schwarz profile image

Cultivating Saffron

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Growing the Most Expensive Spice in the World

When I happen to mention that I'm growing my own saffron, most people are really surprised. There's something about the idea of spices that automatically transmits mental images of faraway places and really hot climates. Or something like that.

However it is a very real fact that in the Pacific Northwest of the USA it is completely possible to grow saffron. Yep, that saffron: the most expensive spice in the whole world.

As a hobby gardener, it's neither difficult nor too expensive to give this a try, so if you are curious, please read on to see how I got started, how to get a saffron bed ready, what growing is like, and when and how to harvest. And let's not forget a few comments on cooking and eating either...

Know Your Saffron Crocus

crocus blossom, photo by Relache
See all 17 photos
crocus blossom, photo by Relache

You don't want to confuse the saffron crocus for other species. Namely because the other varietals can be poisonous if eaten. Saffron crocus are known by the Latin name Crocus sativa or Crocus sativus. They bloom in the fall, anywhere from late September to early November depending on your regional climate.

As you are going for a productive crop here, and not just something decorative, these aren't the sorts of bulbs you want to put into containers. They really need more depth and room if they are going to do their spicy thing. Also, they can be damaged by cold over the winter if you have them in pots. Saffron goes dormant in the summer and you don't have to worry about watering then. You do have to worry if you don't have good drainage as these bulbs can rot if they get too moist during their off-season.

My very first attempt was in a large outdoor container and after planting them a year earlier.... nothing happened! I dug up the container to try and see what happened, but couldn't find a single bulb. Either they rotted away completely, or squirrels dug them up and ate them without leaving a hole in the dirt or any sort of sign. It was an unsatisfactory first year to say the least.

Just What Makes Saffron So Precious? - it's a spice, a dye and a medicine

Saffron (Crocus sativus): Production and Processing
Saffron (Crocus sativus): Production and Processing

It's hard to say just what made saffron so precious right from the start, but the more that people learn about it, the more valuable it seems to become. This book will give you a total overview of all the uses for saffron, and an extremely detailed guide to how it is produced.

 

The Growing Process - Here's a gallery showing how I got started with the growing process

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The part of my front yard garden I chose for my saffron bed was really weedy.  You need to dig down 18" deep and make sure you get rid of everything.In addition to removing all the weeds, and roots of weeds, you also need to remove and sift out the rocks from your saffron bed.This leaves you with an area where your bulbs won't have to compete and won't get attacked.After you clean the soil, you will want to add some nutrients.  I mixed in some compost, and some general bulb food.My saffron guru (my farmers market guy who I got my bulbs from) also told me to add some lime as he says the bulbs "like it a little sweet."Here are the crocus babies themselves!  They want to be planted a good six inches down, and about 4 inches apart.  They will multiply over time.That first year most of my bulbs didn't have the energy to bloom (having just been planted) but I got lots of nice shoots so I knew they were okay.One little crocus DID bloom that first year, and my total harvest came to three tiny threads of dark orange saffron.
The part of my front yard garden I chose for my saffron bed was really weedy.  You need to dig down 18" deep and make sure you get rid of everything.
See all 17 photos
The part of my front yard garden I chose for my saffron bed was really weedy. You need to dig down 18" deep and make sure you get rid of everything.
In addition to removing all the weeds, and roots of weeds, you also need to remove and sift out the rocks from your saffron bed.
See all 17 photos
In addition to removing all the weeds, and roots of weeds, you also need to remove and sift out the rocks from your saffron bed.
This leaves you with an area where your bulbs won't have to compete and won't get attacked.
See all 17 photos
This leaves you with an area where your bulbs won't have to compete and won't get attacked.
After you clean the soil, you will want to add some nutrients.  I mixed in some compost, and some general bulb food.
See all 17 photos
After you clean the soil, you will want to add some nutrients. I mixed in some compost, and some general bulb food.
My saffron guru (my farmers market guy who I got my bulbs from) also told me to add some lime as he says the bulbs "like it a little sweet."
See all 17 photos
My saffron guru (my farmers market guy who I got my bulbs from) also told me to add some lime as he says the bulbs "like it a little sweet."
Here are the crocus babies themselves!  They want to be planted a good six inches down, and about 4 inches apart.  They will multiply over time.
See all 17 photos
Here are the crocus babies themselves! They want to be planted a good six inches down, and about 4 inches apart. They will multiply over time.
That first year most of my bulbs didn't have the energy to bloom (having just been planted) but I got lots of nice shoots so I knew they were okay.
See all 17 photos
That first year most of my bulbs didn't have the energy to bloom (having just been planted) but I got lots of nice shoots so I knew they were okay.
One little crocus DID bloom that first year, and my total harvest came to three tiny threads of dark orange saffron.
See all 17 photos
One little crocus DID bloom that first year, and my total harvest came to three tiny threads of dark orange saffron.

