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What is a Saffron Crocus?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 30 October 2016
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The saffron crocus is an ancient and magnificent flower that produces one of the most expensive spices in the world. Deep purple in color, saffron crocuses are generally grown in warm climates with mild winters, and tend to bloom in autumn. The cultivation of the crocus for medicinal and other purposes is well-detailed throughout history, and it appears that humans have been purposefully growing this small flower for several thousand years.

Saffron crocuses grow from bulbs, which are usually planted in late fall and bloom one year later. Like many hybridized and domesticated plants, most modern saffron crocuses are sterile, and seeds are not sufficient to grow into a new plant. One of the reasons saffrons are so beloved is their late bloom; they tend to open just as most other plants are losing their fall colors.

The plant hails from southwestern Asia, but is grown successfully in many other areas. Preferably, crocuses require a mild winter, wet springs, and hot, dry summers to thrive. They can tolerate some cold and light snow dusting during the winters, but in climates with extensive cold or snowfall the plants should be wintered inside. Mild autumns are often best, as the flowers will bloom weakly or not at all if fall is marked by wet or relatively cold weather.

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When in blossom, the saffron crocus makes a spectacular display. The flowers are often a strong, deep purple, though some may have pink or lavender striping on the petals. In a bold color contrast, the bloom shoots out three vivid orange stigmas.

The magnificent orange stigmas are the reason for the unusual value of the saffron crocus. These shoots are harvested and dried, used for a variety of interesting purposes. They impart a striking gold hue that is used as a dye for clothing, specifically for the robes of many Eastern monks. Medicinally, saffron has been shown in some studies to have anti-inflammatory, anti-carcinogenic, and immune boosting properties. In traditional folk medicine, it is used as an aphrodisiac, to treat menstrual cramps, and as a general remedy against nearly all illnesses.

As a spice, the stigmas of the saffron crocus are famous in many different cuisines. Thanks to the centuries-old spice trade, saffron-enhanced dishes are found in nearly every European and Asian cuisine, as well as in many North African dishes. It reigns as the most expensive spice by weight in the world, a statistic that has not changed for centuries.

The unusual properties found in the flowering world seem to be never ending. The delicate saffron crocus is a model for importance of plants to human society and even history. With medical studies still uncovering new uses for the stigma of the saffron crocus, it seems clear that the long relationship of humans and the flora of the world is far from over.

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