Spain: Crocus - banking the world's most expensive spice

28.07.10 by José Antonio Fernández, Crocusbank Coordinator

Crocusbank logoSaffron is made from the dried stigmas of the Saffron flower (Crocus sativus L.), a triploid sterile plant vegetatively propagated by means of bulbs (also called corms or onions). Saffron is unique among crops - the product is the stigma and each one weighs about 2 mg. Approximately 150,000 to 200,000 flowers are required to yield 1 kg of Saffron spice. Its high price reflects the labour required for its cultivation, harvesting and handling (separation of stigma from other flower parts, drying and packaging).

Saffron cultivation has long been centred on a broad belt of Eurasia bounded by the Mediterranean Sea in the southwest, to Kashmir and China in the northeast. Currently the commercial production of Saffron is based in Iran (80-90% of world production, about 200 tonnes). India, Morocco, Greece, Spain, Italy, China, and Afghanistan also produce significant amounts, whereas micro-scale production is found in France, Switzerland, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Japan, Tasmania, New Zealand, Argentina, USA and others. Saffron production has decreased rapidly in many European countries along the last century, and is virtually extinct in the UK, Germany and Austria.

Saffron crocus showing the valuable red stigma

Crocus sativus showing the valuable red stigmas

Several Protected Denominations of Origin (DOP) for Saffron are established in Europe: Krokos Kozanis (Kozani, Greece), Azafrán de La-Mancha (La-Mancha, Spain), Zafferano dell´Aquila (L´Aquila, Italy), Zafferano di Sardegna (Sardegna, Italy), Zafferano di San Gimignano (Tuscany, Italy); Zafferano delle Colline Fiorentine (Firenze, Italy); Munder Safran (Mund, Switzerland). Others are currently in course: Azafranes del Jiloca and Campo Bello (Teruel, Spain); Safrans du Gâtinais, Quercy, Font Saint Blaise en Limousin, Provence, and du Tarn et du Lauragais (France), and Zafferano di Cascia (Italy). The purpose of these protected labels is to preserve cultivation, manufacturing and merchandising of Saffron in their specific areas. However, DOPs do not prevent usurpation and plagiarism, and the temptation of easy profit. This is not a new problem, the Saffron world has been infected by epidemics of adulteration and fraud since ancient times.


The origin of Saffron crop is uncertain. C. sativus has been cultivated for its spice for at least 3,500 years in Egypt and the Middle East. The name Crocus finds its origins in the Greek word krokos, and Saffron, in turn derives from the Semitic word Karkom, one of the oldest names for this plant. Some archaeological and historical studies indicate that domestication of Saffron dates back to 3,000–1,600 years BC. This is derived from documents reproducing the plant or showing people collecting the crop (see Minoan frescoes from Akrotiri on Santorini and Knossos on Crete, Greece). However the sites where the first Saffron plants appeared differ according to the opinion of various authors. Vavilov placed Saffron into the IV plant origin centre in the Middle East (Minor Asia, Transcaucasia, and Turkestan); while more recent contributions indicate Saffron domestication has been identified in Crete during the Late Bronze Age.

Historical records detail the use of Saffron date to ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, where it was used as a medicinal plant, as a dye, as a perfume, and as a spice and colorant for culinary purposes. Saffron use reached its peak in the Iberian Peninsula by the Muslims. During the Middle Ages, Saffron culture expanded to the rest of Europe due to the Crusaders, and settled in Switzerland, France and Italy, reaching Great Britain in the 14th century. Towards the east, Saffron was preserved by diverse civilizations in the current territories of Iran, Azerbaijan and Kashmir and was first exported to China in the 13th century as a health food, and again in the 16th century as a medicine before reaching Japan at the beginning of the 17th century. Since then, Japanese people have used Saffron almost exclusively as a health product.

Saffron is mostly used as spice and food colorant and, less extensively, as a textile dye or perfume. However, due to its analgesic and sedative properties, traditional Eurasian herbal medicines have often used Saffron for the treatment of numerous diseases.

Saffron has been one of the oldest plants used as medicine and the renewed importance of Saffron as nutraceutical and functional food is being sustained by an increasing amount of evidence. It has also been claimed to have effects on senile dementia, retina-degeneration, immunomodulation, as well as having antimicrobial, antidepressant, antitumor or cardiovascular protective properties. Although these effects require more pharmacological and nutraceutical trials, and significantly more scientific substantiation, I support the potential health application of this plant with a profile similar to green-tea, ginseng, etc.

wild crocus flowerThe genus Crocus includes 88 native species from Europe, North Africa and temperate Asia, and is well represented with a centre of biodiversity in countries of south-eastern Europe and Western and Central Asia where they grow naturally in the fields between shrubs and grass or light woodlands. The Crocus genus is known mainly for the cultivated species C. sativus, which is of prime economic importance. However, other species belonging to the genus, are highly prized for their colourful flowers, and used extensively in specialised gardening. These are horticultural varieties of C. vernus, C. versicolor and C. aureus, among others. There are many rare and endemic Crocus taxa, and some are critically endangered including C. moabiticus, C. oreocreticus, and C. pestalozzae.

Wild crocus flowers

Top C. nudiflorus, a beautiful wild Spanish saffron and below C. carpenatus, an endemic
of the Western Iberian Peninsula. All images © José Antonio Fernández
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