Saffron crocus (Crocus sativus L.) is a perennial bulbous plant still unknown in the natural environment of the Iridaceae family. It is a mutation of the Crocus cartwrightianus, that is, of a native species of the island of Crete.
The species is differentiated for the cultivation and intensive selection by farmers to select specimens with long and larger stimmers.
From a systematic point of view, domestic saffron belongs to the Eukaryota Domain, the Kingdom Plantae, the Magnoliophyta Division, the Liliopsida Class, the Asparagus Order, the Iridaceae Family and then the Crocus Genus and the Species C. sativus.
The name of the genus (Crocus) comes from the Greek Krkos (in the Homeland of the Homer – Book XIV, verse 347 refers explicitly to this flower) which means “thread of fabric” and refers to the long stigmas well visible and typical of the species More known (and cultivated) of this kind (Crocus sativus). The first documentation of the use of this name was given by Teofrasto of Ephesus (Ephesus, 371 BC – Athens, 287 BC), an ancient Greek philosopher and botanist, as well as Aristotle’s disciple.
Other texts translate this word (krokos) directly with “saffron”, but in fact this last rumor seems to come from Arab Zaafran.
As for the scientific name of this genus, it was defined in 1753 by the Swedish biologist and writer Carl von Linné (Rashult, May 23, 1707 – Uppsala, January 10, 1778).
Geographic Distribution and Habitat –
Saffron crocus originates from Europe (mainly Spain, the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean), Northwest Africa and Asia Minor and Central to Western China. From this extensive area we can cite two species: that of the Far East, the Crocus alatavicus of the Altai Mountains of Central Asia and that most far north, the Crocus albiflorus of the Alps mountain altitudes.
As for the spontaneous species of our flora, only six live on the Alpine arc.
Although the land of origin is Asia Minor and Eastern Europe, the saffron has however become subspontaneo in certain areas of Italy, such as Abruzzo, where it is cultivated in hilly, well-ventilated hills that do not undergo the course Of the year big temperature fluctuations.
Saffron is a iridescent and belongs to the Crocus genus of which some 80 species belong. The adult plant consists of a bulb tuber of a diameter of about 5 cm. The bulb contains about 20 undifferentiated gems from which all the organs of the plant originate, but generally only 3 are the main gems that will give rise to flowers and leaves, while the smaller ones will only produce secondary bulbs. During the vegetative development of the bulbs of the bulbs the jets develop, one for each bud; So that each bulb will sprout about 2 or 3. The jets emerge from the ground wrapped in a white and hard protective cuticle, allowing the plant to pierce the crust of the soil.
The jet contains the almost completely developed leaves and flowers, once spilled from the ground, it opens and allows the leaves to stretch and the flower to open completely.
As for the saffron flower, this is a perigonian form of 6 violet-colored petals. The male part consists of three yellow anthers on which the pollen is supported. The female part is formed by the ovary, stylus and stitches. From the ovary, placed at the base of the bulb, a long yellow stem originates, which, after passing the whole jet, reaches the base of the flower, here it divides into 3 long intensely red streaks.
The leaves of the Crocus sativus are very narrow and stretched. They typically reach the length of 30-35 cm, never exceeding the width of 5 mm.
Crocus sativus is a triploid sterile plant, which, as said, following a selection made in past times by farmers, has lost the ability to reproduce itself. Its genetic structure makes it incapable of generating fertile seeds, which is why its reproduction is only possible for cloning of the mother bulb and its diffusion is closely related to human assistance.
From the climatic point of view, the saffron plant fits very well with climates with a very low average rainfall (300-400 mm annually), typical of Spain and Greece and the island of Italy. It also tolerates rainy climates, such as in Kashmir, where the rainfall index is very intense (1,500-2,000 mm annually). However, it is imperative to avoid water stagnation, which is very damaging to the development of the plant; For this reason a slightly steep cultivation is preferable to a flat ground. The low permeable and heavy soils must be avoided; Cultivation should only be carried out on sandy soils or in any case with prevailing sandy texture, with good drainage and very permeable.
Crocus sativus withstands severe winter temperatures (even below thermal 0), bulbs begin to suffer when the thermometer drops below -12 ° C. The Crocus sativus tolerates snow and even short periods of frost. In the summer, when the plant is in a quiescent state, high temperatures do not create any kind of bulb problem.
With regard to the cultivation techniques used, they are distinguished in:
• Annual crop technique;
• Polytechnic culture;
As far as the annual crop technique is concerned, the bulbs are taken from the soil at the end of each vegetative cycle, then in the summer, and then resettled in a plot of land other than the previous one. This technique is the most laborious and demanding from the point of view of human labor, but it allows for better quality of spice and gives the farmer the ability to control the health of his bulbs each year. The demand for manpower has a significant impact on this type of cultivation because machining procedures are not easily mechanizable. Only land-working can be carried out with the use of motor-cultivating machines; The rest, from picking up bulbs, is done by manual work.
