The saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) belongs to the Iridaceae family of flowers, which also includes irises, and it is a close relative of freesias and gladioli. The saffron crocus is a perennial plant that grows from a rounded bulb (or corm). Purple flowers appear in autumn and erect grass-like leaves emerge just before, with or after the flowers.
The saffron spice is the stigma of the flowers (the red filaments or style, that form the female reproductive parts) of the Crocus. At harvest, the whole flower is removed from the plant and later, the stigma is separated from the flower and dried. Saffron is generally traded as whole filaments so the consumer can see they are purchasing pure saffron.
Powdered saffron has the ability to be adulterated by other products, especially turmeric, which is of lower quality, and by the yellow stamen (male reproductive parts) of the same flower.
The saffron crocus is thought to have originated in south west Asia or the Mediterranean region. It is a sterile flowering plant, i.e. it does not produce seed, and therefore its spread throughout the world has been dependent on human activity and the trade and transport of the corms.
The finer details of the origins of the saffron crocus are somewhat disputed but generally it is believed that selections were made from the wild species, C. cartwrightianus, for unusually long stigmas and through this process, a sterile mutant form now known as C. sativus has emerged.
Saffron is regarded as the world’s most valuable spice. About 15–20 flowers are needed to produce 100 milligrams of saffron filaments, which, if high quality, is the quantity required to colour and flavour a dish for 4–8 people.
Facts and figures
- Saffron was first recorded in Greece from a wild plant originating from Crete and the spice of this form (Crocus sativa) became entrenched in cuisine and cultures across the globe
- Iran is the world’s largest producer of saffron
- Australia produces about 10kg of pure saffron annually, and imports over 3,000kg (which is a mixture of pure and blended saffron)
- 150,000–250,000 flowers are required to produce one kilogram of saffron
- With optimal production, one hectare of land may produce up to 2.5 million flowers
- Most Australian growers have plots less than 0.5 hectare of saffron crocus
The production of saffron in Australia is a small but growing industry. As at 2012, ABARE and ABS statistics indicated that there were 80 saffron producers in Australia. These growers produce about 10 kilograms of saffron at a gross value AU$300,000. Of these, approximately 60 growers belong to a network and supply their product under contract to a Tasmanian producer and processor. This company provides growers with corm material as well as crop management, harvesting and processing advice and market access. The remainder of producers sell their product at farmers markets or online.
The area planted to saffron on most farms is small (less than 0.5 hectare) reflecting the laborious work of hand harvesting flowers at ground level and manual extraction of the stigma from the flowers.