Saffron Tutorials

Here are some video guides to the different parts of the saffron growing process. Everybody does it a little bit differently so it's great to get a few different points of view.

Weeding: Your Key to Growing Success

When it comes to saffron, the most important part of the tending/growing process is weeding. The bulbs are dormant for the majority of the year and you need to protect them. Weeds will not only gobble up nutrients in the soil, but the biggest danger is having your bulbs pierced by shoots of grass growing underground. Keeping your saffron bed weed-free in the off-season can be a big chore, but it pays off!

Harvesting Your Saffron - from blossom to picking

Click thumbnail to view full-size
In the fall, you will start to see the saffron shoots coming up.  They are just little white spikes at first, then green leaves appear.The blossoms can take a day or two to follow the leaves, and that will depend on your rain vs sun.  They go faster if it warms up.One the day the flowers open fully, you will want to harvest the stigmas.  Some people use tweezers, some use their fingers.The bulbs can take a couple of weeks for all to open, depending on your weather and how many bulbs you have planted.  Harvest daily until done.Keep the picked threads safe from blowing around, and make sure they can breathe and they'll dry very quickly on their own.
In the fall, you will start to see the saffron shoots coming up.  They are just little white spikes at first, then green leaves appear.
See all 17 photos
In the fall, you will start to see the saffron shoots coming up. They are just little white spikes at first, then green leaves appear.
The blossoms can take a day or two to follow the leaves, and that will depend on your rain vs sun.  They go faster if it warms up.
See all 17 photos
The blossoms can take a day or two to follow the leaves, and that will depend on your rain vs sun. They go faster if it warms up.
One the day the flowers open fully, you will want to harvest the stigmas.  Some people use tweezers, some use their fingers.
See all 17 photos
One the day the flowers open fully, you will want to harvest the stigmas. Some people use tweezers, some use their fingers.
The bulbs can take a couple of weeks for all to open, depending on your weather and how many bulbs you have planted.  Harvest daily until done.
See all 17 photos
The bulbs can take a couple of weeks for all to open, depending on your weather and how many bulbs you have planted. Harvest daily until done.
Keep the picked threads safe from blowing around, and make sure they can breathe and they'll dry very quickly on their own.
See all 17 photos
Keep the picked threads safe from blowing around, and make sure they can breathe and they'll dry very quickly on their own.

Drying Your Spice - really, it's super easy

saffron threads, photo by Relache
See all 17 photos
saffron threads, photo by Relache

Measuring Saffron

Libertyware Dash, Drop, Smidgen, Pinch, Tad Measuring Spoon Set
Libertyware Dash, Drop, Smidgen, Pinch, Tad Measuring Spoon Set

If there's one thing that's common to just about any recipe where you use saffron, it's that you don't ever use a lot of it. All those teeny-tiny amounts can be confusing to cooks, and a majority of people who cook with this exotic spice most often confess that when it comes to the measuring part, they sort of guess and wing it.

Unless your recipe states you need a specific number of threads, the best way to measure your saffron is to powder it (grind it up) and then measure with spoons made for very small amounts.

 

Measuring Saffron

If there's one thing that's common to just about any recipe where you use saffron, it's that you don't ever use a lot of it. All those teeny-tiny amounts can be confusing to cooks, and a majority of people who cook with this exotic spice most often confess that when it comes to the measuring part, they sort of guess and wing it.

