A good friend gifted me the bulbs (technically called corms) for my Crocus sativus a few years ago, thus beginning a fascination with this pretty little autumn spray of color. I had previously used saffron in a couple of dishes but due to the price (up to $5,000 per pound for high grade) and my thrifty nature, I saved my kitchen explorations for other, less expensive forays.
Thanks to my gardening buddy, I now harvest saffron from my own garden. For a 2- to 3-week period each autumn, I wander out each morning with my little glass container and gently pluck the three stigmas—bright red, edible saffron part—from each of the flowers that have opened in the previous 24 hours.
I have yet to count the flowers I harvest from in one season, but I know it’s far from the 75,000 flowers it takes to produce one pound of saffron. My small collection of bulbs is slowly multiplying, but it’s enough to supply my single household with enough treasure for my current culinary purposes. It will be time to dig up the corms next year to divide them as this is optimal every 3 to 4 years for bringing on even larger harvests.
I heartily support growing your own if you live in Crocus sativus friendly zones—Zone 5 to Zone 8 in my neck of the woods, and up to Zone 9 in the west. I needn’t have worried about our mini drought affecting my crocus since they don’t like too much rain in the summer warmth when they’re sleeping. However, harvest did start a couple of weeks later this year because of our warmer temperatures. My crocus seem to be triggered by nighttime temperatures in the 30s.
I don’t mind sharing my flowers with the smaller flyers (aka insects) in my garden because I know there are dwindling food sources and cover from predators at this time of year. They also seem to leave the stigmas alone so I can still harvest my treasure. Somebody really made a meal out of one of the flowers this fall (lower right of the photo collage above). I’m guessing it may have been a bird or a slug rather than the insects in the photos who still left the stigmas to me.
As the photos show, this particular bumblebee was just waking up and was hardly bothered by my harvesting. The top two photos of the above array show the before and after where the bumble hardly moved at all. The flower, bottom left, shows a blossom hideaway that I’ll likely harvest from tomorrow.
Make sure to buy only Crocus sativus for harvesting. This plant, and the wild one it is descended from—Crocus cartwrightianus—are the only edible varieties. There are other fall flowering crocus, but they are toxic and should not be used for food or cooking.
The photo above shows my dried saffron harvest at the end of the 2018 season compared to the first two days of picking in the 2019 season. I’m happy to pick straight into my wee glass ramekin for now since I only have a few flowers a day to pluck. For larger harvests, a dehydrator would come in handy as long as the saffron was protected from falling through or blowing around.
To date, I have mainly used saffron in rice dishes and incorporated into my sourdough bread. I love a good paella—a traditional dish with saffron—and look forward to a day when I have more saffron than I can use so that I can wander further into experimentation. For now, I’m happy to use whatever treasures they treat me to along with the splash of eye candy before my indoor hibernation.
If you have a spot in your garden with plenty of sunshine, well-draining and somewhat rich soil where you would appreciate a bit of fall color that also gives you some harvest gold to add to your kitchen pantry, consider growing Crocus sativus. It certainly brings joy and delight into this gardening cook’s life.
Blythe Pelham is an artist that aims to enable others to find their grounding through energy work. She is in the midst of writing a cookbook and will occasionally share bits in her blogging here. She writes, gardens and cooks in Ohio. Find her online at Humings and Being Blythe, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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