Saffron (Crocus sativus) has long been among the world’s most costly spices by weight. One grain of commercial saffron contains the stigmas of nine flower and some four thousand blossoms are required to make one ounce. The species Crocus sativus first cultivated in Persia descended from wild saffron Crocus cartwrightianus that was native to Ancient Greece and Crete.
A fragmentary Minoan fresco from the excavation of Akrotiri on the Aegean island of Santorini shows women gathering wild saffron as early as the Middle Minoan Period. The frescoes on Santori may have been produced anywhere between 3000–1100 BCE. Another portrays a Minoan goddess supervising the plucking of flowers and the gleaning of stigmas for use in the manufacture of what is possibly a therapeutic drug. Another depicts a woman using saffron to treat her bleeding foot. These are the first visual representations of the ancient use of saffron as an herbal remedy. This Minoan settlement was destroyed by an earthquake and the frescoes were preserved by volcanic ash between 1645 and 1500 BCE.
Ancient Greek legends tell of sailors embarking on a perilous voyage to the remote land of Cilicia, where they hoped to procure what they believed was the world's most valuable saffron. The best-known Greek legend about the plant describes it as originating when a handsome youth named Crocus pursues the woodnymph Smilax who tires of his advances and turns him into a saffron plant. Its bright orange stigmas were believed to be an aphrodisiac and a symbol of unrequited passion.
For the ancient Mediterraneans, saffron gathered around the Cilician coastal town of Soli was of top value, particularly for use in perfumes and ointments. Herodotus and Pliny the Elder, however, rated rival Assyrian and Babylonian saffron from the Fertile Crescent as best—to treat gastrointestinal or renal upsets. Greek saffron from the Corycian Cave of Mount Parnassus was also of note: the color offered by the Corycian crocus is used as a benchmark in the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius[N 1] and similarly with its fragrance in the epigrams of Martial.
Cleopatra of late Ptolemaic Egypt used a quarter-cup of saffron in her warm baths, as she prized its colouring and cosmetic properties. She used it before encounters with men, trusting that saffron would render lovemaking yet more pleasurable. Egyptian healers used saffron as a treatment for all varieties of gastrointestinal ailments: when stomach pains progressed to internal hemorrhaging, an Egyptian treatment consisted of saffron crocus seeds mixed and crushed together with aager-tree remnants, ox fat, coriander, and myrrh. This ointment or poultice was applied to the body. The physicians expected it to "[expel] blood through the mouth or rectum which resembles hog's blood when it is cooked". Urinary tract conditions were also treated with an oil-based emulsion of premature saffron flowers mixed with roasted beans; this was used topically on men. Women ingested a more complex preparation.
In Greco-Roman times saffron was widely traded across the Mediterranean by the Phoenicians. Their customers ranged from the perfumers of Rosetta, in Egypt, to physicians in Gaza to townsfolk in Rhodes, who wore pouches of saffron in order to mask the presence of malodorous fellow citizens during outings to the theatre. For the Greeks, saffron was widely associated with professional courtesans and retainers known as the hetaerae. Large dye works operating in Sidon and Tyre used saffron baths as a substitute; there, royal robes were triple-dipped in deep purple dyes; for the robes of royal pretenders and commoners, the last two dips were replaced with a saffron dip, which gave a less intense purple hue.
In biblical times saffron was important as a condiment and sweet perfume. Homer and Theophrastus mention it in their writings, and Pliny records that the benches of the public theaters were strewn with saffron and placed in fountains to diffuse the scent into public halls. Hebrew Scripture compares the beloved spouse to beautiful enclosed garden of pomegranates, pleasant fruits; camphire, spikenard, saffron; calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices. (Song of Solomon 4:13-14)
The ancient Greeks and Romans prized saffron as a deodorizer and scattered it about their public spaces: royal halls, courts, and amphitheatres. The people spread saffron along the streets of Rome to honor Nero when he became emperor. Wealthy Romans partook of daily saffron baths. They used it as mascara, stirred saffron threads into their wines, cast it aloft in their halls and streets as a potpourri, and offered it to their deities. Roman colonists took saffron with them when they settled in southern Gaul, where it was extensively cultivated until the invasion of Italy in 271 CE.
Gradually saffron was traded and propagated throughout Eurasia and later brought to parts of North Africa, North America, and Oceania. It is best known for the carotenoid pigment, crocin, which gives a rich golden-yellow hue to dishes and textiles. Today 90% of the world’s production of cultivated saffron comes from Iran.
Saffron-based pigments have been found in the prehistoric paints used to illustrate beasts in 50,000-year-old cave art found in modern-day Iraq, which was even then northwest of the Persian Empire. The ancient Sumerians used saffron as an ingredient in their remedies and magical potions. Sumerians gathered their stores from wild flowers, believing that saffron’s medicinal properties were divine gifts. In ancient Persia, Crocus sativas was cultivated at Derbena and Isfahan in the 10th century BCE. Saffron threads were interwoven into ancient Persian royal carpets and funeral shrouds and used by ancient Persian worshippers as a ritual offering to their deities.
Saffron was scattered across beds and mixed into hot teas as a curative for bouts of melancholy. Indeed, Persian saffron threads, used to spice foods and teas, were widely suspected by foreigners of being a drugging agent and an aphrodisiac. Persian saffron was dissolved in water with sandalwood to use as a body wash after heavy work and perspiration under the hot Persian sun. Persian saffron was heavily used by Alexander the Great and his forces during their Asian campaigns. They mixed saffron into teas and dined on saffron rice. Alexander personally used saffron sprinkled in warm bath water, taking after Cyrus the Great. Much like Cyrus, he believed it would heal his many wounds, and his faith in saffron grew with each treatment. He even recommended saffron baths for the ordinary men under him. Convinced of saffron’s curative properties, Greek soldiers continued the practice after they returned to Macedonia.
