It is known as the “red gold” and has the scientific name of Crocus sativus. We are talking about an herbaceous plant, monocotyledonous, that belongs to the Iridaceae family. It is usually catalogued as a spice and food colourant, but as we will see below, it proves to have exceptional attributes that give it an unprecedented role in the therapeutic field.
Regarding its morphological characteristics, we can say that the epigeal part of the plant, ie, 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 colour with 5 petals. The hypogeal part of the plant, which makes reference to the part that is underground, is a tunicate bulb with all its surface covered by the three tunics called the corm. The bulbs are the organ, with asexual reproduction, that allow the propagation of the plant.
As a spice its uniqueness lies in the fact that it is extracted from a flower. Specifically, it is the three stigmas that form the carpel of the flower Crocus Sativus that contain the essences of this valuable vegetable substance.
The cause of its value resides in the disproportion between the quantity of raw material and the amount of substance that is obtained in terms of mass or weight. Related to this point there is some very interesting information: To obtain one kilo of fresh saffron, a hundred thousand flowers have to be recollected, on the other hand, five kilos of fresh stigmas is the minimum needed to obtain one kilo of saffron spice. And, ironically, taking into account the great value of its flowers, the leaves and roots of this plant have to be discarded of usage 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, within their commercial circuits through the Mediterranean, were able to introduce it in Gaul, present-day France, and from there it spread across the European continent.
There are Ancient History documents that reveal significant details about the importance that saffron had for those civilizations.
The doctors who cared for the health of the pharaohs apparently prescribed red gold to alleviate stomach pain. Also, within this digestive domain, the considered father of Medicine, Hippocrates, encouraged its use to cope with bad digestions and toothaches.
During the Middle Ages, the therapeutic repertoire of saffron was extended to a large list of conditions, in some cases as a treatment and in others as a palliative, among which we can find respiratory infections, scarlet fever, smallpox, asthma, insomnia, nerve palsy, heart disease, gout, uterine bleeding, and even vision disorders.
We can also point out some historical curiosities related to famous people like Alexander the Great, who added it to his bath salts as medicine to heal his war wounds, or Cleopatra, who also bathed with saffron, but with a 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 crop, are Spain, France, India, Greece, Macedonia, Morocco, Italy and, recently, Afghanistan. However, it should be noted that not everywhere it is a product as expensive as it generally is in Europe, for example in Iran its price is of a current product.
Particularities of its cultivation and processing
It is certainly a vegetable species whose cultivation has suffered a setback due to the decline in its demand as an alimentary colourant, precisely because of the high prices it reaches on the market compared to the artificial products that are used for the same purpose in cooking. The importation of preparations of a lower quality but highly competitive has also contributed to this.
Characteristics that the cultivation land must fulfil
The cultivation of saffron is not very complex and it endures a wide range of temperatures, between -10 and 40 °C. One characteristic in which it is more demanding is the edaphological aspect, because of it being a bulb it requires a soil that is at the same time spongy and deep, that allows the water to filter quickly.
It admits both a clay-calcareous soil and a silty one, but always within a pH range that is close to neutrality, that is, neither acid nor alkaline. It is important not to plant it in compact and excessively argillaceous soil, because it does not give much yield, 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 must it be planted?
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 is simply cleaning them, leaving them free of roots and of the thick layers that constitute the outside coating of the corm; Then it is advisable that they sunbathe for a few days, after which they should be stored in small piles away from any source of moisture, between 5 and 10 ºC and with straw, until the moment of planting them, which takes place between June and July.
The bulbs are to be buried at a depth that will oscillate between 10 and 15 cm, keeping around each one a free space of approximately 10 cm. The bulbs multiply at a rate that in a three-year cycle allows to recover five for each one planted.
It does not need irrigation, because it is a rainfed crop. Simply, in case of persistent drought, watering in September would be enough to satisfy the water needs of the plant until the harvest.
Possible diseases that affect Saffron
The threats that this plant faces are summarized basically in the attack of three species of fungi:
Rhizoctonia crocorum, which causes a kind of dark ulcers end up causing a dry rot.
Rhizoctonia purple, which, contrary to the action of the previous species, causes a soft rot that spreads at a high speed and receives the name of "death of saffron".
Fusarium, genus of which several species colonize the bulb forming a very characteristic orange tone band.
These diseases are of great concern to farmers because of their difficult control, as they resist the action of most fungicides. However, they do not appear easily in the first two year cycles, usually appearing after the fourth year. Therefore, a good system to fight these fungi is to transplant the healthy bulbs in the third year to another place.
