The truth about the true Saffron

The truth about the true Saffron
27/01/2015 Margarida Moreira

The saffron crocus (Crocus sativus, Iridaceae family), originating in Southern Europe is one of the most curious plants of Nature.

The plant is herbaceous perennial (10 cm high and wide) and at the terminal part of the bulb, bloom about four delicate flowers in the middle of October. The plant is hermaphroditic and triploid (a trisomic is a cell that presents an extra chromosome. In the case of humans, Down syndrome is an example of trisomy, these patients have three chromosomes in the pair 21 instead of only two.), self compatible but the male organs are infertile and consequently the plant does not produce viable seeds. Nevertheless, the propagation may be performed by dividing the bulb by vegetative division, can create (multiply) up to 10 new bulbs, this technique should be done in spring.

As with all plants, this also requires some care and integrated protection. The main phytosanitary issues (problems) are weeds, nematodes (phylum of cylindrical and elongated animals) and diseases (Rhizoctonia crocorum – causes brown spots and death of plants; Fusarium – attacks the rhizome and leaves an orange band on the edge of the healthy parts). The disease can only be effectively control with crop rotation. The bulbs can be attacked by rodents, one way of fighting is to cover the soil with a thin wire mesh. Crop rotation is important for the ground resting, promoting acquisition of nutrients and soil renewing. The renewal of the planting should be done every three years, the bulbs may be collected and replanted in another soil.

The flower is delicate and light, and 100.000 to 140.000 flowers are required to obtain 1 kg of stigmas which corresponds to 80 kg of flowers. The procedure of the separation of stigmas is (always) manual. The drying temperature of stigma should not exceed 35ºC and the process involves the loss of 80% of initial weight. As such, the harvesting process proves to be very expensive, so that in supermarkets true saffron is often bypassed and replaced with a product to 300 times cheaper: Turmeric (Curcuma longa).

The crocus stigmas are used in herbal tea, for flavoring and coloring meals like the famous Spanish Paella and the Italian risotto alla Milanese. The active principle is a carotenoid: Crocin (pigments, oxidizable molecules and exhibit warm colors: from yellow to red. Carotenoids are precursors of vitamin A synthesis) which is responsible for the color. The Picrocrocin – bitter glycolide – is another active ingredient in turmeric that is a glycosylated monoterpene, the precursor of Safranal which is an organic compound responsible for the characteristic aroma of saffron.

In medicine, the stigmas are recommended as an aphrodisiac, antispasmodic, stimulant, carminative and digestive. For medical or therapeutic use, it is recommended to consult a health care professional because the plant is toxic (when consumed in excess and if the dose exceeds 5 or 10 g of saffron can be lethal).

This is the truth about the true Saffron (Crocus sativus)!

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