Growing Saffron Crocus ~ A Spice Worth Growing
Growing my own saffron spice at home has been a dream of mine since starting a garden. For some reason, I waited and waited because it seemed intimidating and I didn’t feel ready. Let me tell you, saffron crocus is such a unique perennial to add to your edible landscape or herb garden amd I regret not growing saffron sooner!
My two backyard saffron patches are now sprouting into their third season and so I feel somewhat equipped to share what I’ve learned so you can grow your own saffron too! In fact, I’ve been experimenting with growing saffron in full sun versus partial sun here in Southern California. While those results are still out, I can confirm that growing saffron is totally worth it—even on a small scale.
Related article: Fall & Winter Gardening Guide for Southern California
About Saffron Crocus (crocus sativus)
Saffron threads are actually the dried stigmas of a very specific, gorgeous crocus flower. The saffron crocus flower is related to lots of other crocuses, but there is only ONE edible crocus. There are many different kinds of crocuses out there, and some are extremely toxic! The ONLY crocus that produces the edible spice threads we know as “saffron” are crocus sativus, so check the variety from your vendor before attempting growing saffron.
Saffron is indeed the most expensive spice in the world, sometimes retailing for as much as $5000 per pound! Interestingly enough, saffron crocus is first believed to have been grown in the Mediterranean and they actually like long, dry Summers. Saffron is also cultivated in Southeast Asia and an extremly large amount of saffron is grown in Iran. I’ll get into my growing space/plant requirements later, but saffron crocus is very well-suited to our zone 10, mild, Mediterranean climate! For gardeners in other zones, (find your gardening zone) it is said that saffron crocus can be grown in zones 6 and up, and zones 3-5 with special attention.
One clue that you are growing the correct saffron, is that saffron crocus blooms in Fall whereas other crocuses commonly bloom in springtime. The general life cycle of saffron is that it blooms in Fall, grows greenery, starts to die back through winter and Spring, and goes dormant through Summer. In early Fall you will start to see your little saffron tops poking out of the soil.
The edible part of the crocus sativus flowers are the bright, red-orange stigmas that are plucked and dried before storing for culinary use. Each flower produces only 3 stigmas—or 3 threads of saffron!
When to plant saffron crocus in the garden
What’s really incredible is that you can plant saffron corms in late Summer and have saffron flowers pop up in just a few months! I didn’t know this until I was growing saffron myself and couldn’t believe that the corms I had just planted were flowering already. Not all my corms did that the first year, but most of them did.
Ideally, plant your saffron crocus corms in mid-late September. I’ve started a new patch recently, and just got my corms in the ground September 26th. I can already see my old saffron sprouting up in my old bed (pictured below). Sometimes I take cues from existing self seeded or perennial plants, and see when they naturally make moves in the garden to determine when I should be planting. Anyone else?
Crocus sativus is the specific crocus that you’ll need to find, as it is the only safe, non-toxic crocus that produces saffron.
Soil & Planting Requirements for Growing Saffron Crocus
Saffron crocus likes well-drained soil in a full sun or partial shade area. From experience, I can say that my full sun saffron patch has performed best. For example, it pops out of the ground earlier than the partial shade patch and re-bloom has been very dependable each year. In contrast, the saffron I’m growing in partial shade is weeks behind in sprouting (but the jury is still out for me in terms of re-bloom conclusions).
Saffron corms don’t need tons of amendment or extra rich soil, but I do top with compost and some bone meal at the end of Summer before the saffron corms should be sprouting. In general, corms, bulbs and tubers in general just don’t like to sit in wet, clay, poorly drained soil—they can rot! In fact, it’s been said to avoid watering saffron during the dormant season (summer) but, it is truly so hot and dry here that I do slightly water my saffron during the Summer.
I also mulch my saffron patches to keep the soil underneath happy. other than that, I don’t do any additional fertilizing or care! Isn’t that incredible?
How to Plant Your Saffron Corms
It’s funny, I’ve seen different planting instructions depending on the seed source. If you’re curious, you can sometimes pick up saffron crocus corms (remember to make sure it is labeled as ‘crocus sativus’) at nurseries in the bulb section or order online (last year I ordered from Easy to grow Bulbs but see my update below). One set of planting instructions said to plant them closely, with as many as 12 corms per square foot! Another said to space them out with at least 3″ inches between corms. I can say this: saffron crocus reproduce by expanding/dividing which means they will quickly become crowded and demand division the closer they are planted together. For my new patch, I spaced my corms about 3 inches apart.
Once your planting area is prepared for growing saffron (you can read more tips for how I amend soil HERE), you simply plant your corms so that 2 inches of soil covers the tops of the corms. Make sure to plant them pointy part facing up!
Water after planting, but sparingly, until you see sprouts poking up out of the soil.
