Saffron is sexy. It is even more so when you grow it yourself! Imagine sprinkling some saffron, freshly picked from your garden, into a slowly simmering dish. Knowing that you grew it, and that you didn’t pay a penny for it. What would that feel like? Safe to say, pretty tasty.
Saffron is known for its sweet and earthy flavor. It is also known for being the most expensive spice on the market, going for up to $16 (€13.66) per gram. However, it is easy to grow saffron at home. And it comes from a beautiful flower that will light up your garden in the fall. August and September are the perfect months to get your own saffron plants started, so let’s see how it’s done.
Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice, and there is a good reason for it
So what exactly is a saffron plant? The species is Crocus sativus. You may know of other types of crocus, which are in the Iris family of plants. While crocus blooming times vary, this species has a beautiful purple flower that blooms in the fall. If you look inside of a bloomed flower, you will see the tiny red filaments which are what we know as saffron.
One piece of saffron is one stigma of the flower. Just to cover our plant biology, a stigma is one of the female parts of the flower. Its purpose is to receive pollen from a male flower. Each flower of this species has three stigmas. The reason saffron is so expensive is that it has to be hand-picked because it is so delicate. So with only three stigmas in each flower, that is a lot of picking! The highest quality saffron is also picked only on the first day that the flower blooms, when it is considered the freshest.
In one gram of saffron, there are 450-500 stigmas. That comes out to about 150 flowers to produce one gram! So unless you have a lot of land, you will be producing a small amount of saffron.
Luckily, you only need a little to enhance the flavor and color of a meal. You also can’t go wrong, because the flower is worth growing just for its beauty. The saffron will simply become a bonus that you can throw a killer dinner party meal with, or add to a dish you are savoring all to yourself.
Saffron bulbs are easy to grow and will keep producing saffron year after year.
You can plant saffron in hardiness zones 6-9. If you are in a colder zone, you can plant them in a container and bringing them inside during the winter. Alternatively, you could lift them out of the ground before the first frost, store them in sawdust or sand, and replant them in the spring.
When you are choosing how many bulbs to plant, keep in mind that they will multiply with each year that goes by. Expect a few additional plants to pop up each spring. The end of summer is the perfect time to plant bulbs, so plan for sometime in August or September.
Step-by-step to grow saffron at home
1. Purchase your bulbs
While you may happen across them in a nursery, the internet will be your most reliable way to purchase saffron. Search for a source that is as close to you as possible in order to be as sustainable as possible.
Bulbs are usually sold in quantities of ten or more, with discounts for larger quantities. Think about your space, how much saffron you want to eat, and how they will multiply. Also, try to buy your bulbs just before you’re ready to plant them, because they will do best planted fresh.
2. Choose your site
Bulbs will grow best in well-draining, nutrient rich soil. You can add a layer of compost to increase your soil’s nutrient level. And if you live in a wet area, try to find a high spot that will receive less rain.
If you grow saffron at home in containers, mix compost with a well-draining potting soil. Make sure your pot has at least two drainage holes to prevent water buildup. Choose a deep pot that will enable the bulbs to be on top of about 8 inches (20 cm) of soil.
Finally, bulbs require full sun, so find as sunny a spot as possible.
3. Plant away and pay attention to water
We recommend planting the bulbs about 4 inches (10 cm) deep and 6 inches (15 cm) apart. Make sure you plant them with the slightly-pointed end of the bulb facing up.
Give them one good watering after planting. After that, if you experience a lack of rain, watering will be beneficial. However, they do not require a lot of water and average rainfall will be enough.
If you grow saffron in a pot indoors, keep the soil moist but not overly wet. After the bulbs are done flowering, withhold from watering until the next growing phase, when leaves begin appearing. The bulbs are dormant in between these phases and do not require water.
4. Harvest with care
If you planted in the fall, watch for leaves appearing in the spring. Don’t be dismayed when the leaves die back. That is to be expected in the hot summer months. The flowers will then appear in the fall, one year from when you planted them. There is also a chance they will bloom the first fall; consider yourself lucky if they do!
To harvest, simply use scissors to cut the red stamens at their base. Alternatively, gently pluck them with your fingers. The best time to do this is on a sunny day when the flower is in full bloom. However, blooms only last about a week, so no procrastinating is allowed on this step.
5. Dig and divide
Growing saffron at home is a gift that keeps on giving! Every few years, it will be beneficial to dig up your bulbs and divide them. They will naturally multiply. And while this is great for increasing your saffron load, the flowers will not bloom as well if they are overcrowded.
Gently dig up bulbs that look too cozy next to each other, and replant them with some space in between. This is best done in late fall when they are neither flowering nor have living leaves.
How to use home-grown saffron
Once you have cut your saffron, it is up to you how to use it. You can use it fresh, or you can dry it and saved for later.
- Lay the stamens on a paper towel
- Place in a sunny and dry spot
- Leave them for 1-3 days until they are dry.
- Keep dried saffron in a sealed container in a cool, dry place. It should stay fresh for up to five years.
There are many amazing recipes that use saffron. From simple rice dishes to more complicated ones like bouillabaisse. You could even try making saffron bread! Whatever you use it in will give a beautiful yellow-orange color and taste fabulous.
Seeing and tasting your food glow from a beautiful flower you grew yourself is a fulfilling experience. You can also feel connected to history, knowing that this plant has been grown for thousands of years for medicinal and culinary uses. Among many benefits, it has antioxidant and antidepressant properties. So here’s another plant to add to our best medicinal plants to grow at home!
Give this unique plant a try in your garden, and let us know how it goes through our Instagram @thegreenconspiracy or on our website in the comments bellow. We would love to hear from you and know how it went growing the world’s most expensive spice. Happy fall planting!