When you think of saffron, probably the first thing that comes to mind is that it is the most expensive spice in the world. This spice is often thought of as being used in classic European dishes such as Spanish paella or Italian risotto, but is also great in more common American dishes such as chicken soup, stews, pot pies or tomato based sauces. A few threads of saffron add a beautiful color and rich, interesting flavor to many savory recipes.
What you may not know is where saffron actually comes from and how easy it is to grow yourself. The bright red threads you buy are actually the stigmas, or the female portion of the saffron crocus flower.
The high cost of saffron comes from the intense labor needed to harvest it, not the difficulty of growing it. It takes hundreds of crocus flowers to produce a commercially useful amount, but for the home gardener, a couple dozen plants should be enough to last you a year and produce enough saffron for many flavorful dishes.
Saffron comes from the saffron crocus, Crocus sativus and you can find the crocus corms (which look like bulbs) online for about $20 for 25 corms. It is very simple to grow. The corms should be planted in the summer and the stigmas harvested in the fall. It is best if you have a planting site that stays relatively dry in the summer while the corms are dormant. The most important variable in growing saffron is the soil, not the region, although it does best in zones 6-9. To be safe in zone 5, you may want to dig them up annually. The soil should be rich in organic matter and well drained. The corms should be planted as soon as you get them.
Plant them about 3 inches deep and 6 inches apart. Each year after the first planting, the corms will multiply and the plant will increase in size, making your harvest more plentiful. If you don’t dig them up annually, about every 3 or 4 years divide and replant the corms to prevent overcrowding. It is a very hardy plant and both disease and insect resistant.
Harvest the threads using a tweezers or small scissors. These threads can be used immediately in cooking or you can dry and store them to use later. To dry them, place the strands on a paper towel for several days in a warm, dry place then store them in air tight containers. When cooking with saffron, the longer it simmers in liquid, the better the flavor and color of your dish. 2 or 3 strands should be plenty for any recipe.
If you aren’t sure you want dozens of plants, you can start out small and plant a few corms in a pot indoors anytime of the year. It is really a pretty plant and fun to harvest fresh saffron for a batch of chicken soup or paella. With the cost of saffron currently over $70 an ounce, you may want to give growing your own a try. You won’t be disappointed!
Certified Master Gardener