Get Growing with Mickey Rathbun: Mad about saffron

  • Saffron crocuses growing and blooming as part of an experiment conducted at the UMass Extension Service. The autumn-growing perennial grows from a bulb, or corm. The lavender flower has three protruding crimson stigmas that are picked by hand, dried and preserved whole or ground into powder. Masoud Hashemi

  • Dr. Leila Tabrizi, a visiting professor to UMass from Tehran University, inspects a saffron crocus growing and blooming as part of an experiment conducted at the UMass Extension Service. Tabrizi is an expert in spices, herbal and medicinal plants, including saffron. Masoud Hashemi

  • The lavender flower has three protruding crimson stigmas that are picked by hand, dried and preserved whole or ground into powder. The labor-intensive harvesting process is reflected in its steep price, up to $5,000 per pound. Masoud Hashemi

  • Rows of Saffron crocuses in a greenhouse at the UMass Research Farm in South Deerfield. Masoud Hashemi

  • Rows of Saffron crocuses planted outside at the UMass Research Farm in South Deerfield. Masoud Hashemi

  • Rows of Saffron crocuses planted outside at the UMass Research Farm in South Deerfield. Masoud Hashemi

Published: 11/25/2020 11:41:58 AM

When most people think of saffron they think of exotic, faraway places like Iran, Turkey and India — certainly not western Massachusetts. But saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, might turn out to be a hot commodity right here in the Pioneer Valley, if experiments being conducted by the UMass Extension Service in Amherst succeed.

Dr. Masoud Hashemi, a professor at the Extension Service, got the idea for growing saffron locally last year when a visiting professor from Tehran University, Dr. Leila Tabrizi, came to work in his lab for the year. She happened to be an expert in spices, herbal and medicinal plants, including saffron.

As Tabrizi explained, she has had extensive experience in Iran as a graduate student and professor with growing saffron and has published several scholarly articles on various aspects of the production, chemistry and physiology of saffron.

Hashemi received his doctorate in crop physiology from the UMass Department of Plant and Soil Science (now the Stockbridge School) in 1990. He began teaching at UMass in 2000 and now researches and teaches soil health. He works closely with local farmers in a wide range of activities, including the testing and introduction of new crops. It occurred to him that he and Dr. Tabrizi might try to grow saffron at the UMass Research Farm in South Deerfield.

Saffron comes from the Crocus sativus, an autumn-growing perennial that grows from a bulb, or corm. The lavender flower has three protruding crimson stigmas that are picked by hand, dried and preserved whole or ground into powder. The labor-intensive harvesting process is reflected in its steep price, up to $5,000 per pound. It takes 200,000 stigmas from 70,000 flowers to produce a pound of saffron threads. It takes approximately 40 hours to pick 150,000 flowers. But a little goes a long way, and even a pinch of saffron threads lends the distinctive sweet, grassy flavor to a dish.

The saffron crocus is likely to have originated in Iran, although some believe it came from Greece or Mesopotamia. Wherever it first appeared, it eventually spread throughout Eurasia and to South and East Asia. The spice’s rich cultural and botanical history reaches back at least 3,500 years. The ancient Sumerians — believed to be the oldest culture on earth — valued saffron for its medicinal and supposed magical properties. Information about saffron has appeared in many scholarly works, including a 7th-century BC. Assyrian botanical encyclopedia and a Chinese pharmacopeia from 300 BC. Saffron was depicted in Minoan palace frescos from 1,500 BC.

Saffron has been used in many ways over the millennia. Its costliness made it a revered offering to deities in various religious traditions. Because of its intense crimson color, it has been woven into textiles and used as a dye. (Buddhist monks traditionally wear saffron-colored robes, but the fabric is dyed with turmeric.)

And saffron was historically used as a remedy for a wide range of physical ailments, including melancholy and impotence. It is said that Alexander the Great mixed Persian saffron into salves to heal battle wounds. Cleopatra is said to have added it in her bathwater to enhance lovemaking.

