect upon the head, and whets the sex drive” (21.137). For this reason, saffron was also an important ingredient in love drinks in ancient Rome (Mercatante 1980, 50*). During the Renaissance, it was said that smelling a crocus in bloom “expands the heart and the tools of the mind and stimulates to coitus.”
In the mystical medicine of Islam, the following is said about saffron: “It is an excellent agent for the blood and for strengthening the soul. It assuages joint pains and strengthens the sex drive in young men” (Moinuddin 1984, 99*).
Since the Middle Ages, saffron has been used as a remedy for “St. Anthony’s fire” (ergotism; cf. Claviceps purpurea). In Victorian England, it was used to treat constipation and found its way to the source of the problem as an enema (Mercatante 1980, 51*).
In Western medicine, saffron was once used as a nerve calmative and to treat spasms and asthma, but it no longer has any medical significance. In folk medicine, saffron is still used as a sedative and antispasmodic (Czygan 1989, 414). In homeopathy, the mother tincture is prepared from the dried filaments (stigmas) and is used primarily to treat women and children (Vonarburg 1995, 76).
Saffron also found its way into traditional Chinese medicine, where it is used as a psycho-active remedy:
Among the ailments that are generally treated with saffron are depression, constricted feelings in the chest, fear, shock, confusion (mental and emotional disturbances), coughing blood, period pains and other menstrual complaints, blood congestion [accumulation of blood in the capillaries], and abdominal pains following childbirth. Long-term use of saffron can free one from depressions and feelings of anxiety and produce sensations of happiness. (Leung 1995, 186*)
In Baluchistan (Pakistan), 10 g of ground flowers (not just the pistils), which are known as khakhobe, are drunk mornings and evenings in a mixture of liquid yogurt as a remedy for dysentery (Goodman and Ghafoor 1992, 52*). In Yemen, saffron is still used as an aromatic stimulant (Fleurentin and Pelt 1982, 90f.*).
Saffron contains 8 to 13% solid oil and up to 1% essential oil, as well as oleanolic acid derivatives, glycosides, the bitter substance picrocrocine (which when stored transforms into safranal, the aromatic substance that gives saffron its characteristic scent), and crystalline yellow dyes (α-crocine = crocetine-di-β-D-gentiobiosylester, crocetine, and others) (Czygan 1989, 414). Saffron also contains the vitamins riboflavin (100γ/g!) and thiamine (Bhat and Broker 1953). The essential oil has a rather complex structure (Zarghami 1970): “The principal component of the essential oil is safranal, which produces the scent typical of the drug. Safranal is first produced during drying, which is why this step merits particular attention during processing” (Pahlow 1995, 78*).
The psychoactive effects of saffron have been occasionally described as “spasms of laughter” and “delirium” (Vonarburg 1995, 76); “in its effects, saffron comes close to opium [cf. Papaver somniferum]; in low dosages, it excites, cheers, and produces laughter . . . , in contrast, in high dosages it sedates, promotes sleep, sopor” (Most 1843, 536*). The essential oil and its vapors also produce psychoactive effects, which have been described as “a sedative effect upon the brain, sleep-inducing, produc[ing] headaches [and] cheerful delirium, and paralyz[ing] motor nerves. Blindness. Peculiar orgasm” (Roth et al. 1994, 276). Actual reports of direct experiences with the drug are not available, presumably because of its high cost.
Saffron promotes protein digestion because it stimulates enzymatic activity. It also stimulates uterine activity and can thus have abortifacient effects. Saffron has the highest riboflavin content of any plant (as a percentage of weight) and as a result appears to lower cholesterol levels (Basker and Begbi 1983). The extract has stimulating and antispasmodic properties (Hooper 1937, 107*).
Commercial Forms and Regulations
Saffron was formerly an important officinal drug. Today, it is listed only in the ÖAB, Ph. Eur. 1/III and Ph. Helv. VI.* Because it is classified as a spice, saffron is freely available.
Saffron is very often counterfeited for sale. Red or yellow pieces of marigold (Calendula officinalis L.) flowers or dyer’s saffron (= safflower; Carthamus tinctorius L.) are often sold as saffron (even in such producer countries as Greece and Spain). The petals of Tagetes spp. (American saffron) have also appeared in trade. Paprika powder (Capsicum fructescens) and curcuma (Curcuma longa L.) are frequently sold as ground saffron. The red coloration is often achieved using red sandalwood (Pterocarpus santalinus L.f.). Saffron powder may also be made heavier by the addition of very dense additives (barium sulfate, brick dust, glycerol) (Czygan 1989, 415).
Basker, D., and M. Negbi. 1983. Uses of saffron. Economic Botany 37 (2): 228–36.
Bhat, J. V., and R. Broker. 1953. Riboflavine and thiamine content of saffron, Crocus sativus L. Nature 172:544.
Bowles, E. H. 1952. A handbook of Crocus and Colchicum. London: Bodley Head.
Czygan, Franz-Christian. 1989. Safran. In Teedrogen, ed. Max Wichtl, 413–15. Stuttgart: WVG.
Doumas, Christos. 1992. The wall-paintings of Thera. Athens: The Thera Foundation.
Douskos, I. 1980. The crocuses of Santorini. In Thera and the Aegean world, ed. C. Doumas, 2:141–46. London.
Glaesener, Helga. 1996. Die Safranhändlerin. Munich: List.
J. Hengstl, ed., with G. Häge and H. Kühnert. 1978. Griechische Papyri aus Ägypten als Zeugnisse des öffentlichen und privaten Lebens. Munich.
Madan, C. L., B. M. Kapur, and U. S. Gupta. 1966. Saffron. Economic Botany 20:377–85.
Marinatos, Nannto. 1984. Art and religion in Thera: Reconstructing a Bronze Age society. Athens: Mathioulakis.
Nauriyal, J. P., R. Gupta, and C. K. George. 1977. Saffron in India. Arecanut Spices Bulletin 8:59–72.
Pfander, H., and F. Wittwer. 1975. Untersuchungen zur Carotinoid-Zusammensetzung im Safran. Helvetica Chimica Acta 58:1608–20.
Vonarburg, Bruno. 1995. Homöopathisches Pflanzenbrevier 19: Crocus sativus. Natürlich 15 (10): 75–78.
Zarghami, N. S. 1970. The volatile constituents of saffron (Crocus sativus L.). PhD thesis, University of California, Davis.
The saffron crocus in bloom, photographed in its cultivation area in Valais, Switzerland. (Photograph: Walter Imber)
* Editor’s note: These are all European pharmacopoeias.