Elisabeth C. Miller Library

PAL Question

growing saffron in the PNW


I wondered about this myself. A few years ago I bought a handful of Crocus sativus corms at the Hardy Plant Society of Washington’s fall bulb sale, planted them in a dry corner of my sandy herb garden, and promptly forgot they were there. The following October those corms sent up lovely pale flowers with the characteristic deep red threads, which persist even as the petals begin to fade. That’s when the gardener can swoop in, pluck the threads, and leave them to dry on a plate for a few hours. They shrink drastically as they dry, down from about four centimeters long to two, and the color deepens to the rusty red-orange familiar from those tiny spice jars. I’m happy to report that homegrown saffron is every bit as rare and subtle as the imported type, and my cluster of flowers seems to grow a little each year.

According to the book The Culinary Herbal by Susan Belsinger and Arthur O. Tucker (Timber Press, 2016), it’s best to collect the flowers in the morning. Spread them out on a table and split each blossom down the stem. With your fingers, remove the three-part stigma (only this part of the plant is edible). Place the saffron stigmas onto a fine-meshed screen and dry over gentle heat, or in the oven with only the oven light on. The stigmas should feel dry when they are ready for use. Store in tightly sealed glass jars away from direct light, and away from humid conditions.

Pacific Northwest writer and gardening expert Mary Robson wrote an article entitled “A Mini Saffron Harvest” in the Seattle Times (September 4, 2002). Here are excerpts:
“The saffron crocus is botanically Crocus sativus (sativus is the old Latin for any plant used medicinally or for cooking). The crocus corm (the little unit you plant) resembles that of the spring-bloomers: it’s firm, about the diameter of a thumbnail, and will often show the slightest white sprig on top where new shoots will emerge. But only the fall crocus yields the spice.
Warning: When purchasing bulbs, don’t get saffron crocus confused with a plant that also blooms in fall and is called ‘autumn crocus,’ Colchicum autumnale — which is poisonous in all its parts. […]
“To thrive here, it needs dry, sunny summer conditions and good winter drainage. One successful local grower used a raised bed facing south; these little crocus corms loathe wet feet. Soil doesn’t need unusual amendments, it must simply drain well. Plant the corms in early September, about 4 inches deep, watering them in. The first year, a few deep lavender flowers will emerge in October, totally leafless.
“To produce saffron year after year, let the leaves emerge and grow. They come after the flowers, resemble grass, and slowly grow longer and longer through the winter until they can be 18-24 inches long in spring.

“They’re floppy and funny looking during the spring when ‘normal’ crocus are putting out flowers. Keep the plants watered during leaf growth. (This is easy, because their leaf growth coincides with our wet season.) Allow them to die back naturally, which will be about April. Keep the saffron crocus hiding underground dry throughout the summer. The second year, bloom will be heavier.”