Saffron (Crocus sativus)
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Saffron (Crocus sativus)

What is Saffron and where does it come from?

It is known as “red gold” and its scientific name is Crocus sativus. We are talking about an herbaceous plant, the monocotyledonous, that belongs to the Iridaceae family and it tends to be classified as a spice and food color. However, it has exceptional properties that give it an unprecedented role in the therapeutic field, as we are going to see now.

All about Saffron

Regarding its morphological characteristics, we can say that the epigeal part of the plant, which is the part that grows over the surface, can reach an average of 40cm of height. Its flowers, the popular “saffron crocus” are voluminous and of a purple-violet color with 5 petals. The hypogeal part of the plant, which refers to the part that is under the surface, is a tunicate bulb with all its surface covered by the three tunics called the corm. The bulbs are the with asexual organs that allow the reproduction of the plant.

As a spice, its uniqueness lies on the fact that it is extracted from a flower. Specifically, it is the three stigmas that form the carpel of the Crocus Sativus flower that contain the essence of this valuable vegetable substance.

It is quite expensive due to the disproportion between the amount of raw material and the amount of substance that is obtained in terms of weight. There is some revealing information about this as well: To obtain one kilo of fresh saffron, a hundred thousand flowers have to be harvested, on the other hand, five kilos of fresh stigmas is the minimum needed to obtain one kilo of saffron spice. Paradoxically, the leaves and roots of this plant have to be discarded due to their high toxicity.

The most convincing theories about its remote origins place saffron in the Indian region of Kashmir. Apparently, it was the Phoenicians who, following their commercial routes through the Mediterranean Sea, were able to take it to Gaul or present-day France, and from there it spread across Europe.

There are Ancient History documents that reveal significant details about the importance that saffron had for these civilizations.

Apparently, the doctors that took care of the pharaohs' health prescribed red gold to relieve stomach pain. Moreover, Hippocrates, who is regarded as the father of Medicine, encouraged its use to treat bad digestions and toothaches.

Table of contents

    1. What is Saffron and where does it come from?
    2. All about Saffron
    3. Particularities of its cultivation and processing
    4. Features of the cultivation field
    5. How to plant Crocus Sativus
    6. Possible diseases that affect Saffron
    7. Harvesting Saffron
    8. Grinding saffron to obtain the spice
    9. Characteristics and properties of red gold (Saffron)
    10. Nutritional Composition of Saffron
    11. Benefits of Saffron for the organism
    12. Benefits attributed to Crocin
    13. Some interesting combinations with Saffron
    14. Different ways of taking Saffron
    15. Saffron in the kitchen
    16. Contraindications and Side effects
    17. Side effects that have been reported
    18. Situations in which it is contraindicated

During the Middle Ages, the therapeutic applications of saffron increased and it was used for a large list of conditions, sometimes as a treatment and others as a palliative, some of there were respiratory infections, scarlet fever, smallpox, asthma, insomnia, nerve palsy, heart diseases, gout, uterine bleeding, and even eye disorders.

There are also some historical curiosities related to renowned personalities like Alexander the Great, who used it in his bath salts to heal his wounds, or Cleopatra, who also bathed with saffron, but with a completely different purpose: to enhance her beauty.

Currently, the countries that can be called saffron producers apart from Iran, which accounts for almost 94% of the world production, are Spain, France, India, Greece, Macedonia, Morocco, Italy and, recently, Afghanistan. However, it should be noted that it is not as expensive in other places as it happens in Europe. For example, it has a quite affordable price in Iran.

Particularities of its cultivation and processing

It is certainly a vegetable species and its cultivation has dropped due to a decline in its demand as a food additive, mainly due to its price in the market when compared to other artificial products that are used for the same purpose. The importation low quality but highly competitive products has also contributed to this situation.

Features of the cultivation field

The properties of saffron

The cultivation of saffron is not very complex since it can stand a wide range of temperatures, between -10 and 40 °C. It is probably more demanding in its edaphological nature, because a bulb needs a soil that is spongy and deep at the same time to allow a quick filtration of the water.

It can grow both in a clay-calcareous soil or a silty one, but always within a pH range that is closer to neutral, that is, neither acid nor alkaline. It is important not to plant it in compact and excessively argillaceous soil, and if it is going to be cultivated domestically in orchards or pots, we simply need to enrich the soil with peat or mulch.

How to plant Crocus Sativus

It is important to know that the bulbs, which is the part of the plant that is planted, require a pre-conditioning before beginning their cultivation. This involves cleaning them, removing all the roots and the thick layers that make up the outside coating of the corm; Then, it is advisable to let them sunbathe for a few days, and store in small piles away from any source of moisture, between 5 and 10 ºC and with some straw, until the moment to plant them arrives, which would be between the months of June and July.

The bulbs have to be buried between 10 and 15cm deep, leaving approximately 10cm of space around each one of them. The bulbs multiply, so that one plant will allow to recover five more in a period of three years.