How To Use Your Spice

saffron harvest, photo by Relache
See all 17 photos
saffron harvest, photo by Relache

For most people, growing their own saffron is going to be fun and will bring them a small amount of saffron for their home cooking. If you happen to have acreage, and can cultivate thousands of bulbs, you might consider selling your saffron to restaurants. In order to be able to go into the saffron biz, you need acreage devoted to this tiny flower.

What you see here is the total of my first year's harvest. If I had a kitchen scale that measured tenths or hundredths of a gram I would be able to tell you exactly what my yield was, but with what I have, the answer is "not even a gram."

It takes somewhere between 50,000 and 75,000 flowers to get enough stigmas harvested to make a pound of saffron. The market prices per ounce of saffron are higher than the price for an ounce of gold.

Saffron bulbs do multiply over the years. You will want to dig up the bulbs and split them every three years. Some people choose to replant their crop, expanding the corm patch every few years, while others find that they prefer to sell the bulbs to other interested gardeners.

Are you giving growing saffron a try? What did you get when you tried cultivating your own saffron? I shared my story above, please share a bit of yours!

I'm open to questions, just remember I only know about this stuff from my own experiences and can't speak more broadly for other growing regions or comment on conditions where I've never lived. For those sorts of questions, your best advice will come from garden experts in your area. I get a lot of my own free gardening help by asking at my neighborhood garden center, consulting with farmer's market resources and using local university guides online.

And in case you were wondering, here's what my saffron is doing now.

 Last updated on September 9, 2014

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Anyone else growing saffron? - or got a question about it? 73 comments

qikey1 lm profile image

qikey1 lm 12 months ago

Wow! I had an interest in trying to grow saffron some years back and couldn't find information on it and lookie here! They are such pretty little things. Interesting that they bloom in the fall. I am bookmarking this lens for winter time when I might have some time to consider growing my own..and revamping my search for bulbs as well :) Loved this lens..it certainly distracted me from a task that I really SHOULD be doing!! :D


qikey1 lm profile image

qikey1 lm 12 months ago

Oh wow I just noticed the link -I can purchase the bulbs on Amazon! Definitely planning a container for next spring! How much sun do they like? Thanks again!


schwarz profile image

schwarz 12 months ago from Seattle, WA Hub Author

@qikey1 lm: I've got mine planted in our south-facing front yard because anywhere else is just too dark. Then again, you need to remember, I'm way north in WA State. You will need to check what is best for where you are located.


qikey1 lm profile image

qikey1 lm 12 months ago

@schwarz: I am in a similar climate zone...I used to live close by on the other side of the border...near Abbotsford BC..so if you are anywhere close to that I am familiar with the climate :) I know just where I am going to put them then! Have you considered..or have you planted other bulbs with them that bloom at different times of year? I might try something like that..I will have to research further :)


schwarz profile image

schwarz 12 months ago from Seattle, WA Hub Author

@qikey1 lm: I'm growing them as a serious crop, and if you actually read the lens, I explain how they can be inhibited or damaged by other plants. Now, if you just want to mess around with growing them and not be serious, you can do whatever you want. But the guy who I get my info from makes his main living growing saffron, and he told me not to companion-plant it, so that's what I did.


qikey1 lm profile image

qikey1 lm 12 months ago

@schwarz: I did read the lens but then I watched the clip and he was putting them in a container. At that point I forgot the information that you wrote in the paragraph prior. Generally when I first start something I just give it a try on a small scale so that I can manage it...which is why I would consider the container...and why my mind drifted to focus on what he was saying rather than what you had written.


schwarz profile image

schwarz 12 months ago from Seattle, WA Hub Author

@qikey1 lm: Well, you are free to grow your saffron however you wish, but I'm always going to give advice based on my viewpoint, experience and opinion. So things might not always match up.


LiteraryMind profile image

LiteraryMind 12 months ago from Connecticut, USA Level 2 Commenter

This sounds like a great way to have fresh saffron.


schwarz profile image

schwarz 12 months ago from Seattle, WA Hub Author

@LiteraryMind: Saffron is dried, not used fresh, but it does keep rather well. I may be using this year's crop mostly for some alchemy I'm doing.


