In college, I once was invited to a paella party. I had no idea what paella was. But since all we had to do was pitch in $5 for ingredients – I was in!
The paella pan was the size of an oven top. Calamari, other fish, and cubes of rabbit, chicken, and pork all mingled on a bed of yellowish rice.
Even vegetables like fresh peas and carrots were mixed in. The display was incredible. However, the thing that grabbed my attention was the aroma.
The steam rising from the pan filled the entire room with a musky, savory scent that was entirely unlike anything I had ever inhaled before. I was hooked! From that moment on, the fragrance of saffron has had the magical ability to transport me back to that first encounter or take me to exotic places like Spain, India, and Italy.
For many years, the origins of those tiny, red threads that pack such a flavor punch (and make an equally large dent in my wallet), were a mystery to me. Then, I decided to grow my own.
Saffron Plant Info
- Hardiness Zones: 6, 7, 8, can also be planted in other zones if bulbs are removed after flowering
- Soil: Anything but heavy clay pH between 6.0 and 8.0, deep, fertile, well-drained with some organic matter incorporated
- Sun Exposure: Full sun
- Planting: Plant corms in late summer at least three months before the first frost
- Spacing: 4 to 6 inches apart
- Depth: 4 to 6 inches deep, with corm planted pointy side up
- Watering: Water only during extended dry periods
- Fertilizing: Compost and mulch annually, move beds every 4-5 years
- Common Problems: Rodents, Mites, Thrips, Blister Beetles, Rot
- Best Companions: Roses, peonies, various salvia plants, columbine, phlox
- Worst Companions: All edible roots, tubers, bulbs, and grasses
- Harvest: Harvest flowers for the stigmas
Why Grow Saffron?
If you love saffron-scented rice or saffron sauces as much as I do, then let me give you one great big easy to grow saffron at home. In certain climates, you can save money. Saffron is very easy to grow. Plus the flowers are beautiful and fragrant.
The only “hard part” about growing saffron is harvesting it. You have to collect a lot of flowers to get a little saffron. But for personal homestead use, that only takes me about 15 minutes a year.
Saffron bulbs usually cost about $1 each. Old corms make new corms each year. So, even if you only start with a few bulbs, within in a few years you can produce all the saffron you need for just a small investment.
Saffron Varieties to Plant
Crocus sativus, commonly called Saffron, are corms that produce stunning purple flowers. They have grass-like leaves and yellow stamens. Each flower has three bright orange, red, or nearly purple colored stigmas that are removed by hand and dried to make saffron.
Although the corms aren't generally identified by varieties in the way that something like tulips bulbs or dahlia tubers would be, there are some distinctions in saffron corms. Depending on the region where the saffron grows, there are distinct variations in color, flavor, and fragrance that make for different experiences when enjoying saffron.
Because saffron can command $1500 to $5000 a pound, professional growers do not tend to share their best corms on the open market. Therefore, when buying Crocus Sativus corms for home use, most of what's available is lower grade saffron from smaller-sized corms, and the region of origin is not indicated. (Don't worry, the saffron is still delicious!)
Details such as the color and length of the stigmas (saffron threads) may give you clues as to the region of origin. Here are a few specifics on regional variations in saffron.
1. Kashmiri Saffron
This saffron grows in the Kashmir region in India. Kashmiri soil is known for being deep, rich alluvial type soil that ranges from loam to sandy in soil texture type. This has influenced the character of the saffron over time.
This saffron has the darkest red strands, often appearing maroon with hints of purple. Mongra and Lacha – terms associated with Kashmiri saffron are used to indicate different grades of saffron strands. Mongra is the best strands that have the most flavor, aroma, and color. Lacha are strands that don't meet the Mongra standards.
2. Aquila Saffron
This saffron originally hails from modern-day Iran. However, it is now grown in the Aquilla Provence in Italy. That area is known for its loose, loamy soil, and a relative abundance of rain.
The saffron thread length for Aquila is shorter than Kashmiri saffron. The strands are deep red and don't tend toward purple.