It does not need to be watered because it is a rainfed plant. However, if there is a persistent drought, watering it in September should be enough to satisfy the water needs of the plant until the harvest.

Possible diseases that affect Saffron

The threats that this plant faces can be summarized in the attack of three species of fungi:

  • Rhizoctonia crocorum, which causes a kind of dark ulcers that end up in a dry rot.
  • Rhizoctonia purple, which, unlike the previous species, causes a soft rot that spreads quickly and which is called the "death of saffron".
  • Fusarium, genus of which several species colonize the bulb forming a very characteristic orange band.

These diseases are concerning to farmers because they are difficult to control due to the fact that they resist most fungicides. However, they do not usually appear in the first two year cycles, but rather after the fourth year. Therefore, a good system to fight these fungi is to transplant the healthy bulbs in the third year somewhere else.

Harvesting Saffron

This process takes place between the second fortnight of October and the first one of November. There are two methods depending on the number of flowers that have to be collected:

  • For modest quantities, it will done by trimming in situ. This involves leaving the flower as it is on the plant, and extracting just the three stigmas of the carpel (which is where all the saffron is concentrated). It can be done, for example, with tweezers or a similar instrument.
  • For larger quantities, it is preferable to collect the flowers after they have opened as soon as possible. Then they are spread on a wide surface where the stigmas are extracted.

Grinding saffron to obtain the spice

This process almost resembles a ritual. Placing newspapers on the surface is a good way to make sure that the amount of product that is lost through its dispersion is almost nonexistent.

The stigmas, which are the real red gold deposits, are put in an electric mill with a sugar cube in order to increase the friction. The result is a very thin powder that is ready to be packaged and sealed, where it will preserved for years.

Characteristics and properties of red gold (Saffron)

Since ancient antiquity, saffron has been regarded as a plant bestowed with medicinal properties. Not in vain did the Persians and Egyptians used it as an effective remedy against poisoning and indigestion, as well as an excellent aphrodisiac, or a balm to relieve the symptoms of serious diseases at that time such as dysentery or measles.

With the passing of time, we have been able to deepen our understanding, both at a medicinal and nutritional level, about this spice, which, unfortunately, is known by many only because of the high price it acquires in the market.

Nutritional Composition of Saffron

First of all, we will provide a profile of saffron with the different amounts of its active ingredients that the body needs to function.

It is made of approximately a 12% of water, 4% of soluble fiber, 5% of minerals, 6% of lipids, 10% of carbohydrates (4% are simple and 6% complex) and 11% of proteins. Each gram of saffron provides 3 kilo-calories.

In regard to minerals, it is rich in potassium, magnesium and iron, but it also has remarkable amounts of calcium, phosphorous, manganese, copper, zinc and selenium.

Some of the vitamins it provides are Vitamin A (as such and as carotenoids, mainly betacarotene and alphacarotene), Vitamins B1, B2, B3 and B6 (specially this last one, of which it is an excellent source since it provides 1.01mg per 100g) and ascorbic acid or Vitamin C (with 80.8mg per 100g).

Its bright yellow color is due to a glycoside from the carotenoid group, called crocin, and its smell is due to another substance called safranal, a volatile essential oil found in the carpels of the flower. However, it is not the only oil, since saffron has plenty of these substances, like geraniol, cineole or linalool, among others. On the other hand, it contains traces of flavonoids, substances of a great antioxidant activity that are beneficial for our body.

Beneficios del azafrán

Benefits of Saffron for the organism

Currently, there is serious evidence from several scientific studies that saffron carotenoids may contain anticancer and immunomodulatory properties, that is, regulators of the immune response to attacks. This seemss to be due to their potential to inhibit the synthesis of nucleic acid (DNA and RNA) in tumor cells.

It has been proven that saffron contains ingredients that intervene decisively and positively on the nervous system. Recent studies carried with people suffering from mild depressive symptoms reveal that saffron has beneficial effects on the part that is responsible for the mood (two active ingredients, called safranal and crocin, increase serotonin and dopamine, which are two neurotransmitters that seem to cause depression if there is a deficit). In addition, thanks to the antioxidant properties of the carotenoids, it is a food that enhances the memory and learning abilities. On the other hand, there is a research line that is studying its hypothetical ability to inhibit certain proteins that are identified as Alzheimer's factors.

Benefits attributed to Crocin

Crocin is responsible for very interesting benefits on different areas of our organism.

It is a hypolipidemic agent (it reduces the fat levels in the blood) and it can also lower the cholesterol levels , which helps to prevent cardiovascular diseases.

It encourages the transport of oxygen through the blood and it regulates the circulation; In fact, saffron is still prescribed by homeopathy specialists for circulatory disorders.