Between July and August bulbs are harvested from the ground, an operation in which usually small or small hoes are used; This way you can pull the bulbs without damaging them. On the same day, bulb sealing is also carried out, a process that involves the elimination of the old bulb’s tunic and the elimination of small bulbs which will be reused and re-planted a few days later.
This type of technique is adopted in the Italian cultivars of Abruzzo, Tuscany, Marche and Umbria. Abroad is practically unknown.
The benefits of annual crops are related to the rotation of crops: they provide more resources to the plant, which is why we get much longer and more valuable stigma.
There is a greater control of the parasites: by taking the bulbs each year you have the possibility to check if there are diseased plants; Separating them from the others, avoids possible spread of the parasite.
Better preparation of the soil is obtained: the soil on which the new cultivation is prepared will be selected according to the requirements of the plant. In the spring before the bulbs have been planted, the soil is prepared with a good plowing of 30 cm deep. At the same time the bark fertilizes the soil with bovines in the doses of about 300 q / ha.
Better control of weeds is achieved: the preparation of the new soil allows the farmer to almost completely eliminate the presence of weeds.
With annual cultivation, a better distribution of bulbs is obtained: each year the bulbs can be properly redistributed in the soil. Typically, the plantation type consists of several deep grooves about 15/20 cm, bulbs are placed at the base of the groove at a distance of 1 cm from each other. Each groove is 30 cm apart; Once covered takes the name row. The set of 4 files is called the flower bed; Each curtain is separated from the others by a 40 cm deep passage and at least 20 cm deep. The grooves between the flower beds are intended to allow the farmers to pass and above all they must be a good channel for the flow of rainwater.
The disadvantages of annual crops are, however, an excessive labor demand: there is a great demand for work during the summer period between July and August; That is, when the bulbs are picked up, checked and resettled. As a result, the price of spice is higher.
In polyliner culture, which is the most widely used method of saffron-producing countries, bulbs are picked up from the ground for a given period of years. The plant then stays on the same plantation for several years. In Sardinia the average period is 4 years, while in Greece bulbs can be picked up to 7 years.
In these crops soil preparation techniques are the same as in annual crops. The substantial difference is in the positioning of the bulbs inside the furrow, which should be placed at a distance of about 12 cm to leave room for the bulbs that will form over the years.
This technique has advantages. Meanwhile, lower maneuvering costs: the ground for replanting is prepared every 4 or more years. You have less management costs: you do not have to have a lot of land available.
This technique, however, involves some disadvantages. First of all, the plant has less resources: despite good fertilization, the Crocus plant will have less resources from the ground every year. This results in a lower spice quality than that obtained from an annual crop.
The danger of parasitic attacks increases: the control of the spread of parasites is more complicated, the diseased plant has to be identified among the others and eliminated.
Uses and Traditions –
In cultivated areas, the use of these flowers is done for both ornamental purposes and for officinal purposes. The most important and unique species of economic importance is the Crocus sativus. Today it is cultivated mainly in the Mediterranean, but to the east it reaches Kashmir.
The cultivation of saffron is lost in the night of the times. The Latin poet Sesto Aurelio Properzio (about 50 BC – 15 BC) in his “3rd Book” speaks of a “crocino” ointment that is certainly attributable to Saffron.
Crocus sativus sticks are used in popular medicine for their properties such as tonic (strengthens the body in general), emmenagogues (regulates menstrual flow), stimulating (invigorating and activating the nervous and vascular system) and eupeptic (it favors the digestion). This last use is perhaps the only one still practiced.
It is an ancient and modern aphrodisiac: already used by Greek gods to awaken sexual energy, today it has been confirmed that saffron stimulates the production of hormones that tone the sexual sphere while antioxidants improve circulation.
In the kitchen, saffron is used only as a spice or a dye; In fact if used over a certain measure (something to be especially attentive) is toxic. Suffice it to think that a dose of 20g per day of saffron can also be deadly.
Another use that is made of these flowers is in gardening and this has since the earliest times. There is documentation on the island of Crete (a Cnosso fresco) which clearly indicates that both the collection and cultivation of the “Croco” were practiced.
Famous is the famous flowering of crocodiles in the gardens of Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen, which lay in geometries form a characteristic colorful carpet.
The spice produced by the Crocus sativus contains about 150 volatile aromatic substances. Remember, saffron is one of the richest carotenoid foods. Saffron contains substances such as Zeaxanthin, Lycopene and many alpha-beta carotenes. However, it is possible to identify three key compounds, each of which is associated with a sensory characteristic: crocini (color), safranal (aroma) and picrocrocina (taste).
The yellow-gold color, which spice confers on the dishes, is due to the presence of α-crocina. This compound is the result of the esterification reaction between β-D-gentiobiosion and crocetine carotenoid. The presence of glucose gives the crocus the property of being a water-soluble compound. At the same time, the presence of crocetine, a polyene containing a carboxy group, makes the crocin a hydrophobic compound, then soluble in the fats.
