Plant: Saffron
Botanical Name: al zahafaran (from its Arabic name)

Synonyms, Country Names: Saffron was not in Shakespeare's time limited to the drug or to the Saffron-bearing Crocus (C. sativus), but it was the general name for all the Crocuses, and was even extended to the Colchicums. Colchicums were called Meadow Saffrons.


Quotations: Did this companion with the Saffron face Revel and feast it at my house today?

Antipholus of Ephesus, Comedy of Errors, Act IV., sc. 4.

Cultivation: The crocus plant is a bulbous perennial grass that belongs to the iris family (Iridaceae). It is native to Europe, West and Central Asia. Crocus flowers are very impressive and beautiful. Crocus photos decorate greeting cards, and there are also popular tourist routes to the places where crocus (saffron) massively blooms.
It is important to find the right place for crocuses. Though they grow in half shadow quite well, they grow better and have bigger flowers in places with much sunlight. The places where water stagnates for a long time are not suitable for crocuses. In such conditions, the bulbs easily rot. This plant is a xerophyte, and it better tolerates lack of water than an excess.
Crocus flowers grow well in any cultivated air-penetrable soil. In heavy clay, add some sand and peat and provide drainage in the form of sand or fine gravel. Acidic soils should be limed. Prepare the soil in advance and simultaneously add basic fertilizer. Spring crocuses are planted in September to October, and autumn crocuses should be planted July to September.

The Useful Plant: In the time of Shakespeare, Saffron was used as a medicine, a dye and a confection. Ellacombe describes these uses.

A Winter's Tale, in Act IV, Scene III, has one of his characters, Clown (son of the adoptive father of Perdita) says that he must have Saffron to color his Warden pies. The spice Saffron was widely used in Mediaeval and Elizabethan British cuisine and was prized for the color it gave to pastries, pies and sauces.

Folklore: Folklore tells us that Saffron has been used throughout the ages to treat the nervous system (insomnia, paralysis), the respiratory system (asthma, colds), the cardiovascular system (heart disease), the digestive system (stomach disorders, flatulence, colic), the genitourinary system and ailments such as scarlet fever, smallpox, gout and eye disease.
Why is Saffron so expensive? The Saffron crocus are the dried stigmas of the flower itself. Each flower only produces three of these, and they are so fragile that they have to be collected by hand. It takes a large number of them to make even a small amount of Saffron. It is the scarcity of Saffron and its labour-intensive harvesting that makes this spice so expensive. Thankfully good Saffron is very pungent, and a little goes a long way.

Personal: Saffron is mentioned in the oldest Ayurvedic treatises going back to 500 B.C. Ayurveda means Science of Life, and Saffron is used for many medicinal purposes. It is also used in Chinese medicine.

Carol Mellinger
February 2015