I continue to update my growing tips, as time and experience encourage me to do so.
I first purchased saffron crocus / crocus sativus corms in 2017, and it was with great excitement that I selected, what I thought would be, the perfect place to plant and grow saffron in my home garden. Two years on and the disappointment was kicking in – there was barely a little green and absolutely no flowers each year.
Frustrated, I decided to dig up the corms and move them, but to where? Finally I decided to place them at the base of our espaliered pear trees that form the boundary between the greater garden and the vegie patch. Here they would receive maximum sun and the residual moisture from the drip irrigation that watered the trees on a regular basis, and they would have there own, forever, space.
The first year after planting, I was very excited to discover two flowers. This year they delivered more flowers, and thus more stigma – not a lot, but now I know that they are in the right place, and I can’t wait to use my carefully collected and dried saffron, in the kitchen (this time I think I will be doing Spiced Duck Breast with Saffron Orange Sauce as I have some beautiful Aylesbury duck arriving late next week.
Something else that I have recently discovered, that may have added to the improvement in my saffron crocus planting, is that every winter we distribute the ash collected from the open fire around our fruit trees and rose bushes. With the crocus corms planted in such close proximity to the pear trees, they are benefiting from this winter addition of wood ash! Experience is a great teacher and we are always learning, aren’t we!
Saffron Crocus – Growing saffron crocus at home
Crocus sativus is more commonly known as the saffron crocus, or autumn crocus and is best known for producing the spice, saffron. Saffron is simply the three pronged stigma of the saffron crocus flower, and given that a single bulb can produce four flowers, theoretically one bulb can produce 12 strands of saffron. Harvested by hand and dried, it is much prized in the culinary world for both its flavour as a seasoning, and for the beautiful golden colour that it imparts. Saffron is an essential ingredient in Spanish paellas and Italian risottos, and is a common ingredient in Indian, Mediterranean and Italian cuisines where it is used to flavour and colour curries, sauces, marinades, desserts and sweets. Commonly infused in liquid, it can also be ground into a powder and stirred in.
The most expensive spice in the world gram for gram, saffron is said to be more expensive than gold. This is understandable given that the fragile stigmas are hand picked, and to get just 500 grams of the spice, 80,000 crocus flowers are required. Saffron can retail from $10/gram, with local or high-quality imported saffron costing up to $100/gram. So if you have the right climate, it makes good sense to try and grow your own at home.
Saffron is grown from bulbs in well-drained soil with the violet coloured crocus flower appearing in Autumn.
Climate: Saffron crocus prefers Mediterranean (dry temperate) conditions with winter / spring rain and dry summers.
Dormancy: Spring to summer – After flowering the plant will continue to grow, resembling a small mondograss. Allow the green leaves to die off naturally, as a daffodil would, as during this time the corm is storing goodness and multiplying underground. You should avoid digging around dormant corms
Feeding: Lightly dress with a potassium based fertilizer, after flowering and while the leaves are still green. (I use a mix of wood ash from the open fire and garden compost which is primarily made from kitchen scraps.)
Flowers: Shoots will appear in autumn from mid-March to end April (in Australia). Pretty flowers of lilac or purple, often with light stripes, can appear at anytime once shoots emerge. Flowering generally occurs over a three week period.
Harvesting: Pick the flowers early in the morning, before the sun deteriorates them. Remove the three red stigmas from the flower and place on paper towel to dry out. This make take a few days. The dried stigmas are deep red to orange-red, wiry and very brittle.
Position: Corms should have full sun, all day, preferably north-facing and slightly sloping. Flower production is best with full sun.
Problems: Humidity and poor drainage
Propagation: Saffron can only be grown by dividing clumps of corms. You should divide and replant the corms every 4 to 6 years, this prevents overcrowding and decreased flowering. It is best to dig and divide the corms right after the foliage has begun to die down – mid to late autumn/fall.
Soil: Well drained, deep, rich, with a pH of 6.5.
Sow and plant: Plant the corms directly into raised beds or in a terracotta pot, tuft facing upwards. Plant new corms in summer or early autumn.
Spacing: Plant corms 50mm/2 inches deep and 100mm/4 inches apart.
Storage: Store dried saffron stigmas in an airtight glass bottle in a cool dark place. If the air gets to it, it will diminish in strength.
Watering: Do not water often, as corms prefer a dry soil and do not like ‘wet-feet’. Usually rain is enough, except in the extreme heat during summer.
Using Saffron in the Kitchen
Saffron is characterised by its distinctive fragrance created by picrocrocin and safranal with the rich golden-yellow hue a result of the carotenoi and crocin content. These traits make saffron a much sought-after ingredient in many cuisines worldwide, but is best used sparingly as too much can give a medicinal flavour to a meal.
Differing from other spices, saffron should be activated before use by a method know as ‘steeping’ or ‘infusion’. This is done be adding the required amount of saffron strands to boiling liquid and allowing them to infuse for anything from 1 hour to 24 hours. The time required depends on the intensity of flavour, colour or aroma required. Usually 4-6 strands is all that is needed per half a cup of boiling liquid, but of course, this depends on the quality of the saffron you are using. Whatever liquid your recipe calls for, whether it is water, milk, juice white wine, stock, etc. you should infuse the saffron for more than an hour, preferably in a covered/sealed container.
How and when you add the infused liquid to your dish depends on the recipe. However as a rule of thumb:
- For full strength flavour and aroma, add the saffron infusion towards the end of cooking, with low heat.
- For full strength colour, add the saffron infusion at the beginning of cooking, with high heat.
Alternatively, you could add half of the liquid at the beginning of cooking and half at the end. Many chefs around the world use spirits such as Cointreau, vodka, gin etc…, adding it to sauces for increased flavour.
You can use saffron in rice dishes, mains, casseroles, sauces, desserts, sauces, baking and drinks. It pairs beautifully with saffron loves asparagus, rice, eggs, cheese, chicken, leeks, seafood, mushrooms and spinach and pairs with anise, cardamom, cinnamon, fennel, ginger, nutmeg, paprika and pepper.
Until next time…
Happy gardening & bon appétit!
- Saffron Crocus – Growing saffron crocus at home
- Jennifer Stackhouse, Good Organic Gardening
- Tasmanian Saffron Pty Ltd