Saffron: red gold


Ich habe einen Master-Abschluss in Gartenbauwissenschaften und bin zudem gelernter Zierpflanzengärtner. Das Thema Anbau lässt mich seit meiner Kindheit einfach nicht los: Egal, ob auf der kleinen Stadtfensterbank oder im großzügigen Garten - Gärtnern muss ich auch in meiner Freizeit immer und überall.

Lieblingsobst: Himbeeren
Lieblingsgemüse: Brokkoli

Saffron is a special spice, and not just because of its huge price. Only the threads of the flowers have the bitter and spicy aroma.

Container full of saffron threads
Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world [Photo: Stolyevych Yuliya/]

Saffron (Crocus sativus) belongs to the iris family (Iridaceae). It is the most expensive spice in the world. Since saffron is a species of crocus, it has a tuber – and not a bulb as is often mistakenly assumed. The tuber sprouts again year after year. Saffron belongs to the autumn crocuses, as it only sprouts and flowers in the second half of the year. Some of its relatives, which herald spring in our gardens, are also distinguished from saffron by their much shorter stigmas. These are strikingly long and red in colour in this noble spice from the Aegean. They are also the only organ of saffron that has the characteristic bitter and spicy taste and aroma. Each of the blue-purple flowers forms three such precious stigmas. This exquisite crocus species is the result of a mutation of a related species with much shorter stigmas. The plant, which is just 15 cm tall at the most, has a triple set of chromosomes due to the mutation. As a result, saffron cannot form pollen and is sterile. Propagation can only take place via the so-called vegetative method. Although the largest growing areas are in consistently warmer regions in the Mediterranean and Middle East, even here you can grow saffron in your own garden with a little skill.

Cultivating saffron


In Europe, saffron is mainly grown in Mediterranean countries such as Italy and Spain. However, Iran has the largest market share at 80-90%. These countries are particularly suitable for the cultivation of saffron due to their warmth and the many hours of sunshine. In any case, a place should be chosen where the saffron will still get plenty of light rays from the lower autumn sun when it sprouts. Furthermore, a well-draining soil with a certain amount of sand is advantageous. Waterlogging must be avoided at all times. If the soil is too heavy and does not drain water well, sand can be incorporated to provide more favourable water drainage. You can also grow saffron in a pot. For this, it is best to use a peat-free soil such as our Plantura Organic All Purpose Compost. Additionally, a location that is as protected from the wind as possible is important for saffron.

Organic All Purpose Compost, 40L
Organic All Purpose Compost, 40L
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  • Perfect for all your house, garden & balcony plants
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Propagation and planting

Planting time for the saffron tubers is in the months of June to August. The depth of planting should be 10-15 cm, and the distance in the row 10 cm. The tubers sprout in the same autumn and bloom in October. Saffron is a wintergreen plant – the foliage remains over the cold months and only dries up the next spring. At temperatures from -15 °C, however, it can slowly but surely become critical for the survival of the saffron.

Saffron flowers growing from soil
Crocus sativus needs a lot of warmth and sun [Photo: Gts/]

As already mentioned, saffron is sterile due to its triploid chromosome set. Propagation by seed (so-called generative propagation) is therefore out of the question. The precious spice can only be propagated asexually (so-called vegetative propagation). As is usual for crocuses, the tubers of the saffron form daughter tubers at the base of the tuber. They, in turn, can be uprooted from the ground and planted the next summer.

Watering and fertilising

In terms of water supply, the most important thing for saffron is that it does not experience waterlogging. Additional watering is really only necessary during extreme drought and heat in late summer and fall. When cultivated in pots, no additional fertilisation is necessary. If the saffron is planted in the bed, it is sufficient to improve the soil in spring with an application of slow-release fertiliser. Our Plantura All Purpose Plant Food is ideal.

All Purpose Plant Food, 1.5kg
All Purpose Plant Food, 1.5kg
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  • Perfect for a variety of plants in the garden & on the balcony
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Saffron care

In general, saffron is not particularly susceptible to pests and diseases. Nevertheless, after a while in the same location, soil-borne fungi can cause trouble and pose a risk to the tuber. Therefore, after four years at most you should change the location of the iris plant. Voles are fond of any bulbs and tubers, so you cannot be sure whether the rodents will leave some of the saffron bulb for the next sprouting. The reason why saffron cultivation is particularly productive and successful in warmer regions is the rather warm prevailing temperatures there, even in autumn. For good and certain flower development, temperatures of around 15 °C are ideal for saffron. These temperatures cannot be guaranteed at the start of autumn here. This reduces the number of tubers that reach flowering and thus leads to lower yield.

If you want to grow saffron yourself, check out our growing instructions.

Saffron: harvesting and storage

The yield per unit area of saffron is extremely low in relative terms. To be able to bring 1 kg of saffron to market, 150,000 to 200,000 saffron tubers have to grow and flower over 10,000 m2. This leads to extremely high costs per gram. In addition, the harvest of saffron is a purely manual task. A skilled person can harvest just 60 to 80 g of the valuable spice a day. The harvest time of the luminous red saffron threads is limited to two to three weeks in October. The so-called thinning out with tweezers or, with practice, the fingernails, refers to the separation of the threads from the rest of the sterile flower. This can either be done directly on the plant, leaving the ornamental purple petals, or the entire flower is harvested first. Then the threads are later separated from the rest of the flower. In any case, harvesting in the morning hours is best. This means the delicate scars can be protected from extreme sunlight and a loss of aroma.

Top view of saffron flowers
Only the red stigma of the saffron flower is harvested [Photo: Isabel2016/]

To preserve saffron, the stigmas can be dried after harvesting. This is a very rapid process. In the sun, it takes no more than an hour. After the drying process, the threads have lost around 40% of their fresh weight. Most often, the pistils are stored as a whole in the form of the typical saffron threads. In rare cases, they are ground into powder. This is also very easy to confuse with the powder obtained from the rhizome of turmeric. Counterfeit saffron powder, which is actually turmeric, is quite possible to get your hands on in the market and is a very lucrative business for the counterfeiter. If the saffron threads are sealed airtight and protected from light, they can be used for up to two years without loss of aroma. Dark storage also retains the colouration of saffron longer.

You can find even more interesting facts in our article harvesting & storing saffron.

Uses and constituents

Saffron is known for its yellow-reddish colour and bitter-spicy taste. Carotenoids are responsible for the colour. It is also very popular for intensifying the colour of various dishes in the kitchen. But even in past centuries, the dyes of saffron were used to dye in various ways. For example, it was used to imitate the colour of gold lettering.
The bitter substance it contains is also known as saffron bitters. If saffron is used to enhance various dishes, it should never be overcooked. Cooking for too long can cause the colouring to end up less intense and the flavours to dissipate. It is best to prepare the threads in lukewarm water and add them to the cooking pot only at the end of the preparation. If saffron is to be used in powder form, it is best to always grind the threads freshly for preparing the meal.
Saffron is especially popular in Persian rice dishes. But there are also some classics in European cuisine that are refined with saffron:

  • Paella: Spanish rice dish, often with seafood.
  • Bouillabaisse: Fish and seafood soup from Provence.
  • Risotto alla milanese: Milanese style risotto.
  • Lusskatter: Swedish curd pastry.

All in all, saffron is special in many ways. But if you’d like to have this precious spice, you can avoid the high prices with a little skill and care by growing it in your own garden.

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