Saffron was among the other spices that were brought to India by Persian rulers who transplanted cultivars desired in the gardens across the Persian empire. In the sixth century BCE Phoenicians marketed the new Kashmiri saffron as a treatment for melancholy and a fabric dye via their extensive trade routes.
A traditional Kashmiri legend credits the arrival of the first saffron in India to itinerant Sufi ascetics who wandered into Kashmir in the 11th century. To this day, grateful prayers are offered to the two Sufi visitors who are honored as saints in a golden-domed shrine and tomb dedicated to them in the village of Pampore, India. According to Hindu religion Lord Krishna used to put Tilak (a mark on forehead) of saffron daily. Ancient Chinese Buddhist accounts tell of an Indian Buddhist missionary who was sent to Kashmir in the 5th century BCE and sowed the first saffron there. Some historians believe that saffron first came to China with Mongol invaders by way of Persia. Saffron is mentioned in ancient Chinese medical texts, including the vast pharmacopoeia that dates from around 1600 BCE. The Chinese medical expert Wan Zhen wrote that the “habitat of saffron is in Kashmir, where people grow it principally to offer it to the Buddha.”
Saffron cultivation in Europe declined steeply following the fall of the Roman Empire. For several centuries thereafter, saffron cultivation was rare or non-existent throughout Europe. This was reversed when Moorish civilization spread from North Africa to Spain as well as parts of France and southern Italy. One theory states that Moors reintroduced saffron to the region around Poitiers after they lost the Battle of Tours to Charles Martel in 732 CE. Two centuries after the conquest of Spain they planted saffron throughout the southern provinces of Andalucia, Castile, La Mancha, and Valencia.
By the 14th century the use of saffron for spicing and coloring food in Europe is documented in recipe books such as the Viandier de Taillevent written by the royal cook. In 1478 CE the saffron tax levied by the Bishop of Albi was equivalent to one twelfth of the production. Saffron demand skyrocketed when the Black Death struck Europe 1347-1350 CE when it became necessary import saffron from Greece. Access to saffron was one of the points of conflict in the growing hostility between the declining landed gentry and the increasingly wealthy merchant class.
A war started when a shipment of saffron was stolen by nobles on the route market in Basel, Switzerland. That one 800 pounds of saffron would be valued at half a million dollars today. The Saffron War lasted fourteen weeks and the shipment was eventually returned, but piracy of saffron exceeded piracy of gold in the Mediterranean waters in the 13th century. As a result, the nobility began cultivating saffron in Basel, and trade in saffron made it one of the most prosperous cities in Europe until the European saffron trade moved to Nuremberg.
Merchants in Venice continued to control the Mediterranean spices market, trafficking a variety of spices adulterated with a cheaper product to increase their profit. Authorities in Nuremberg passed a law to have saffron deloused before arriving in Europe and merchants were fined, imprisoned, and burned together by immolation. In subsequent years saffron was fleetingly cultivated throughout England usually on small plots of well-guarded land. In England and France, saffron production became very important in the 17th and 18th centuries, reaching a few tons until production declined due to pandemic fungal diseases destroying bulbs and crops.
This trend was documented by the Dean of Manchester, Reverend William Herbert who was concerned about the steady decline in saffron cultivation over the course of the 17th century and the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The introduction in Europe of easily grown maize and potatoes steadily took over lands formerly dedicated to growing saffron. The nobility who were the traditionally consumers of the expensive product were more interested new arrivals on the culinary market, such as chocolate, coffee, tea, and vanilla. Production continued only in the more temperate climate areas of southern France, Italy and Spain.
Saffron was brought to the New World by Alsatian, German, and Swiss colonists who fled religious persecution in Europe. They settled mainly in eastern Pennsylvania, in the Susquehanna River valley, eventually becoming known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. The German Schwenkfelders, were great lovers of saffron, having cultivated it back in Germany. The Pennsylvania Dutch marketed saffron to Spanish colonists in the Caribbean, making it comparable to the price of gold on the Philadelphia commodities exchange in the 18th century. The Pennsylvania Dutch used saffron in their cakes, noodles, and chicken or trout dishes, but they also used it medicinally.
From antiquity into modern times saffron has been used in folk medicine to treat stomach upsets, bubonic plague, and smallpox. It was used for its carminative for suppressing cramps and flatulence, as an emmenagogic to enhance pelvic blood flow, to treat respiratory disorders, coughs and colds, scarlet fever, smallpox, cancer, hypoxia, and asthma. It was used to treat numerous other diseases including blood disorders, insomnia, paralysis, heart diseases, stomach upsets, gout, chronic uterine hemorrhage, dysmorrhea, amenorrhea, infant colic, and eye disorders. For the ancient Persians and Egyptians saffron was an aphrodisiac, an antidote against poisoning, a digestive stimulant, and a tonic for dysentery and measles.
Today saffron remains one of the world’s most expensive spices. Its medicinal use is primarily for asthma, cough, whooping cough (pertussis), and to loosen phlegm (as an expectorant). It is also used for sleep problems (insomnia), cancer, “hardening of the arteries” (atherosclerosis), intestinal gas (flatulence), depression, Alzheimer’s disease, fright, shock, spitting up blood (hemoptysis), pain, heartburn, and dry skin. Women use it to alleviate menstrual cramps and premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Men use it to prevent early orgasm (premature ejaculation) and infertility. It is also used to as an aphrodisiac) and to induce sweating.