It takes place between the second fortnight of October and the first of November. There are two methods of harvesting depending on the number of flowers to collect:
For modest quantities, it will done by trimming in situ, which means leaving the flower, as it is, on the plant, and extracting from it only the three stigmas of the carpel (where, remember, all the saffron is concentrated). It can be done, for example, with tweezers or a similar instrument.
For large quantities, it is preferable to collect the flowers as soon as possible after they have opeend and, once extended on a wide surface, proceed to extract the stigmas.
This operation constitutes a true ritual. The precaution is taken of placing newspapers on the surface to ensure that the dispersion losses are practically nonexistent.
The stigmas, the real deposits of red gold, are introduced into an electric mill where a cube of sugar is placed in order to increase the friction. Out of here we get a very subtle powder ready to be placed in sealed containers, where it will keep for years.
Characteristics and properties of Saffron
Since ancient antiquity, saffron has been catalogued as a plant bestowed with medicinal properties. Not in vain did Persians and Egyptians consider it an effective remedy against poisoning and indigestion, in addition to a spectacular aphrodisiac, as well as using it as a balm to alleviate the symptoms of serious diseases of those times such as dysentery or measles.
As time has passed, 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.
Firstly, we will provide the profile for saffron of the quantities that it contains of different active principles that the body requires for its functioning.
It is composed of approximately 12% water, 4% soluble fiber, 5% minerals, 6% lipids, 10% carbohydrates (4% simple and 6% complex) and 11% proteins. An energetic contribution of 3 kilocalories per 1 gram of saffron has been calculated.
Regarding minerals, it is noteworthy its richness in potassium, magnesium and iron, although we must also talk of perceptible amounts of calcium, phosphorous, manganese, copper, zinc and selenium.
In relation to vitamins, we may highlight Vitamin A (as such and in the form as carotenoids, mainly betacarotene and alphacarotene), Vitamins B1, B2, B3 and B6 (especially this last one, of which it is a magnificent source, providing 1,01mg per 100g) and ascorbic acid or Vitamin C (containing 80,8mg per 100g).
Its bright yellow colour is due to a glycoside from the carotenoid group, crocin, and its smell is due to another substance called safranal, a volatile essential oil found in the carpels of the flower. However, this is not the only oil, as saffron is abundant in this type of 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 of great interest for our body.
Benefits for our body
Currently, there are serious indications, obtained as a result of scientific studies, that saffron carotenoids may contain anticancer and immunomodulatory properties, that is, regulators of the immune response to aggressions. This appears to be due to their inhibitory potential of nucleic acid synthesis (DNA and RNA) in tumor cells.
It seems contrasted that saffron contains ingredients that intervene decisively and positively on the nervous system. Recent studies on people suffering from mild depressive symptoms reveal that saffron exerts beneficial effects on the part that is responsible of the state of mind (two active principles, safranal and crocin, increase serotonin and dopamine, two neurotransmitters that when deficient appear to cause depression). In addition, thanks to the antioxidant properties of the carotenoids, it is a food product that enhances memory and learning abilities. On the other hand, there is a line of research based on the hypothesis of the ability of inhibition of certain proteins that are identified as markers of Alzheimer's disease.
Benefits produced by Crocin
Crocin is made responsible of very interesting benefits for different aspects of our organism.
It has a lipid-lowering (lowering fat levels in the blood) and hypocholesterolemia (reduction of the cholesterol) action, with the immediate consequence of preventing cardiovascular diseases.
It favors the transport of oxygen in the blood and is a good regulator of circulation; In fact, saffron is still prescribed by homeopathy specialists for circulatory conditions.
It relieves menstrual pain and helps correct menstrual cycle irregularities, including amenorrhea (absence of menstruation). This effect is attributed to an increase in blood flow at the level of the uterus, from which an abortive and contraceptive capacity is derived, which should also be taken into account.
Decreases muscleweakness and general fatigue, which is collectively referred to as asthenia.
Behaves as an anti-inflammatory and analgesic in dental tissues, as well as antispasmodic to calm cramping pains in viscera.
As the ancients discovered, it can be a remedy against the absence of sexual appetite.
Some other positive effects in the organism when consuming saffron:
It is a good bronchodilator, which allows it to be used as a treatment for asthma in particular.
Strengthens hair by exerting a nourishing action on hair fiber.
