Saffron is a delicious and colorful seasoning that is used in breads, desserts,
and main dishes in many parts of the world, from England to India, from the
Middle East to Scandinavia, and all around the Mediterranean. Without it, an
Indian curry or a Spanish paella just wouldn't be the same.
The bright red-orange threads you get when you buy saffron are actually the
stigmas, or female portion, of the Saffron Crocus flowers. It takes hundreds
of flowers to produce a commercially useful amount, which explains why saffron
is so expensive. For the home gardener, however, two dozen Saffron Crocus will
supply enough of the precious spice in the first year for a few memorable dishes.
Then, with each successive year, the corms (which look like bulbs) will multiply,
the size of the planting will increase, and you'll be able to harvest more of
the spicy stigmas. After 4 to 6 years, you should divide and replant the corms
(do it right after the foliage has faded). Division prevents overcrowding, which
can lead to a decrease in flowering.
Planting Saffron Crocus Corms: In areas where Saffron Crocus are reliably
hardyUSDA Zone 6 through 8 in the South, 6 through 9 in the Westyou
should plant the corms as soon as you receive them. Saffron Crocus do best in
full sun and well-drained soil that is moderately rich in organic matter. Ideally,
the site should be relatively dry in summer, when the corms are dormant.
Plant the corms 4in deep and 4in apart. If gophers, mice, or voles are a problem
in your garden, plant the corms in containers or line the bed with hardware
cloth or a similar wire mesh. Flowers generally come up 6-8 weeks after planting, although occasionally they wait until the 2nd fall to appear. Bloom lasts about 3 weeks. The grass-like
leaves may emerge either with the flowers or soon after they appear. Sometimes they wait until the following spring. In either case, the leaves persist for 8-12 weeks, then wither and vanish, leaving
no trace of the corms below until the flowers appear again in fall. It's not
a bad idea to mark the area where you've planted your corms, so you don't inadvertently
dig them up while planting something else.
Overwintering Corms in Cold Climates: Saffron Crocus can be grown in
areas with colder winters than Zone 6, but the corms must be lifted and brought
indoors for the winter. After the first few frosts, but before the ground has
frozen solid, carefully dig out the corms, place them in a wooden crate or plastic
tub, and completely cover with dry peat moss or sand. Store in a cool (40-50°F),
dry place, such as a basement. Plant them out again in the spring after all
danger of frost has passed, but don't water until you see new growth in early
Another way of growing Saffron Crocus in cold-winter areas is to plant the
corms 2 in. deep in clay or plastic pots filled with a well-drained soil mix,
and then set the pots directly in the ground, with the rims about 2 inches below
the soil surface, so the pots don't show. After the plants die back in the fall,
move the pots into the basement and store them dry for the winter. Set the pots
back out the following spring. Again, marking the pots' location so you don't
accidentally dig into them is probably a good idea.
Harvesting and Using Saffron: Three stigmas are borne in the center
of each purple, cup-shaped bloom. The best time to harvest the stigmas is mid-morning
on a sunny day when the flowers have fully opened and are still fresh. Carefully
pluck the stigmas from the flowers with your fingers, then dry them in a warm
place to preserve them for cooking. Store in a closed container. To use saffron,
steep the threads in hot liquid (water, broth, or milk, depending on the recipe)
for about 20 minutes. Add both the threads and the steeping liquid early in
the cooking or baking process, and the threads will continue to release their
color and flavor.