Productive Plant – Saffron Crocus
by Debbie Bassingthwaighte
The cheerful little saffron crocus bulbs are sprouting in a terracotta pot in my garden, so I know it won’t be long now until I can pluck and dry the 3 delicate stigmas from each flower to use in cooking.
Botanical Name: Crocus sativus
Common Names: Saffron Crocus, Safran, Red Gold
Description: Saffron Crocus is a perennial bulb with attractive 5-cm lilac flowers that emerge in autumn and last for just a few days each. A group a bulbs will flower over a 4-week period with each corm producing up to 3 flowers. Each flower has three bright, contrasting, orange-red stigmas that are harvested as the world’s most expensive spice. The bulbs are dormant in summer and plants grow to about 20 cm high.
Saffron Crocus requires full sun and deep, rich, neutral, very well-drained soil. It thrives in a dry Mediterranean climate with cool, dry summers and cold, wet winters. In SE Queensland, it’s possible to replicate these conditions by growing the bulbs in a terracotta pot. Bulbs need to be spaced 15 cm apart and planted 5 cm deep. Place the pot in full sun in autumn and keep it well-watered until the flowers appear (usually after the first frosts). Then in early summer when the bulbs are dormant, move the pot to a cool, shady spot out of the rain where it will stay dry. The bulbs don’t like to be over-watered in summer. A light covering of compost and well-rotted manure can enhance growth and flowering.
Culinary uses: When the flowers appear in autumn, the stigmas, which are the three, orange-red strands at the centre of each flower, need to be harvested. Once harvested, the stigmas are dried for a few days before storing in a tightly-sealed jar in a cool, dark place. Saffron is best used within one year for the best aroma, flavour and colour. It’s important to note that only the stamens are edible: the leaves, flowers and bulbs are poisonous if eaten.
Saffron is perhaps best-known for its distinctive flavour and bright golden colour, but the dried saffron needs heat and hydration to draw out its full aroma, flavour and colour. The most common way of adding saffron to a dish is to first steep it in a tablespoon of hot water or milk for 15 minutes. Recipes that have a lot of liquid such as soups can have saffron added directly without the need for blooming in water first. Saffron can also be ground in a small mortar and pestle with a teaspoon of sugar as an abrasive to create a fine powder. Then the powder is dissolved in a little hot water to become intensely aromatic and a deep orange-red colour before adding to other ingredients.
Other Uses: Saffron is also used as a yellow dye, and it is believed that Cleopatra liked her bath scented with saffron. The yellow stamens and the lilac petals can also be used to dye natural fabrics and yarns.