Saffron (Crocus sativus) - History and Domestication

Why is saffron so darned expensive? Because people are mad about it!

Saffron Flower (Crocus sativus)
Saffron Flower (Crocus sativus). Hbdragon88

Saffron is technically a spice, made from the dried stigmas of the crocus flower (Crocus sativus). Saffron crocus is a corm, and a member of the family Iridaceae. Likely first domesticated from the wild version Crocus cartwrightianus in the Late Bronze Age Aegean (Minoan period, ca 1900-1600 BC) (although there is some debate), saffron had and has a variety of uses.

Saffron is a powerful pigment, able to dye liquid, skin, hair and cloth a rich yellow color (even red saffron is yellow in solution) up to 150,000 times its own weight: the chemical producing the vivid yellow is called crocetin.

Saffron is added for its flavor and aroma to many traditional Mediterranean and Asian dishes. It is also a medicine, and has been used as a pain-reliever in many societies around the world. The active chemical for pain-killing in saffron is isophorone, which is currently undergoing tests for treatment in a wide range of diseases. In all these uses, a little bit goes a long way, and a good thing, too: current retail prices are approximately US$10 (~8 Euros) per gram (or US$10,000 per kilogram, or two pounds).

Making Saffron

Saffron has always been ludicrously expensive, even during its use in the Minoan culture, where the same weights used to measure gold were used for saffron. The reason for the expense is the labor-intensive nature of the production process.

Saffron only blooms for one month in the autumn, and some flowers may only be open for two weeks. During the brief blooming, the stigmas of C. sativus are painstakingly separated from the petals and stamens and then dried, a procedure best carried out on the day of the collection.

Each crocus has three stigmas, and it takes about 160,000 flowers to produce five kg (11 lbs) of wet stigmas, which converts to 1 kg (2 lbs) of dried spice.

Yields per hectare in modern Greece range between 4 and 8 kilograms (9-18 pounds) , although in other areas the yields are much higher--New Zealand crocus farms produce up to 24 kg (53 lbs) per ha.

Harvesting saffron can only be done by hand: labor estimates on modern saffron cultivation and harvest in New Zealand is 400 person-hours per kg; in Iran estimates run to 270 person-days (2160 person-hours).

Archaeological Evidence of Saffron Domestication

Most scholars point to Greece as the origin of saffron, although a recent DNA study (Alavi-Kia et al. 2008) suggests that the plant may have originated in Mesopotamia. There are some 80 species of crocus distributed throughout southwestern Europe; Alavi-Kia et al. suggest possible wild progenitors for saffron as the Iranian forms C. almehensis or C. mickelsonii.

In the 19th century, domesticated saffron (C. sativus) was reported growing near the Minoan towns of Khania and Rethymnon. Evidence for domestication is the average number of flowers on a plant (the wild form has between one and five flowers; C. sativus between three and five), and the relative length of the stamens: both species will produce saffron, but stamens in the domestic version are long enough to flop out of the flower.

Because that kind of evidence is difficult to document archaeologically, there is some debate about when the Minoans stopped gathering wild crocus and began transplanting the corm to more convenient places, and selected for the long stamens.

At some point, probably during the Neo-Palatial period of 1900-1600 BC, that tipping point was crossed.

Isophorone has been identified on sherds from the Early to Neo-Palatial (ca 2300-1900 BC) period site of Chrysokamino. Crocus flower representations on pottery, stone, faience, seals, jewelry and frescoes are found in the Early to Middle Minoan period. Saffron flowers are illustrated on Linear B tablets in the Late Bronze Age Aegean at Knossos, where 59 whole or partial tablets illustrating the palace recipe for saffron has been identified. One of the tablets describes a recipe for more than 4 kilograms, requiring the harvest from 640,000 flowers, or a minimum of 128,000 different plants.

Two famous Minoan frescoes illustrate crocus picking are found at Knossos. In one a blue monkey is picking flowers out of a bowl; and at the Xeste 3 fresco in Room 3 at Akrotiri, two women (one with a blue scalp) are illustrated in a field of saffron.

Recent Saffron Studies

Examination of Linear A and B tablets from Knossos suggests to JO Day (2011) that although saffron had a special meaning to Minoan society, under the Mycenaeans, it lost its importance, becoming simply one of several commodities depicted. Day argues that the decrease may have been a political one: the Mycenaeans saw saffron as a Minoan motif and hence worth suppressing.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Plant Domestication, Ancient Pigments, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Alavi-Kia SS, Mohammadi SA, Aharizad S, and Maghaddam M. 2008. Analysis of genetic diversity and phylogenetic relationships in crocus genus of Iran using inter-retrotransposon amplified polymorphism. Biotechnology & Biotechnological Equipment 22(3):795-800.

Beeston RF, Palatinus J, Beck CW, and Stout EC. 2006. Organic Residue Analysis of Pottery Sherds from Chrysokamino. Hesperia Supplements: The Chrysokamino Metallurgy Workshop and its Territory 36:413-428.

Day JO. 2011. Counting threads. Saffron in Aegean Bronze Age writing and society. Oxford Journal Of Archaeology 30(4):369-391.

Licón CC, Carmona M, Rubio R, Molina A, and Berruga MI. 2012. Preliminary study of saffron (Crocus sativus L. stigmas) color extraction in a dairy matrix. Dyes and Pigments 92(3):1355-1360.

Pizzichini D, Chiusano ML, and Giuliano G. 2007. An EST database from saffron stigmas. BMC Plant Biology 7:53. (Open source)

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Saffron (Crocus sativus) - History and Domestication." ThoughtCo, Jul. 11, 2016, thoughtco.com/saffron-history-and-domestication-170649. Hirst, K. Kris. (2016, July 11). Saffron (Crocus sativus) - History and Domestication. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/saffron-history-and-domestication-170649 Hirst, K. Kris. "Saffron (Crocus sativus) - History and Domestication." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/saffron-history-and-domestication-170649 (accessed November 25, 2017).