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Grow Your Own Saffron!

Q. Mike, I would like to grow my own saffron. Will the plant that produces this spice (Crocus sativus, commonly known as the saffron crocus) grow in the Dayton area; and what kind of sunlight do the plants require?
    ---William in Dayton, Ohio
We live at the border of Lancaster and Chester counties in Pennsylvania Dutch country. I am from Sweden and love to cook with saffron around the holidays. A sweet saffron bread formed into traditional shapes is a big part of our Lucia and Christmas tradition. (Although I love this spice in any dish.) I currently get my saffron from a local farmer's market, but we have early spring crocuses that grow like weeds in sunny spots on our lawn; fragile white and purple flowers with fragrant dark yellow pistils. Because the pistils aren't red, I don't think they're the actual saffron crocus, which I believe grows in the fall, but they smell like saffron and I'm wondering if I could use them for spice. They smell like they would add taste to any meal. Are these Spring blooming plants the 'Pennsylvania Dutch Saffron?' I've heard about? Or could they be poisonous? Sincerely,
    ---Charlotte in Parkesburg, PA
A. The flower that produces saffron is a true crocus, but it blooms in the Fall, not the Spring. (In fact, it's one of the very last plants to bloom in most of the areas it's grown in the United States.) As William in Dayton correctly notes, its scientific name is Crocus sativus; and while most sources list its range as USDA Growing Zones 6 to 9, some sources suggest that it may well survive in the chilly Zone 5 in which his garden resides.

Microclimate would be the key, as a wet and shady Zone 7 garden is going to have more trouble growing this Mediterranean plant than a dry and sunny plot in Zone 5; because, as legendary bulb grower Brent Heath of Brent & Becky's Bulbs explains, the first requirement for growing your own saffron is good drainage. "Soil that drains extremely well is an absolute necessity", he stresses. "Our saffron crocus do best in rock garden type-situations. If you're planting them in regular garden soil, you should add a lot of sharp sand for drainage, as well as compost for structure and nutrition. Unamended heavy clay soil could kill them."

As will excessive summertime wetness in any kind of soil, he adds, explaining that these plants are easily killed by what Brent calls "the mindless daily irrigation systems that have unfortunately become very popular."

Newly purchased bulbs (technically 'corms') will be shipped in the Fall. Plant them in full sun and perfectly draining soil as soon as they arrive and they will typically flower later that year. Each bulb should produce multiple flowers, and each flower will produce multiple pistils—the bright red, threadlike female parts that provide the desired spice. You can pick the pistils off right there in the field or pluck the entire flower and take it inside for processing (either way, Brent assures us, your fingers will turn bright orange). Carefully remove the pistils, allow them to dry gently but thoroughly and then store the dried threads in a moisture proof container until you're ready to use them.

The leaves of the plants will stay green outdoors throughout winter and should not be removed until they have lost all their green color the following year. Then keep that area dry; the drier the underground corms are during their summer dormancy the better. If all goes well, the flowers will reappear in October. As the underground bulb increases in size, so will the number of flowers. If you are lucky enough that the patch lives long enough to get crowded, you can divide them every five years or so, after the leaves have turned yellow at the beginning of summer.

Other crocus: There are stories about the pistils of some spring blooming crocus being used as a kind of low-grade saffron, but I'll never tell anyone to ingest anything I'm not sure about—which leads us to an important warning. Most so-called 'fall blooming crocus' are actually members of a different plant genus known as Colchium, a type of lily that's the source of the anti-gout medication colchicine. These non-crocus 'fall-blooming crocus' have six stamens instead of the true crocus' three. Some of these plants are also known as 'meadow saffron', which is really unfortunate as these autumn 'crocus' are toxic.

But crocus sativus, the true saffron crocus, is perfectly safe. So if you're going to harvest saffron, specifically purchase and grow only that specific bulb and no other fall blooming types. Oh, and "Pennsylvania Dutch saffron" is simply saffron grown in the Lancaster County area of Pennsylvania, where an intrepid farmer has been cultivating the spice-producing flower for some years now. (He was even a guest on our show back in 2005!) Here's a great New York Times article about him that includes lots of specific growing and drying tips.

Check out this great Wikipedia article too.

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