Saffron demand grows

The demand for saffron has increased significantly, according to Hashemi, both for culinary and medicinal uses. Saffron is a key seasoning in many culinary cultures, and as our interest in global cuisines has expanded, so has our demand for saffron. In Hashemi’s native Iran, the spice is used in many dishes, including the wonderful crispy rice dish called tahdig. It’s used in seafood dishes such as French bouillabaisse and Spanish paella. In Scandinavia it’s baked into bread called Lussekatter (“Lucy’s cat”) that is traditionally produced to celebrate Santa Lucia Day, Dec. 13. It’s also widely used in Middle Eastern and South Asian cuisine.

Saffron has many medicinal uses. It’s believed to alleviate gastrointestinal problems, headaches, insomnia, depression and anxiety. It is said to relieve chest congestion and coughing. It is also marketed as a weight-loss aid and a memory enhancer for people with Alzheimer’s disease. The cosmetics industry has also seen an increase in demand for saffron in products such as color enhancers and skin lotions, as market preferences shift to natural ingredients.

In September, Hashemi and Tabrizi planted the first Crocus sativus corms, which were propagated in the Netherlands and imported to the U.S. They planted 320 corms in the greenhouse and 1,250 in the field. Given that saffron originated in temperate climates, a critical factor in the plants’ viability here is whether they can survive our harsh winters. The corms were planted at varying depths — 4, 6 and 8 inches — to test their hardiness.

Hashemi said that saffron crocuses are likely to thrive in marginal areas since they have grown in the wild for millennia. He noted that the saffron crocus is not competitive with weeds, so he is experimenting with planting it in bare tilled soil and also with miniature clover, a living mulch that will feed and protect the soil in which the corms are planted. He chose miniature clover because it has a very shallow root system that will not interfere with the development of the corms, and also because the clover’s growing season is over by the fall when the corms begin to grow.

Crocus sativus produces flowers quickly, around a month after planting. Hashemi and Tabrizi were delighted when the first crocus flowers appeared in late October.

“I got very emotional to see that saffron was growing and blooming successfully in this non-native condition,” Tabrizi said. “I will never forget the moment I saw the first flower. I was walking around and showing it to others. Almost none of the students, staff, and even faculty had seen saffron flowers before.”

Hashemi is pleased to report that 100% of the greenhouse corms flowered, and 60% of the field-grown corms flowered, slightly higher than the norm for the first year. Tabrizi said she’s excited to continue the research for another year or two.

Saffron’s future here

Another group of saffron crocuses is being cultivated for an experiment involving the remediation of heavy metals contamination of soil, which can be a serious problem for farmers. A team of researchers including Hashemi, Tabrizi, and Om Parkash Dhankher, a professor of bioremediation at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at UMass, are investigating the growth and quality of crocuses in contaminated soil. They are also assessing the mitigation of heavy metals by the application of nano sulfur to the contaminated soil.

Hashemi believes that saffron could be a viable and lucrative crop for local farmers. A key advantage to growing saffron is that it flowers after most of the farmers’ other crops have been harvested. “It’s beautiful timing,” he said. “It comes when farmers don’t have much to do.”

Saffron also requires relatively little space.

“You don’t have to allocate a big farm,” he said. “Six hundred square feet is enough space to produce a meaningful amount of saffron.”

And, because it’s not an annual crop, it requires only a one-time investment for the corms. The “mother” corm produces “daughter” corms that continue to produce increasingly greater numbers of flowers in subsequent seasons. The corms are dug up and replanted every five years or so. As Dr. Hashemi observed, this is important from a cultivation standpoint because unlike many crops that must be planted annually, crocuses require relatively little cultivation. And as the daughter corms multiply, they can be sold to other farmers and become another source of income.

It’s too soon to tell whether saffron will thrive in western Massachusetts. If it does, Hashemi is eager to introduce it to local farmers. Perhaps in a few years we’ll see it offered at local farmers’ markets along with artichokes, turmeric root, baby purple potatoes and other relative newcomers to our area. To quote the old Donovan song, “we might all just be mad about saffron.”

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the “Get Growing” column since 2016.


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