Saffron (Crocus sativus, Iridaceae) is a perennial flower with “a pale violet-veined calyx, yellow anthers, and white filament”1 and grows from a corm. Cultivated in Turkey, Iran, China, India, Algeria, and parts of Europe, the lily-like flower has brilliant orange stigmata which must be picked by hand, making it one of the most expensive spices in the world. The flower is considered a natural hybrid of C. cartwrightus, from the Atticus region in Greece and the island of Crete and C. hadriaticus, from the Ionian islands, originating as C. sativus in Bronze-age Crete.2
The dried stigmata have been used as a spice, natural colorings agent, and medicine for centuries.3 Used for beautification, it was mixed with beeswax, tallow, and red ochre to make a lipstick.4 Minoan women dyed their distinctive bolero jackets with saffron. Cleopatra used it in her bath of mare’s milk before meeting her suitors for its reputed aphrodisiac and complexion-enhancing properties.
Saffron has been used as a liver tonic, digestive aid, and to treat genito-urinary, ocular, and respiratory disorders as well as to ease difficult pregnancy labors and inflammation.1 The herb is also thought to have cardioprotective and anti-cancer effects, although it is best known as a treatment for depression. Saffron is also considered an exhilarant and hypnotic.
For an in-depth article on saffron, please see Woolven L, Snider S. Saffron: The salubrious spice emerging research suggests numerous health benefits. HerbalGram. 2016;110:61-71.
1 Javadi B, Sahebkar A, Emami SA. A survey on saffron in major Islamic traditional medicine books. Iran J Basic Med Sci. 2013; 16:1-11.
2O’Connell J. The Book of Spice: From Anise to Zedoary. New York, NY: Pegasus Books, Ltd.; 2016.
3Toth B, Hegyi P, Lantos T, et al. The efficacy of saffron in the treatment of mild to moderate depression: A meta-analysis. [published online July 23, 2018] Planta Med. doi: 10.1055/a-0660-9565.
4Fulton A. The secret history of the world’s priciest spice. National Geographic website. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/05/history-origin-of-saffron-spice-iran/. May 3, 2017. Accessed September 19, 2018.