Have you ever considered growing your own saffron, instead of being dependant on having to pay the horrendously high shop prices for this king of spices? Saffron comes from the plant crocus sativus, which is an autumn flowering crocus flower and which grows from corms or bulbs.
Crocus sativus reproduces by throwing out new bulblets every year, and when each of those babies reach the size of a whole garlic, they are big enough to flower themselves.
If, initially, you plant 100 crocus sativus bulbs, in a few short years you could have 10 times that amount of plants, from which to extract what is the world's most expensive spice, saffron.
Saffron is actually the red stamen of the crocus sativus flower, and by gathering the flowers, and separating the stamen and drying them, you can grow your own supply of saffron for use in both the kitchen and medicine cabinet.
Growing saffron is easy, read on to see how it is done.
Growing Saffron in Spain
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Crocus sativus growing conditions
While countries like Afghanistan where it is hot and dry traditionally grew saffron as a commercial crop, by far the biggest growers are in Spain, usually in the central regions where summers are hot and winters are cold. Saffron likes the extremes of temperature.
Originating in the East, crocus sativus corms were first introduced to Spain in the 10th century by the Arabs. Spain now produces a massive 35,000 kgs of saffron annually, and frequently call it oro rojo, or red gold.
Saffron has also been widely grown in the UK where some places are named after it, and across North America.
Saffron grows well in USDA zones 6 to 9, but in cooler climates it is not advisable to grow them outdoors as severe frost will kill them off.
Ground Preparation for Growing Saffron
- Ideally, your should finely tilth the ground where you want your saffron to grow, removing as many stones as possible. Stones can made crocus sativus corm lifting difficult.
- You want your earth to be free-draining as water retaining soil will rot your corms, and finally you want your soil to be organically rich to feed the corms.
- Do not use ground where you have grown carrots or potatoes in the last three years, as those crops carry disease and pests which will also affect your saffron if the ground was infected.
- Deep dig the soil over, removing stones and weeds, a couple of months before you plan to plant your crocus sativus corms. This is a good time to add fertilizer to the soil.
- A few days before planting, lightly rake over the ground to break up the surface crust.
- You can plant your corms in drills where they are on a raised furrow, with a walking area between each furrow to make hand-weeding easier, or plant them in groups. It is your choice, but whatever way you plant them, you must leave access for weeding. Weeds will easily choke the life out of those delicate saffron plants and ruin your crop.
Planting saffron corms
Plant your saffron crocus corms 4" deep, and 4" to 6" apart. As crocus sativus is an autumn flowering plant, your ideal planting times are late June or early September.
They are quick growers, and if your corms are big enough to produce flowers you can expect your first crop to be ready in October/November.
Corms produce flowers when their circumference reaches around the size of a whole garlic.
If your corms are smaller than that, you can still plant them, but they will take a couple of years to reach maturity in order to flower.
Flowering crocus sativus also produce offshoots which in turn become corms, so each corm you plant will replicate itself over and over until you have thousands of corms, that you can dig up and give away or sell.
Your flowering crocus sativus plants have long red stamen that frequently poke out between the petals. This is the part you want to keep.
Each flower has three stamen, called threads, and each corm produces 1 - 3 flowers.
Flowering lasts about 3 weeks, but ideally you want to pick your flowers early before predators get to them, like deer, rabbit and even mice. Saffron is a relaxant and many small animals enjoy the effects too.
It is recommended you pick your saffron flowers between dawn and 10am, to catch the most flavorsome stamen. As the day wears on, they lose some flavor.
Once picked, you then have the laborious task of separating the stamen from the petals. You can expect about a tablespoon of saffron from 50 flowers.
The stamen should then be thoroughly dried. This only takes a day or two in a warm dark room. The stamen crackles when you touch it, when it is dried.
Now all you need to do is bottle up your saffron in sealed containers, and your work is over for another year.
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The Life Cycle of the Saffron Corm
Your corms have finished flowering but their work is not yet over.
The leaves of the corm continue to sustain the plant and feed the corm which be be setting out new cormlets next to the mother plant.
They will also be feeding the corm and storing energy for next year's crop, so it is very important to leave the plant alone to complete this vital task.
By the following summer the corms will have become completely dormant, ready for growing again in the autumn.
Crocus sativus corms flower well for 3/4 years after which they should be dug up and discarded, planting instead the baby corms that have grown alongside each mother plant. This ensures you have a continuous annual crop.
If, like me, you do not like discarding what are, at that point, perfectly healthy corms (similar to bulbs), then you can continue to let them grow, but you will see your crop diminish as the older corms no longer produce so many flowers - they do still produce corm-lets so you should see yet more plants from this parent.
Corms that are too small to flower should be replanted elsewhere where they can continue to grow and mature.
Growing saffron is easy. It is the harvesting that is hard work, but well worth it.