TheCozyDinosaur profile image

TheCozyDinosaur 12 months ago

I love growing my own herbs and spices, just started earlier this year. Hadn't thought of saffron! Thanks :)


schwarz profile image

schwarz 12 months ago from Seattle, WA Hub Author

@TheCozyDinosaur: It took me a couple of attempts to get going with this myself, so it's not the easiest but if you have a suitable climate and garden space, it can still be fun to try.


Diaper Bag Blog profile image

Diaper Bag Blog 12 months ago from Czech Republic Level 1 Commenter

Well, I don't grow it, but I was curious how to do that and if it is difficult... After reading your lens I think I'm able to do it...


schwarz profile image

schwarz 12 months ago from Seattle, WA Hub Author

@Diaper Bag Blog: I would say growing saffron is moderate-intermediate to grow. It's harder than "you can totally forget about it and it will still grow," but it's not the most difficult either.


Tim Bader profile image

Tim Bader 12 months ago from Surrey, UK Level 3 Commenter

Wow, I didn't realise how much they shrink as they dry!

I also didn't realise that the threads were red, not yellow.


Grifts profile image

Grifts 12 months ago

Really great article. I've used saffron before when cooking paella. It sure was expensive. This would be an interesting gardening project!


schwarz profile image

schwarz 12 months ago from Seattle, WA Hub Author

@Tim Bader: The color is one of the signs you may have bought fake saffron. There are a couple of much cheaper spices that are sold as substitutes, so if your "saffron" is yellow or a mix of red and yellow, you are not getting the real deal.


Michelllle profile image

Michelllle 12 months ago

Interesting. Might give it a try.


DLeighAlexander profile image

DLeighAlexander 12 months ago

Thanks for the helpful information. The flowers are very pretty & valuable too! Sounds like a great addition any garden.


Titia profile image

Titia 12 months ago from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands Level 2 Commenter

Very interesting. The plant very much looks like the Colchicum autumnale (the Autumn crocus), allthough that one blooms first in fall and get its eaves later in spring. I'm certainly going to explore if the Crocus Sativa is available in my country too.


schwarz profile image

schwarz 12 months ago from Seattle, WA Hub Author

@Titia: It does look like some other autumn relatives, but it pretty much does everything at this time of year.


NatureFan LM profile image

NatureFan LM 12 months ago

Fascinating.

Nice lens!


RinchenChodron 12 months ago

I'm not but maybe I'll try! It is very expensive to buy and Buddhists use it in their ceremonies.


SavioC profile image

SavioC 12 months ago

It's very expensive. We use it for many dishes. In India it's grown in Northern states like Kashmir.


SheGetsCreative profile image

SheGetsCreative 12 months ago from Seattle, WA Level 5 Commenter

I haven't tried growing it, mainly because it takes so many flowers to get so little usable saffron -- but I love reading about your project. Kudos!


RoadMonkey profile image

RoadMonkey 12 months ago Level 4 Commenter

I have only once ever bought saffron, it was like buying gold - maybe even more expensive! But looking at where it comes from and how it is harvested, it's not really surprising. I always thought it was the pollen (anthers) producing part of the crocus but now I see it is actually the stigma that is picked - only one per plant - it really is amazing.


schwarz profile image

schwarz 12 months ago from Seattle, WA Hub Author

@RoadMonkey: You get three stigmas per blossom.


kepezzo 12 months ago

50,000 to 70,000 flowers to get a pound !?

will continue to learn writing lenses, would be much faster..

nice lens.


PlumberJorge profile image

PlumberJorge 11 months ago

Thanks for this lens. I love saffron too.


transportmaniac profile image

transportmaniac 11 months ago

Growing saffron is like growing rice, it needs right time, right cultivation properties, and the right field. The weather is also important, people usually mistaken the azafran or fake saffron with real saffron which is from Crocus Sativus L, Thanks for the great article here, please read my lens about use of saffron as well thanks.


Johanna Eisler profile image

Johanna Eisler 6 months ago Level 3 Commenter

Fascinating. Now I understand why saffron is so expensive! Thank you for the delightful education!


VioletteRose LM profile image

VioletteRose LM 6 months ago Level 4 Commenter

Love the color and flavor of saffron, it is a great ingredient to be used in desserts. I never knew how to grow saffron, thank you so much for sharing this :)


EdTecher profile image

EdTecher 6 months ago from USA

You've really gotten me interested in planting saffron bulbs this year in my raised bed garden. Great tips!


