Students of Ethnobotany: Botanical gold


Figure 1: Saffron crocus. Photographer: Gut Gimritz (Germany) from Wikimedia Commons

This flavorful edition of Students of Ethnobotany comes from the glittering Fiona Thompson.

At between $1,000 and $10,000 USD per kilo, saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. Why is it that the stigma of this small flower is worth (one fifth) its weight in gold?

Harvesting is very labor intensive for such a small plant. It is extremely time consuming, and the threads – the dried stigmas of the crocus – have to be harvested at just the right time, so they don’t lose their potent ’volatile compounds’ (such as crocins, crocetin, picrocrocin, and safranal) to evaporation. The saffron plant is fragile, and no one has worked out how to efficiently harvest threads by machine, so they have to be plucked out of the crocus by hand. And for the saffron threads to keep their moisture, they have to be harvested just before sunrise in the hot, dry climates where the crocuses grow (Spain and Iran are the biggest producers). On top of that, saffron threads are very, very small… it takes about 100,000 to make up a kilogram.

Despite this, or perhaps because of this, Crocus sativus has been used for nearly 3000 years by the rich of the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Its medicinal uses have been somewhat experimental, used for anything from a relaxant, digestion aid, to treat kidney and liver problems, help gastric disorders, treat cardiovascular disease, to treat depression, to treat cholera, to help PMS, even to induce abortion. As a symbol of wealth, saffron has been used by the ancient Greeks to sprinkle on marriage beds, and by the Romans to dye their hair. It has been used to dye carpets and clothing, and is used in traditional dishes across the Middle East.


Figure 2: Baked saffron buns. Photo by Fiona Thompson, October 24 2012


In the Middle Ages, saffron’s popularity crept upward through Europe, and a little saffron grown in France found its way into traditional Scandinavian holiday dishes. With the dark December days approaching, Swedes (and Swedophiles like myself) celebrate the festival of the Italian Saint Lucia, the bringer of light on the longest night of the year, on December 13th. As the legend goes, Saint Lucia arrived with sweet saffron buns and candles, a tradition carried on by the eldest daughter of the family, bringing lights and treats to the family.


Kafi M, A Koocheki, M Rashed, M Nassiri. Saffron (Crocus sativus) Production and Processing. New Hampshire: Science Publishers; 2006. 221 p. Print.

Melnyk J P, S Wang, M Marcone. Chemical and biological properties of the world’s most expensive spice: Saffron. Food Research International 43; 2010. p 1981-1989. doi:10.1016/j.foodres.2010.07.033

Saffron in Early Modern Sweden [Internet]. [updated 2010]. Minneapolis (MN): University of Minnesota; [cited 2012 Oct 5]. Available from

1 thought on “Students of Ethnobotany: Botanical gold

  1. Pingback: Safron,the Costly Spice | Find Me A Cure

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