Sourcing Corms for Growing Saffron in California
This section has been updated as of November 2022. After last year’s saffron growing season, I stumbled upon a California Saffron Grower, Melinda Price of Peace and Plenty Farm. This incredible business grows saffron right here in California! You all know that I’m a huge fan of buying local and supporting local businesses, so I highly recommend purchasing your saffron corms from Peace and Plenty Farm in the future. You can check out their saffron inspired offerings HERE, and they do sell corms when the season is right, so keep an eye out or follow them on Instagram. Tell Melinda I sent you!
I was fortunate enough to learn a couple great tips from Melinda regarding saffron and harvesting too:
“In terms of harvesting, some people think they can use the saffron right away once they have dried it, but it really does improve in flavor after a few months of seasoning in a jar in a cool dark place (once it’s fully dried).
Also, make sure that you aren’t using any scented hand lotions or have handled raw garlic or onions before harvesting. I use one of those stainless steel ‘soap bars’ to remove any scent from my fingers before harvesting.” – Melinda Price, Peace and Plenty Farms
I will talk more about how to harvest your homegrown saffron below, but let me just say that the scent of freshly harvested saffron is like a warm honey!
Protect Your Saffron Corms
One thing I really wanted to emphasize in regards to growing saffron is that you might need to protect your patch from being dug up! From personal experience I can tell you that animals (like squirrels) like to dig up corms and bulbs! To keep your precious saffron safe, cover the planting area with some sort of mesh or grid to discourage digging while the corms are dormant underground. In the picture below I show my first round of protection, but I found out over the seasons that this might be overkill. For me, the simple wire grid suffices just fine.
Tips for Harvesting Saffron Crocus
Starting in October and November, keep en eye out for your saffron bursting through the soil. The first sign will be a tiny white point. Yes, for real! From there, green grass will start to emerge from the white tips and then flower buds! Just be aware that the bloom can happen fast once the bud pops up, so be watchful.
The best time to harvest saffron flowers is in the early morning after the dew has dried. When the flowers are wet, it can make the petals stick together and possibly create an environment for mold.
Ideally, you want to harvest saffron flowers that are just beginning to open, not flowers that have fully opened or old. And yes, I choose to pick the whole flower as opposed to picking the stigma and leaving the flower in the ground. For me, this is simply easier and allows me to make sure I don’t break my saffron.
Use a clean container so you don’t contaminate your saffron stigmas. Personally, I have success with a clean basket lined with a paper towel.
Remember to harvest with clean hands as smells can also transfer to your precious saffron as you harvest it for drying.
I’m sure large-scale farms have other ways of harvesting and drying saffron, but I grow in a relatively small space in my backyard. My very first year I only harvested six saffron flowers! You gotta start somewhere!
How to dry your saffron threads
Edit: I’ve recently made a video for how I harvest and dry my homegrown saffron threads! Check it out below!
Using my hands or tweezers, remove the bright red stigmas from the flower and let them dry in a warm spot indoors until they are completely dry and brittle—if you live where it’s warm, it won’t take long so check every day. I leave mine on a paper towel to dry because we are super dry (no humidity) in Fall. I have heard some gardeners in colder regions use a dehydrator for drying their saffron, but I’ve never tried it.
Store your precious saffron threads in an air-tight container like you would most other dried herbs and spices. Glass containers are best as plastic can leach odd smells and flavors into your spices. Keep in a cool, dark place. Sun and light can also degrade your saffron, so darkness is key.
Overwintering & Dormant Care for Saffron
It can be kind of panic-inducing to be growing saffron and all of a sudden it’s dying back and turning yellow in Spring. Let me reassure you, this is totally normal. Remember, saffron crocus us a Fall blooming flower, so its dormant season is actually the Summer! Personally, I leave my crocus in the ground all year, so during the Summer it is basically invisible. I just make sure it doesn’t get over-watered or completely dry out. If you see the photo below, that’s my saffron patch dying back in April.
As your saffron patch is dying back, do not trim or remove the leaves. Ultimately, any green color on the foliage means that there’s still energy there that the corm needs before going dormant. Once your saffron foliage has died back completely, you could technically lift the corms (but I have never done that).
Fertilizing when growing saffron
Saffron is a surprisingly low-maintenance and hardy plant. It needs very little fertilizer! In fact, aside from the initial planting of the corms, I only maintain my saffron patch by topping with some compost and bone meal (or a similar fertilizer) right around their sprouting time in late Summer/Fall. That’s really it!
Last notes on homegrown saffron
Many professional saffron growers believe that dried saffron has the best flavor if you wait at least one month after drying. Furthermore, if saffron is stored and dried properly, it can last anywhere from 1-2 years. To be honest, I’ve always used mine before the year was up!
I’m still bummed it took me this long to start growing saffron, but better late than never right?! Now, take your prized saffron threads and get cooking! I encourage you to research all the different cultures that use this spice. Saffron is important to so many cuisines. one of my favorite uses for homegrown saffron is saffron chai (also called kesar chai or zafarani chai depending on where your recipe is from).
I hope my adventures growing saffron here in Southern California inspires you to grow your own!
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