A word about Saffron

November 2021

Saffron is one of the world’s oldest and most expensive spices.  It is also effective in treating depression. 

The wild predecessor of domesticated saffron crocus is Crocus cartwrightianus, which grew wild on the island of Crete.  As in all human “bred” things we may have collected and propagated specimens with very long stigmas, or more specifically long filaments, the red threads which are part of the stigma.  Saffron has been used as a spice and medical treatment for over four millennia.  Ancient Greek legends tell of brazen sailors embarking on long and perilous voyages to the remote land of Cilicia, where they traveled to procure what they believed was the world’s most valuable saffron.

It is said that Cleopatra of Egypt used a quarter-cup of saffron in her warm milk baths, as she prized its coloring and cosmetic properties and believed that it would make her more attractive to men. hmmmmm……

Saffron made its way to the New World when thousands of Alsatian, German, Swiss and others fled religious persecution in Europe. These settlers, who became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch, were widely cultivating saffron by 1730 after corms were first brought to America by the Schwenkfelders, who were great lovers of saffron, and had grown it back in Germany.  Pennsylvania Dutch saffron was soon being successfully marketed to Spanish colonists in the Caribbean, while healthy demand elsewhere ensured that its listed price on the Philadelphia commodities exchange was set equal to that of gold.   

However the War of 1812 destroyed many of the merchantmen that ferried American saffron abroad. Pennsylvanian saffron growers were afterwards left with surplus inventory, and trade with the Caribbean markets never recovered. Pennsylvania Dutch growers developed many uses for the now abundant saffron in their own home cooking—cakes, noodles, and chicken or trout dishes. Saffron cultivation survived into modern times principally in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

The main use of saffron is in cooking, due to its ability to impart color, flavor and aroma to foods and beverages. However, from the beginning of time it has also been considered a medicinal plant because it possesses therapeutic properties. It is included in Catalogues of Medicinal Plants and in the European Pharmacopoeias, and was part of a great number of compounded formulas from the 16th to the 20th centuries. The medicinal and pharmaceutical uses of this plant largely disappeared with the advent of synthetic and chemically produced drugs. However, in recent years there has been growing interest in demonstrating saffron’s already known bioactivity, which is attributed to the main components—crocetin and its glycosidic esters, called crocins, and safranal—and to the synergy between the compounds present in the spice for depression and other mental diseases and conditions.