It relieves menstrual pain and it helps to fix irregularities of the menstrual cycle, including amenorrhea (lack of menstruation). This effect is due to an increase in the blood flow to the uterus, which also has an abortive and contraceptive effect, which should also be taken into account.

  • It relieves muscle soreness and fatigue in general, which is usually referred to as asthenia.
  • It produces an anti-inflammatory and analgesic effect in the dental tissues, as well as an antispasmodic effect to relieve the cramps in the intestines.
  • It can be a remedy for a lack of sex drive which is a feature that was already used by our predecessors.

Other positive effects of consuming saffron for the organism are:

  • It is a good bronchodilator, which means it can be used to treat asthma in particular.
  • It strengthens the hair by nourishing the hair fibers.

It regulates blood pressure due to the fact that it is rich in potassium, which can be good for hypertensive people. Additionally, it contributes to regulating the bodily fluids and preventing degenerative joint diseases.

Its high iron content is useful for treating iron-deficiency anemia.

There are three remarkable features regarding its vitamin content:

  • Its Vitamin A content can slow down the development of macular degeneration which can cause blindness.
  • Its richness in Vitamin B6 is highly advisable for diabetes and to reduce the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, apart from preventing cardiovascular diseases.
  • The antioxidant effects of Vitamin C can help to enhance the immune system and to fight hypothyroidism.

Some interesting combinations with Saffron

A very useful way of inhibiting the appetite consists on mixing saffron, green coffee, and Garcinia cambogia:

  • Saffron extract is, on its own, an excellent satiating substance which allows to burn stored fats, mainly those located in the abdomen, which is a property that it shares with green coffee. This is due to a chemical reaction that stimulates the release of serotonin, which is responsible for the sensation of being full, and since saffron is also hypocaloric, that feeling is even prolonged after the meals.
  • Arabica coffee extract (Coffea arabica) contributes to eliminating the liquids and it contains chlorogenic acid, which increases the production of some hormones, called incretins, which stimulate the secretion of insulin by reducing the sugar levels after consuming food (known as postpandal glycemia). At the same time, this acid inhibits the gluconeogenesis (glucose synthesis in the liver), apart from the fact that it helps to remove fat deposits from the arterial walls.
  • Finally, the third component of the mixture, Garcinia cambogia, which transports hydroxycitric acid to prevent the conversion of carbohydrates into fats and ketone bodies in the liver. It favors the release of serotonin which also has an impact at an emotional level.

If we suffer menstrual discomfort, it is useful to take half a gram of an Iranian tradition combination, made of saffron, celery seed extract, and anise, three times a day during the first three days of your menstruation.

Different ways of taking Saffron

Infusion: it calms the coughing and relieves the symptoms of colds, you just have to dilute between 0.5 to 1 gram per liter of water. A tea made with saffron is used as a homemade remedy to treat psoriasis. It can be very relaxing to drink an infusion made of 2 grams of saffron per liter of water, accompanied by a spoonful of honey when we are feeling stressed.

Massage: it relieves gum pain, you just have to apply it as a powder or mixed with honey. An alcoholic tincture can also have an analgesic effect when teething.

Broths: a concentration of one gram per liter prevents stomach acidity and poor digestions.

Powder, to fight flatulence and trigger the menstruation.

Poultice: in this way it can be used for cases of anemia, headaches, insomnia and skin disorders (eczema, dermatitis...).

You should take 30mg of saffron bulb extract daily if you want to fight depression and Alzheimer's disease.

Saffron in the kitchen

It is advisable to smash and soak the strands in warm water for a few minutes before adding it to stews or other dishes.

With this, we will add the color and flavor evenly to the broth. If you use powder you can skip this step.

Contraindications and Side effects

Although we have been talking about the virtues and properties of saffron, nothing is perfect and precisely because of this we cannot overlook the chance of experiencing some side effects. Its consumption is not advised under certain circumstances.

Side effects that have been reported

In principle, if we react to a controlled dose, we may experience anxiety, dizziness, nausea, and mouth dryness that causes appetite disorders and headaches.

When there is an intoxication due to an excessive dose, the reactions are similar to most intoxications: Diarrhea, vomiting, acute abdominal pain, and headaches and it is even possible to see blood-stained urine.

If we talk about an overdose (which involves consuming at least 10 grams), the intoxication could be deadly. It begins with a hallucinogenic initial phase where with symptoms of strange behavior, followed by tachycardia, dizziness and a progressive paralysis of the central nervous system that ends with death.

Situations in which it is contraindicated

  • Bipolar disorder: its consumption could trigger excitability and impulsive behavior in this type of patients.
  • People who are allergic to species of the following genera can also be allergic to saffron: Lolium (from the grass family), Olea (includes olive tree), and Salsola (from the amaranthaceae family, plants that are detached with strong winds and roll as if they were a ball, being able to travel long distances).
  • It has an abortive and contraceptive effect, so it should not be taken by women who are in gestation or who want to become pregnant.
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