THE SAFFRON CROCUS - Crocus sativus
The saffron crocus - Crocus sativus, has had a long tradition in the British Isles. Believed to have been introduced here by the Romans it became a popular cash crop during the Tudor period. Such was its commercial value that the town of Chipping Walden in Essex - an area renowned for its saffron production – had its name changed to ‘Saffron’ Walden in honour of this prestigious spice – a name that still remains to this day.
It's the world’s most expensive spice and no wonder when it takes approximately 150 flowers to yield just 1 gram of dry saffron threads. In fact, to produce 12 g of dried saffron, you will need an incredible 1 kg of flowers. To give you an idea of the possible yield you could get in your garden, a bed fourteen foot long by three foot wide will give you just enough to cover the bottom of a teaspoon
Unlike its ornamental cousins which seem to be able to grow anywhere, the Crocus sativus is a tricky plant to grow in the British climate. This is all down to its Mediterranean origins, but by keeping to a few simple rules you should be able to create a perfectly acceptable environment that will produce a successful – although extremely small – crop of saffron spice year on year.
Although its ancestors are now unknown in the wild, the domesticated plant that exists today requires a rich fertile soil that will reliably dry out and even bake during the summer. This hot dry period is vital as it creates the dormancy period required to trigger flower initiation in the autumn.
Traditionally the Saffron crocus was grown in raised containers to guarantee good drainage. This would have given the Tudor gardeners control over the root environment ensuring that the vital dormancy period occurs. In modern European commercial practices, the Saffron crocus is planted into pockets of land that slope towards the sun. That way they get almost all day exposure to the heat and light, as well as the excellent drainage provided from the sloping ground. It makes sense then to place your bulbs in a fully open and sunny site, and planted into a very well-drained soil.
Given the choice they grow best in a friable, clay-calcareous soil with a high organic content – back in the Tudor times a well rotted farm manures would have been applied before planting, but surprisingly no further applications were ever given. Nowadays though, they are normally given a feed of potash at the end of the summer to help promote flowering. Plant them 6 inches apart, and - unlike most small bulbs - plant them comparatively deep, about 6 inches or so. This planting depth is another critical factor as this can affect the plants spice yields. The current rule of thumb is that the deeper the saffron corm is planted the better the quality of spice is produced. Unfortunately there is also down-side to this as your plants will have fewer flowers and will produce less bulblets for propagation later.
Mice and squirrels can also be a real problem when you are trying to grow crocus as they capable of destroying trays of bulbs in a single night. Dipping the bulbs in liquid paraffin can sometimes work, but covering them with a very fine-mesh wire under the soil is usually the best method.
Once planted you may need to wait for a couple of years for them to get to a decent size before they mature enough to start flowering. After the summer’s dormancy period, the bulbs will begin to send up their narrow leaves and quickly come into bud during the early autumn. Only in mid-autumn will the plants begin to flower. You will need to catch them quickly though as they will barely last a day, and wither very quickly, and if that wasn’t bad enough they are a favourite of the slugs too.
Harvesting saffron involves keeping an eye out for the three red stigmas that occur in each bloom. These should be harvested in the morning when the flowers have fully opened. Carefully remove them from the flower with tweezers and dry them off in a warm dark location. To avoid spoiling your crop, give your saffron plenty of time to dry out and store it in a dark, tightly capped container.
Several saffron cultivars are grown worldwide but for those who want the best quality spice only a few of them are known to be of a “premium" quality. The "Aquila" saffron is perhaps the best known, grown exclusively on eight hectares in the Navelli Valley of Italy's Abrozzo region. Another is the Kashmiri "Mongra" or "Lacha" saffron (Crocus sativa 'Cashmirianus'), unfortunately it is almost impossible to obtain such coveted and valuable plants. However you should still be interested in obtaining Saffron crocus they should be available as bulbs in your local plant retailer as soon as the autumn bulb displays arrive.
For more information click onto:
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