Lionrhod profile image

Lionrhod 6 months ago from Orlando, FL Level 4 Commenter

Oh wow! Thanks so much! Hubby and I are major foodies and have been talking about doing this! Not sure if I can get crocus to grow in FL but will have to try anyway.


JoanieMRuppel54 profile image

JoanieMRuppel54 6 months ago from Keller, Texas Level 3 Commenter

A very interesting lens; I never knew saffron could be home grown! Do you think it would work in Texas? We have mild winters and can grow lots of greens over the winter. Congrats on LOTD!


Lynn Klobuchar profile image

Lynn Klobuchar 6 months ago from Minneapolis, Minnesota Level 5 Commenter

I give you lots of credit for managing this. I once planted spring crocuses in my front yard to naturalize. Bunnies ate the shoots down and squirrels dug the corms up. Ah, urban wildlife. Congratulations on LOTD.


GrammieOlivia profile image

GrammieOlivia 6 months ago from Toronto Level 7 Commenter

Great tutorial, but I'd rather muck around in the garden than just take care of crocus! It's too much work for me! Congrats on LoTD!


Merrci profile image

Merrci 6 months ago from Oregon's Southern Coast Level 7 Commenter

Very interesting lens. Congrats on Lens of the Day! It's amazing how many plants it takes to make one pound. It's probably not grown that widely either because of that! Gosh, when I think of all the work, the huge number of plants, it makes me think it should be priced even higher!


Diana Wenzel profile image

Diana Wenzel 6 months ago from Colorado Level 6 Commenter

This makes me want to grow my own saffron. Very interesting. Thanks for the tips and congrats on Lens of the Day!


schwarz profile image

schwarz 6 months ago from Seattle, WA Hub Author

@Lionrhod: Saffron wants really well-drained soil, so that may be a challenge in FL.


RinchenChodron 6 months ago

No, but I might give it a try. Do you think Colorado weather is too dry?


amandascloset0 profile image

amandascloset0 6 months ago Level 2 Commenter

Great lens! It would pay to grow your own if you can simply to save the expense. If your a gardener like me one more plant type is always welcome.


TransplantedSoul profile image

TransplantedSoul 6 months ago Level 1 Commenter

Wow - this is expensive stuff! It has such a great delicate, yet distinctive flavour.


Donna Cook profile image

Donna Cook 6 months ago from Denver, Colorado USA Level 6 Commenter

Terrific lens! I didn't know that saffron was a crocus.


burntchestnut 6 months ago

Excellent article. I did know that saffron came from specific crocus species, but didn't know the details.


anonymous 6 months ago

I'm not much on growing things but this was a very informative lens. Congratulations on getting LotD!


PAINTDRIPS profile image

PAINTDRIPS 6 months ago from Fresno CA Level 5 Commenter

At one time I had quite a spice garden with a sesame seed plant and elephant garlic among others. Never tried Saffron. Sounds fun! Congrats on LOTD.


SusanDeppner profile image

SusanDeppner 6 months ago from Arkansas USA Level 7 Commenter

Brilliant! I'm one of those who assumed saffron was grown in some very exotic locale with special permission of - someone. Glad I read this since now I know the truth. Congratulations on your very UUU lens!


Dressage Husband profile image

Dressage Husband 6 months ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada Level 5 Commenter

No, but I was thinking about growing Hascap berries! Seems like I could make more with Saffron if only it could stand Nova Scotia winters. I will have to check to see if I could manage it?

Well done on the LOTD. Only I do have a clay soil so it would probably be too wet!


sara0129 profile image

sara0129 6 months ago from Texas Level 1 Commenter

Interesting article.


DebMartin profile image

DebMartin 6 months ago Level 3 Commenter

Wow. Who knew. I didn't even realize saffron came from a crocus. Yet I use it all the time. Thanks for the tips and the knowledge. Even if I never grow my own saffron, it's important to know where those things that are important to you come from.


