Garden Gold: Growing Saffron at Home

Saffron is among the most expensive and coveted foodstuffs in the world.

| Summer 2018

Most gardeners think of crocuses as harbingers of spring, but the corm that produces saffron, one of the most expensive spices in the world, is a beautiful autumn bloomer. Growing saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) at home may just be a surprisingly low-maintenance, highly rewarding addition to your late-season garden — and to your kitchen! 

Saffron’s Long History

Grown and harvested since antiquity in many places around the world, including Egypt, Greece, and Rome, saffron has been used in cosmetics, as dyestuff, for medicine, and in cooking. The brilliant red stigmas lend a strong yellow color to food or textiles, and during the Middle Ages, a paste colored with saffron was even used by monks as a substitute for gold in the production of illuminated manuscripts. Saffron is still expensive in this age of labor-saving machinery because it must be harvested by hand — and, as each plant typically produces 2 to 4 flowers, with only three stigmas each, it takes a vast number of plants (as well as time and labor) to produce a mere tablespoon or two of spice. Be cautious when ordering saffron crocus corms: don’t confuse C. sativus with autumn crocus, Colchicum autumnale, as the latter is poisonous. Only C. sativus produces harvestable saffron — no other crocus species does, whether it’s spring- or autumn-blooming.

Saffron Cultivation and Climate

Saffron crocus is commercially farmed in Iran, Greece, Spain, Morocco, and India, among other countries, and the plant is often overlooked as a warm climate “exotic,” but it’s cold-hardy to Zone 6. Some growers in cooler climates have protected the plants under fabric row covers or lifted and stored the corms over winter, but these are not optimal choices. Growing saffron crocus in containers may also be possible, but in some climates, successful overwintering may still necessitate lifting and storing the corms, or burying the containers in the ground.

Plant saffron crocus in late summer or early autumn — mid- to late August or early September is best in most climates. Site them in full or partial sun, in well-drained soil. Heavy clay may restrict growth, and the plants may not bloom. A sandy loam is ideal. Apply an amendment of compost before planting, and side-dress with compost annually, either in spring or fall.

Saffron crocus won’t perform well in boggy soil, and it doesn’t tolerate prolonged periods of rainfall. Flowering will be affected by overwatering, and the corms may rot. If your climate tends to be rainy, this may not be the plant for you.

Position plants at the front of the bed, both for ease of harvesting and because they’re small, only 6 to 12 inches tall. You’ll want the six-petaled, cup-shaped blue-purple flowers to make a statement for their brief blooming period. Saffron crocus can be tucked into raised beds or planters, and they make excellent additions to rockeries, dry riverbeds, and xeriscape designs. The thin, grass-like leaves first appear in spring, and then yellow and dry during dormancy in the hottest part of summer, only to return with cooler autumn weather and the flowering period. They may re-emerge just before or just after the flowers, but typically the leaves and flowers appear at nearly the same time. Don’t cut back the leaves after the flowers are finished; allow them to fade on their own.

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