The key component of the saffron aroma with antioxidant properties is safranal; A volatile terpenic aldehyde derived from the degradation of the picrocrocin, in turn produced by degradation of zeaxanthin.
Picrocrocine is a monoterpene glucoside derived from Zeaxanthin degradation. During the drying of the saffron from the picrocrocine, the aglycone is released, which by the loss of a water molecule originates the safranal. This is the chief responsibility for the bitter flavor of saffron.
Remember that saffron also contains vitamins A, B1 and B2.
At one time the saffron, which was used in the stigma, was attributed to anti-pesticidal, anti-morbid and sedative properties. Today, however, abortive compounds have been found and, as mentioned, the use of 20 g of saffron may also be fatal.
The use of saffron can also cause side effects such as dizziness, drowsiness and haemorrhagic manifestations by reducing the number of platelets (thrombocytopenia) and hypoprothrombinemia (prothrombin decreases).
Saffron is currently used only by the food and gastronomy industry as a spice or as a dye, although it is rich in carotenoids that reduce cellular damage caused by free radicals. One of its most typical uses in Italian cuisine is in risotto in Milan, to mean the “yellow risotto”, so well known for the coloring that saffron gives to the recipe.
The first modern news of a cultivation of these plants dates back more than 400 years ago: in fact, in the “The Herbal or Generall Historie of Plantes” by British botanist John Gerard (Nantwich, 1545 – London, 1612), published in 1597, describes various species Such as Crocus vernus, Crocus versicolor, Crocus sativus and others. Thirty years later and precisely in 1629, another British botanist, John Parkinson (1567-1650), in his “Paradises in the Sun”, already lists 27 species of Crocus, and is the same year the import of Crocus aureus Progeny of the race “Yellow Dutch Crocs.” Indeed, it was in the seventeenth century that the Dutch developed their techniques of reproduction of bulbous flowers including crocuses.
The knowledge of these flowers goes a long way back. This is demonstrated by the fact that even in the Bible Song Book (4:14) are referred to as aromatic and odorous plants. In ancient Greece they used to make crowns or spread to theaters or bridal beds. While in ancient Rome it was used to ornate the tombs with this flower as a wish for an afterlife.
Various are the legends around the flower of the “Croco”. In one of these Croco was a young man in love with the Smilliace shepherdess that was transformed into the flower by Venus or in another version was turned into flower by the jealous God of the Shepherdess Ermes. In another it is said that Croco died playing with Mercury and that the flower was born from his blood. In another legend it is still said that the crocus flower sprouted at the time Paride gave his judgment on the most beautiful among the goddesses.
Probably in all these tales refer to the most known species of this genus: Crocus sativus called “True saffron” or more simply “Croco”. Described more or less widely by scholars such as Dioscoride Pedanio (Anazarbe in Cilicia, about 40 to about 90), an ancient Greek botanist and pharmacist, or by Pietro Andrea Mattioli (Siena, March 12, 1501 – Trento, 1578), humanist and Italian physician Italian scholar to translate from Greek the works of Dioscoride). It is, however, necessary for the French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (Aix-en-Provence, June 5, 1656 – Paris, December 28, 1708) to make the first “scientific” draft of this genre, which was finally taken over by Carl von Linné.
Saffron powder, in addition to making tasty and tasty the most diverse dishes, as said, is a valuable mine for the body.
The most interesting thing in the use of saffron, in addition to that of spice and dye, is that it contains zero calories: while giving flavor to each dish to which it is mixed, it does not add fat or calories and also stimulates metabolism, also preventing infections bowel.
The use of saffron in the kitchen ranges from appetizer to sweet but the best combinations are with rice, crustaceans, seafood, wet meats and delicate sauces. In these cases the saffron’s taste enriches, colors and enhances flavors.
Usually this spice is added at the end of the cooking, otherwise it loses its flavor and scent; Particular attention must also be paid to the dosage: for three / four people is enough a sachet of 0.15 grams.
In some cases (in damp dishes, for example) it is possible to add it from the beginning of the cooking, but drain it in water.
Plates prepared with saffron are usually combined with sparkling, good-quality white wines or soft red and not too tannic, which would otherwise only emphasize the bitter note of saffron.
Pure saffron is red in color, should not have dots and should not be too damp. To keep its aroma intact, it should be stored in a dark, dry place.
Wrapped in similar spices but of different color (yellow mustard, for example): they are turmeric or safflower, much less valuable because they have no smell or flavor.
– Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
– Treben M., 2000. The Health from the Pharmacy of the Lord, tips and experiences with medicinal herbs, Ennsthaler Publisher
– Pignatti S., 1982. Flora of Italy, Edagricole, Bologna.
– Conti F., Abbate G., Alessandrini A., Blasi C. (ed), 2005. An annotated checklist of the Italian vascular flora, Palombi Editore.
Please note: Pharmaceutical applications and alimurgici uses are indicated for information purposes only, do not represent in any way a medical prescription; it accepts no liability on their use for therapeutic purposes, cosmetic or food.