The allure of the Spanish and French cuisine lays in its abundant use of saffron as a spice. Rather small amounts of these long red strands – stigmas of mature saffron flowers that are handpicked and dried, are sold for great deals of money - enough to say that saffron costs more than its weight in gold.
Since saffron (Crocus sativus) is easily deemed most expensive spice on the market, it might be a good idea to learn about growing it yourself. Think about it – considering the price, which goes up to $9 for a single gram, growing your own really does make a lot of sense. Why am I stating the price of a single gram? Because, in most cases, that’s how saffron is actually sold – by the gram.
You must be wondering why does saffron cost so much? A quick research shows that it takes around 75,000 blossoms to produce just one pound of dried saffron threads. It’s not that it’s hard to grow – it’s actually rather simple – but the mere process of harvesting, which is mostly done manually, is a very time-consuming job, and that’s where the price really comes from.
By the end of this article you will learn what it takes to grow your own saffron, and hopefully, this time next year, you’ll be able to pull out your favorite cookbook and finally use that one recipe you were always interested in trying, but never really had the money to.
Before Growing Saffron
Since you’re here, it’s safe to presume you are thinking about growing saffron. The first thing you’ll want to acquire are the bulbs. Always make sure you buy from a seed house with a good reputation and that the corms you’re buying are saffron crocus (Crocus sativus).
If you need help to figure out how many corms to order and you plan to grow saffron for your personal needs only, then the suggestion is to roughly estimate the number of saffron dishes you plan on making per year. Take into account the number of people you’ll be preparing those meals for (on average, you’ll need three threads per person). Do your own math or ask your trusted supplier to help you make the decision.
Growing your own saffron couldn’t be easier
As I’ve mentioned earlier, the price of saffron doesn’t come from the troubles you’d have growing it – that’s the easy part, as saffron is one of those plants that require very little attention. You plant the corms in the summer, harvest the stigmas in the fall, and that’s pretty much it, though it’s advised to divide your plants every four years or so. Another thing that will make your job a lot easier is that saffron, as a species, is really resistant to diseases and insects, and isn’t as fussy as some other plants are known to be – as long as you provide well-draining soil and sunlight, it will thrive.
When you decide to grow your own saffron, you are faced with two possibilities. One is to grow your saffron outdoors, which, in most cases, is the better option. If you don’t have the adequate space, such as a garden, don’t worry – with a little extra effort, you can grow your saffron indoors, too.
Growing saffron outdoors
Once you’ve decided to grow your crocus plants outdoors, note that they can be grown in a garden or in containers - the choice is entirely up to you.
When growing saffron outdoors, it is crucial to provide these two things for your plants, so you won’t be left wondering why they’re not thriving as well as you hoped:
- Soil that drains well
- A sunny or at least partly sunny location, where your plants will get either full day sun or very light shade
First one is very important, as saffron will not develop well in soil that is saturated with water. If you think that’s going to be an issue in your garden, you can always add some type of organic material, be it compost, peat moss, decomposed manure or ground bark, which will improve the drainage.
When it comes to planting, you’ll need to dig holes that are about 3 inches deep and 2 inches apart, to give your bulbs enough space to grow. When placing them in the ground, make sure the pointed top is facing upwards, but if it’s hard for you to tell which side should point up, don’t worry – just plant the bulb on the side and let the root action do its job by pulling the plant in the right position.
Once planted, the bulbs should be watered just enough to gently soak the soil – remember not to overdo it, while still keeping the soil moist. Your plants will appear in early spring, but there will still be no flowers, only leaves that will eventually dry up in the hot summer weather. Don’t let that worry you, as it’s perfectly normal for saffron to remain dormant until the fall when an entirely new set of leaves and a flower will finally appear. This marks the beginning of a three-week period when the saffron should be harvested – but more on that later.
After you’ve harvested the flowers, make sure to leave the foliage in place, as it will gather sunlight and make sure your bulbs have enough food for the future. Now your bulbs will again enter dormancy, one that will last for a few months, before another growing cycle begins. At this point, when the bulbs are dormant, and the leaves have died off, watering isn’t necessary.
Growing saffron indoors
If you plan on growing your saffron indoors, you will need:
- Some type of container in which you will plant your corms, be it a wooden, plastic or metal pot
- A room where you will keep your plants
When preparing the container for planting, you’ll need to lay about 1-2 inches of either fine gravel or coarse sand at the bottom and then fill the remainder of the pot with well-draining potting soil.
Directions for planting are fairly simple and pretty much the same as when planting saffron outside: dig a hole 2-3 inches deep, place the bulbs with the root side down, spacing them 2-3 inches apart and cover them with soil. After that, your only responsibility is to water your freshly planted bulbs every other day lightly.
The room in which you’ll keep your saffron pots should be a cold one, with the temperature that doesn’t exceed 35-48° F (2-9° C) and where your plants will get four to six hours of sun each day. Sometime around April, you should change the room temperature to around 50-70° F (10-21° C) to mimic the spring weather they would be in if grown outdoors.
This is where the hard work actually starts. The part of saffron that is used as a spice is its stigma – the problem is you only get three per flower. You can only imagine what a painstaking process it must be to hand-pick the amount of stigmas needed to get an entire pound of the spice. Luckily, if your plan is to grow saffron for your personal needs only, it will require a lot less work, as you won’t be needing as much. Nonetheless, be prepared to do a lot of plucking when the time comes.
It is jokingly said that saffron can only be harvested when the planets are all perfectly aligned, and even though this is just a joke, the truth is that harvesting saffron can only happen in a specific window of opportunity and once that window closes, all you can do is wait until next year. In the fall, your saffron will bloom over the course of three weeks, and that’s when the harvesting should be done because shortly after the flowers open, they will slowly begin to wilt.
As you must have figured out by now, with the minimal amount of work you’ll be able to say you produced your own “red gold” and once you have successfully grown your first of many saffron crops, the possibilities will be endless. All that’s left is to pick up your cookbook, decide which recipe you want to try out first and enjoy this entirely new dimension that only a spice like saffron can bring to your dishes.