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It’s spring! It’s spring! I feel like running through the streets screaming it at the top of my lungs … if only it weren’t so cold this morning! Let’s talk today about some of the greatest harbingers of hope for warmer weather: flowers.
One of my favorite first flowers is the crocus. The crocus “bulb” is more correctly called a corm. Most people assume that the crocus corm is a root because we plant it below ground, but it’s actually a stem. Corms are really just storage structures for the starchy energy the plant needs to survive between seasons. I find the flattened little nubs of the crocus corm fascinating—cute in their unique ugliness. It’s what arises from the corm that I most like, though. Here in Ohio, the spring crocus blooms before anything else. Long before we see the cheery trumpet of the daffodil, there’s the purple and orange crocus.
Grow Saffron Crocus
The best-known member of the crocus family is the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus). This flower has been grown throughout history, and ancient civilizations recorded its use as food, medicine and dye. Depending on how you prepare it, crocus can yield either yellow or red dye. When used without the addition of chemical fixatives, it will turn food yellow and is often used in our more expensive natural food dyes.
Crocus sativus is a fall-blooming crocus hardy in zones 6 to 9. During spring, you’ll only see its tall, grass-like leaves, but in September, each corm will produce between one and five flowers no more than a few inches above the ground. Plant them 3 to 4 inches deep in well-drained soil. In my zone 5 climate, we have to lift them each year and store the corms indoors until time to replant in late summer.
A Pricey Spice
There’s a reason saffron is the world’s most expensive spice. I haven’t priced it at the grocery recently, but the last time I bought a very small vial, it was expensive enough for me to rethink my need for it in the dish in question. The intensive harvesting methods, as well as the small amount produced by each flower makes the cost understandable. It’s the stamen, aka the male portion of the flower that produces pollen, that’s harvested to dry into saffron. Each stamen is hand-trimmed right after the bloom has opened. It is said to take 3 acres to produce 1 pound of saffron. By my conservative estimate, you’d need to grow about 4,000 corms to yield an ounce of saffron. Luckily, you don’t really need very much of this spice in a dish to make a huge impact.
Saffron’s Health Benefits
The primary effect of saffron in the body seems to me to be a digestive stimulant. Because it has been used for hormonal imbalance, anemia, gout, skin issues or jaundice, it appears to have a tonic effect on the liver. Again, this is most likely by way of support for more effective digestion. It’s also suggested that in small doses saffron can be effective in cough formulas. These days saffron is so expensive that people mainly use it for cooking. Dishes such as the Spanish paella could not exist without it!
I have considered growing a patch of these beautiful crocuses for a few years but have been held up by the labor of lifting and storing them each year. Perhaps if you live in zones 6 through 9 you may give it a shot. A tiny pinch of freshly harvested saffron in a fall medley of root vegetables and rice would truly be a luxury worth the waiting all summer.
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