Crocus is a gender of the family of Iridaceae. It shows the typical botanical features of the Liliatae. More than 400 species, subspecies, varieties and forms have been described, flowering in many different colours and at different times of the year, but only one is used as a source of saffron: Crocus sativus L. Botany and Cultivation As the name “sativus” indicates, saffron is exclusively obtained from cultivated Crocus sativus. It is a sterile, perennial plant vegetatively propagated through its corms.
Cultivations of saffron have been found in all regions surrounding the Mediterranean basin, and especially in the Eastern regions. The most important area of origin has always been and still is Persia. With the spread of Islam in the Medieval saffron spread in parallel, and reached locations such as Spain and Austria. Today, more than 200 tons of saffron are processed every year. The bulk of this material comes from Greater Khorasan. Saffron is also produced in India, Greece and Morocco. The quantities produced by other countries are still very low. Spain as the country with the highest yearly export figures of saffron does not have noteworthy saffron cultivatio by itself: Spain is primarily re-exporting saffron from other sources, mainly Iran. Some countries where saffron was originally grown now reconsider or increase saffron cultivation. E.g., Greece is developing its cultivation surfaces and the quality of the harvested saffron. A major disadvantage of European saffron growers over Iranian or Asian sources is the considerably higher labour costs in Europe. However, this disadvantage stands against the benefit of easier traceability and quality control, which may justify a higher cost of raw materials for saffron-derived products manufactured according to European food and drug quality standards.
As with many other valuable spices, saffron was primarily used as medicinal plant material long before it became a spice. The use of saffron against various physiologic states and ailments has been thorougly documented by all ancient Mediterranean, Persian and Arabian cultures throughout several millennia. The interest has never stopped: Even today much research is dedicated to saffron, using modern analytical, pharmacological and clinical methods to confirm the traditional uses of saffron. Saffron has been attributed many effects. Reported traditional uses were, among others:
- Emotional balance: Even today, saffron preparations are traditionally used to improve well-being and mood. In Persia people say that a cup of saffron tea will bring back your good humour.
- Septic inflammations and infections of the eye: This was one of the major indications in ancient Egypt and Greece.
- Stimulation of circulation
- Stimulant and aphrodisiac effects, prevention of premature ejaculation
- Supportive treatment of various forms of cancer
Modern pharmacological and clinical research has confirmed all these effects, e.g.:
- Antidepressive effects: A saffron extract has been demonstrated to possess antidepressive effects in clinical trials against placebo and the synthetic antidepressants fluoxetine and imipramine, without having the adverse effects of the latter.
- Antiinflammatory effects in vivo
- Blood lipid lowering effects in vivo
- Stimulating and potentially aphrodisiac effects have been examined in vivo with various saffron constituents.
- Chemopreventive effects in vivo and anti-tumour effects in vitro have been demonstrated in various models. Saffron extracts are not simply cytotoxic, they have been shown to selectively affect the cancer cells while being non-toxic to healthy cells.
Saffron is presented in many forms. In Persia and the Mediterranean, many kinds of food are flavoured with saffron, including rice, butter, cheese, convenience food, diverse types of bread, pastries, sweets and many beverages. Saffron is considered very safe even in extremely high doses of more than 1.5 g/day. Occasional reports of toxicity seem to be related to the ingestion of “meadow saffron” = Colchicum autumnale, which is in fact a poisonous plant, but does not grow together with Crocus sativus. The usual dose range for the improvement of mood is approximately 30 mg of saffron preparations containung a minimum of two percent safranal per day. No adverse effects are known with this quantity.