3. Spanish Saffron
This saffron grows in Spain. Saffron stigmas or strands from these corms tend to be between red and orange. The aroma is also milder, and it may take a few more strands to flavor your meal than with Mongra Kashmiri saffron or Aquila saffron.
Most of the corms available for planting at home tend to be the Spanish-type.
Here are some tips to help you grow saffron at home.
1. Grow Saffron as a Perennial
In USDA planting zones 6-8, in areas that typically have drier summers, saffron will grow well as a perennial. Bulbs can be planted in well-prepared soil and left in the ground. Once every 4 to 5 years, dig up your corms and move them to new beds to avoid pest or disease problems or soil mineral deficiencies.
You can grow saffron in deep containers outdoors in cooler climates. However, you must bring the containers into heated greenhouses or other sunny, warm spaces to overwinter safely. Also, the soil in your containers must remain moist but not water-logged at all times.
2. Grow Saffron as an Annual
In USDA Zones 4, 5, and 8 or areas with wet summers, saffron can also be grown in the ground as an annual. Unfortunately, saffron bulbs do not typically store well for more than a few weeks.
When grown as an annual, purchasing new bulbs each year will most likely be necessary. So, this method probably won't save you money on saffron. However, some annual saffron growers have reported having success refrigerating corms in flats of peat over winter and replanting in June.
3. When to Plant Saffron
Saffron is a fall-flowering corm. It takes about eight weeks in the ground, plus the right soil temperatures, to generate flowers. The best time to plant is three months before your first frost date.
Most retailers dig saffron corms up in late July, dry them, and send them out for August planting. However, corms can be planted as early as June with good results. Plant your corms as quickly as you can after receiving them.
4. Soil Preparation
Although saffron doesn't need as much organic matter or nitrogen as most of your garden vegetables, it does require deep loose soil to grow well. Most vegetables and herbs can get by with 6 inches of good soil. For saffron though, 8 inches of soil depth is better.
Heavy clay soils are not suitable for growing saffron and need to be amended with compost, peat, or coconut coir before planting. Good drainage is also necessary. Do not plant saffron corms in locations susceptible to standing water.
Soil pH should be between 6 to 8 for best results. Add a few inches of compost to your saffron bed annually to maintain soil fertility. Also, covering saffron beds with mulch after flowering each year will help control moisture levels in the soil and protect corms from potential rot damage.
5. Planting Depth and Spacing
Bulbs should be planted 4 inches deep in well-prepared soil. The pointy tip is where the leaves and flowers emerge. Give your plants an easy start by setting your corms in the soil with the pointy side up.
If you are planting saffron as an annual, you can plant each bulb on 4-inch centers. When planting as a perennial, space plants about 6 inches apart on 1-foot rows to allow plants enough room to expand over the 4-5 years they will spend in that location.
Caring for Saffron
1. Water Requirements
Soil should be consistently moist from late summer until the greens wilt. Water deeply once every 10-14 days during dry periods. Places with somewhat dry summers are generally better for saffron production. Corms are more susceptible to rot in areas with wet summers. In humid areas, make sure beds have good drainage year round.
2. Sun Requirements
Saffron requires full sun. At least 6 hours of sun is needed, but 8 hours a day is better. Keep in mind that saffron is a very compact low-growing plant. Make sure taller plants don't block the sun for your saffron.
For good saffron production, make sure to weed your beds regularly. This is one plant that benefits from a zero-weed policy.
4. Quantity to Plant
Each flower produces three strands of saffron. Most saffron corms offered for sale in the US grow about 3-6 flowers per corm. However, when you consider that it only takes about 10-12 strands of saffron to flavor a family size pan of paella, one bulb per paella is about all you need.
Generally, somewhere between 25-50 saffron plants is enough for most families. However, homegrown saffron also makes an excellent gift for the foodies in your life. So, you may want to consider growing extra to share.
