Garden gold

August 25, 2002|by Dorry Baird Norris

In garden books, compost is often described as "black gold." That's true, of course. Compost is money in the garden bank.

But the real gardener's gold is hidden in the small corm of Crocus sativa - the saffron crocus. Saffron's six-petaled purple or white flowers make a perfect setting for the vermilion stigmas that leap from their centers. These stigmas are the world's costliest spice.

No wonder saffron is a budget buster. It takes 60,000 to 75,000 (depending on your reference) of these long, slender stigmas to make a pound of saffron. The flowers must be picked by hand from the five-inch-tall plant - a backbreaking job. The stigmas are painstakingly removed from the flowers and dried to become the orange-red threads that are sold at the grocery store as saffron.

In early times saffron was admired for its perfume and cosmetic properties as well as its a curative properties for both man and beast. It was recommended that a few strands of saffron be added to the drinking water of "caged birds when they are molting or otherwise sickly." Sir Francis Drake opined that the "liberal use of saffron in their broths and sweetmeats" is what made "the English people sprightly." In Asia the rich yellow color achieved by soaking the stamens in water was called "the very perfection of beauty."


Saffron has a just a hint of a bitter metallic taste, not unpleasant in moderation but unappetizing when used with a heavy hand. The flavor, as one writer noted, needs to be "set free" by soaking the frail threads in liquid before adding to the recipe. And, of course, you add the liquid as well as the soaked threads to your dish.

Saffron is an indispensable ingredient in risotto, paella, and bouillabaisse. Combined with almonds and pistachios, saffron flavors Sheer Korma, an Indian dessert. Blended with cardamom and cinnamon, it scents the sweet rice dish Zarda Pullao.

This is the perfect time of year to order your own saffron corms, for they are available only in the fall. But don't expect a crop for a year or two. They need a sunny well-drained spot - dappled shade will work as long as it isn't soggy.

Plant your corms six inches apart and three to four inches deep. Planted now, your crocuses will send up leaves in the spring, then die back and make a surprise blooming visit early next fall. To harvest, use a pair of tweezers to pull the red stigma from the bloom. Dry between two sheets of paper towels (this keeps them from blowing away.) Store in a tightly stoppered glass jar in the refrigerator.

The corms need to be replanted every three or four years because the new 'cormlets' form over the original one pushing the plants up out of the soil. In the spring, after the grass-like leaves start to die down, dig up the corms and keep them in a dry place. Replant in late August.

The saffron crocus is generally hardy from Zone 6-9 (it even managed nicely in a protected spot in my New York Zone 5 kitchen garden.)

True to our principle of getting our herbs in the largest pieces possible to preserve flavor, we always buy saffron threads rather than powder.

Two reliable sources for Crocus sativus corms are:

  • McClure & Zimmerman,

    1-800-883-6998, P.O. Box 368, Friesland, WI 53935

  • Well-Sweep Herb Farm,

    1-908-853-5390, 205 Mt. Bethel Rd., Port Murray, NJ 07865

After his recent talk at the Washington County Museum of Art, Clarke E. Hess discussed with us Mennonite cultivation of saffron in nearby Lancaster, Pa. We'll talk more about that in a later column.

Herbarist, lecturer and Hagers-town resident Dorry Baird Norris is a member of the International Herb Association, a member-at-large of the Herb Society of America and author of "The Sage Cottage Herb Garden Cookbook." She welcomes questions about the non-medical use of herbs.

E-mail her at or write in care of The Herald-Mail Co., P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, MD 21741.

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