Because it is rich in potassium, it regulates arterial pressure, being a suitable substance for hypertensive people. Additionally, it contributes to regulate bodily fluids and prevent degenerative joint diseases.
Its high iron content makes saffron useful for treating iron-deficiency anemia.
Regarding its vitamin content, three aspects are noteworthy:
Thanks to Vitamin A, it is interesting for slowing down the development of macular degeneration which can cause blindness.
The Vitamin B6 abundance makes it highly advisable for cases of diabetes and to reduce the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, as well as help prevent cardiac diseases.
The antioxidant activity provided by Vitamin C can help to reinforce the immune system and fight hypothyroidism.
Interesting combinations with Saffron
Very useful to inhibit appetite is a mixture of saffron, green coffee and Garcinia cambogia:
Saffron extract is, on its own, an excellent appetite suppressant, which allows to eliminate stored fats, mainly those from the abdomen, property that it shares with green coffee. This is due to a chemical reaction that stimulates the release of serotonin, responsible for the sensation of fullness, and saffron being hypocaloric, that sensation is extended after meals.
Arabica coffeeextract (Coffea arabica) contributes to the elimination of liquids and contains chlorogenic acid, responsible for the increased production of some hormones, incretins, which stimulate the secretion of insulin helping to reduce glycemia after food ingestion (known as postpandal glycaemia). In parallel, this acid inhibits gluconeogenesis (synthesis of glucose in the liver), to which we have to add that it acts as a removal factor of fat deposits from arterial walls.
Finally, the third component of the mixture, Garcinia cambogia, is a hydroxycitric acid carrier, which prevents the conversion of carbohydrates into fats and ketone bodies in the liver. At an emotional level it also has an effect, as it favors the release of serotonin.
In the case of having menstrual discomfort, it is known to be efficient to take, during the first three days of your menstruation, three daily intakes of half a gram of an Iranian tradition combination, made of saffron, a seed extract of celery and anise.
Different ways of taking Saffron
As an infusion, it calms cough and relieves catarrhal symptoms, diluting 0.5 to 1 gram per liter of water. Tea made with saffron is even used as a homemade remedy to treat psoriasis. And in situations of stress, it can be very relaxing to drink a cup of infusion made from 2 grams of saffron per liter of water, accompanied by a spoonful of honey.
Applied as a massage, it relieves the pain of gums, applying it in powder or mixed with honey. In the form of an alcoholic tincture, it also serves as an analgesic when teething.
In broths, at a concentration of one gram per liter, it prevents stomach acidity and poor digestion.
Powder, to fight flatulence and cause menstruation.
As a poultice, it can be used in cases of anemia, headaches, insomnia and skin alterations (eczemas, dematitis...).
To help fight depression and Alzheimer's disease, the guideline would indicate to take 30mg of a specific saffron extract daily.
Using Saffron in cooking
For an optimum usage, when using as strands, before adding to stews or dishes, it is advisable to crush them properly and subsequently add them to warm water for a few minutes.
With this tip we manage to transfer the colour and flavour to the broth making it spread out properly. If it is used in powder, it can be added directly, suppressing this step.
Contraindications and Side effects
Although we have clarified that saffron is full of virtues and excellences, nothing is perfect in nature and precisely because of this we can not overlook the possibility of manifesting some side effects and that in certain situations its consumption is discouraged.
Side effects that have been described
In theory, when the reaction is to a controlled dose, we may consider a symptoms picture that includes anxiety, dizziness and nausea, a mouth dryness that produces appetite disorders and headaches.
When there is an intoxication due to an excess of dosage, the clinical picture is very similar to that of most intoxications: Diarrhea, vomiting, severe abdominal pains and headaches and it is even possible to see blood-stained urine.
If we talk about an overdose (which is a consumption of at least 10 grams), the intoxication could be deadly. It begins with a hallucinogenic initial phase where symptoms of strange behavior prevail, followed by tachycardia, dizziness and a progressive paralysis progression of the central nervous system that ends with death.
Situations in which it is contraindicated
Bipolar disorder: in this type of patients, its consumption could trigger excitability and impulsive behavior.
People who are allergic to species of the genus Lolium (from the grass family), Olea (includes olive tree) and Salsola (from the family of amaranthaceae, plants that are detached with strong winds and roll as if they were a ball, being able to travel large distances), can also be allergic to saffron.
As it has been said about its properties and benefits, it has an abortive and contraceptive effect, so it should not be taken by women who are in gestation or pretend to be.
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