MEDerby profile image

MEDerby 6 months ago

Can you grow this indoors?


schwarz profile image

schwarz 6 months ago from Seattle, WA Hub Author

@MEDerby: No. Saffron crocus are only going to reproduce and thrive in an outdoor location.


schwarz profile image

schwarz 6 months ago from Seattle, WA Hub Author

@JoanieMRuppel54: You know, I don't know. The majority of the saffron in the USA has always been grown by the Amish community in Pennsylvania. You might see if your climate is anything like those regions. Or see if there are any commercial growers in your area. That's how I learned I could grow it where I live.


schwarz profile image

schwarz 6 months ago from Seattle, WA Hub Author

@Lynn Klobuchar: Lynn, what you planted in your yard and what I planted in mine are actually two different varieties. And in the spring, those crocus are some of the very first fresh greens of spring, not one of many in the harvest season. Animals are way more likely to attack crops when there's nothing else fresh and yummy to nibble.


schwarz profile image

schwarz 6 months ago from Seattle, WA Hub Author

@GrammieOlivia: Except for the one month when these bloom, they are much less trouble than anything else I grow in my garden. Most of the year they are dormant.


schwarz profile image

schwarz 6 months ago from Seattle, WA Hub Author

@Merrci: My fantasy at this stage of working with saffron is to grow an ounce in one season. I already have to start thinking ahead to how much space I can give these.


MEDerby profile image

MEDerby 6 months ago

Thanks. I live in an arctic region and grow cool stuff inside. Miss my paella!


strategylab profile image

strategylab 6 months ago from Regina, SK

I've heard it's incredibly hard to grow and very expensive on the grocery store shelves. I really wish I could just cook more with it! ha!


schwarz profile image

schwarz 6 months ago from Seattle, WA Hub Author

@RinchenChodron: I don't know. Some of where saffron grows in the Middle East is pretty rugged actually. I'd suggest you ask around of your local gardening groups and see if anyone has experience or insight.


tonnytheviet 6 months ago

This is very helpful for me! Thank you very much!


dahlia369 profile image

dahlia369 6 months ago

Enjoyed your lens, thank you! I've been growing many herbs but it never crossed my mind to grow saffron even though I do use it when cooking soup...


schwarz profile image

schwarz 6 months ago from Seattle, WA Hub Author

@Dressage Husband: My first attempt with saffron (where the bulbs vanished) were ordered from an organic grower in B.C. Canada. So Nova Scotia might be doable, but I think you are right that it will come down to what you can do with soil and drainage.


schwarz profile image

schwarz 6 months ago from Seattle, WA Hub Author

@DebMartin: Deb, that's totally one of the factors that contributed to my interest in growing it.


schwarz profile image

schwarz 6 months ago from Seattle, WA Hub Author

@MEDerby: Wow, an Arctic region... I can see why anything would have to be grown indoors.


schwarz profile image

schwarz 6 months ago from Seattle, WA Hub Author

@strategylab: Well, it IS expensive, but I think I've shown here that is is NOT incredible hard to grow.


Arachnea profile image

Arachnea 6 months ago from Texas USA Level 7 Commenter

this sounds like a fun project. i have a patch of dirt for which this will be perfect. i wonder if the texas climate will suit. the place i have in mind has a very warm, sunny morning to noonish then is in shade the rest of the day. i'm sorry if i missed it, but once the stigmas are picked from a plant will more grow back with the next growing season? great lens. congrats on lotd.


mansfisa44 profile image

mansfisa44 6 months ago

Nice Lense


schwarz profile image

schwarz 6 months ago from Seattle, WA Hub Author

@Arachnea: Saffron reblooms each fall.


norma-holt profile image

norma-holt 6 months ago Level 4 Commenter

Great lens and nicely done information. Congrats on LOTD, well deserved. Growing this spice is not something I would care to do and your instructions are ideal for anyone who would.


MJ Martin profile image

MJ Martin 6 months ago from Washington State Level 3 Commenter

After reading this helpful lens I am sure going to give it a try. Congrats on Lotd and a purple star too.


schwarz profile image

schwarz 6 months ago from Seattle, WA Hub Author

@MJ Martin: Be sure to come back, Ruby, and let us know how it worked out for you.


ChocolateLily 6 months ago

I would have never thought of growing saffron before reading your lens. Wow! I doubt I will give it a try, but it's really neat.


kellyybrownn617 6 months ago

hello this is great.

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