Common Problems with Saffron
Saffron, like other crocus plants, is subject to various types of rot in overly wet soil conditions. It also has a few insect and animal pests to worry about.
1. Fungal Diseases
Rhizopus, Aspergillus, Penicillium Fusarium all cause corm rot under the soil. Rhizoctonia Crocorum causes neck rot in the leaf areas of the saffron plant. Fumago is a form of smut which infects leaves and corms.
All of these pathogens are most common when soil conditions are too wet, especially during summer. Good soil drainage, planting healthy corms, mulching after flowering, and removing diseased corms can minimize the risk for root rot.
Where possible, covering beds and diverting water away during excessive rain periods can help reduce risk. In severe cases, using a fungicide can help. Burning any diseased plant material will minimize the risk of pathogen transmission.
2. Insect Pests
Mites, thrips, and blister beetles are the most common insect pests for saffron. Unless you have severe infestations, these don't tend to be too problematic.
Mites enter through wounds in corms. Mite infested corms produce short yellowish leaves. Removing infested bulbs is necessary. For severe cases, use miticide to treat corms.
Thrips leave yellow and white spots on saffron leaves. They generally don't do much damage to these fall-flowering corms. Spraying leaves with neem oil are usually sufficient for control.
Blister beetles can be manually controlled by hand-picking and drowning in soapy water. As the name implies, crushing these pests with your bare hands can result in blistering. Use gloves and caution when removing.
Note: Blister beetles also fall off and play dead when disturbed. Check your plants daily until you are sure these pests are definitely gone.
Corm and leaf-eating rodents are by far the worst pest problem for saffron. Mice, voles, rats, and rabbits can damage or decimate saffron crops. Corms are most often eaten in the winter months. The leaves are often eaten right before or right after flowering.
Using rodent-proof planting beds lined with hardware cloth can help. Putting corms in buried milk crates lined with weed mat is another possible solution. Planting corms at 6 inches instead of 4 inches can also help reduce root eating, though it may delay flowering.
In severe cases, using traps or poison may be necessary to control rodent populations.
Best and Worst Companion Plants
Saffron doesn't like company in it's planting beds. However, it does have a few preferred and non-preferred neighbors.
Saffron is a crocus and is part of the Iris or Iridaceae family. Like other members of the Iris family, it will grow well when located near roses, peonies, salvia, columbine, phlox, or most other cut flower type plants.
Given its low stature, saffron should be planted on the sun-side of taller plants. Also, other plant roots should not be allowed to crowd the underground corms or saffron production will likely decline.
Edible roots, bulbs, tubers, and tap-rooted vegetables like potatoes, onions, garlic, turnips, carrots, and chard often attract root eating insects and rodents. Also, grasses like wheat and corn may attract wireworms.
Since saffron is susceptible to mite infestations that enter through damaged corms and is also a rodent favorite, avoid planting it near these kinds of plants to minimize risks for pest problems.
Saffron flowers about eight weeks after planting once soil temperatures begin to cool. Generally, it will flower in October though the exact timing will depend on your climate and weather conditions.
Each corm should produce at least one flower. Better quality corms, planted in fertile soil, will produce multiple flowers even in the first year.
The red stigmas, or female parts of the plant, are what we use for spice. However, most people harvest the entire flower and then use tweezers to remove the stigmas. The green leaves should all be left to continue growing until they die naturally.
The flowers can last for a couple of days. To ensure you get all of your saffron strands, though, picking flowers daily during their flowering period is best. Collect all flowers before the rain to keep saffron stigmas from being damaged.
Once the stigmas are removed from the flower, they will need to be dried. Depending on quantity, you can do this by laying them on a paper towel. Or, you can use a dehydrator. After the stigmas are dry, store them in an airtight container.
The aroma will intensify during storage. To keep the flavor and fragrance from fading, keep the container closed when not in use. Store in a cool, dark location.
Saffron may be an exotic, expensive spice to many people. Now though, for me, it's become a perennial that is easy to grow and saves me money. I hope that you also have great success growing this amazing spice on your homestead!