Planning for Saffron

Crocus sativus

THE ABSENTEE GARDENERS

By Kit Flynn and Lise Jenkins

I have a ridiculously small garden that is both a source of frustration and relief. While there are dozens of plants I yearn to add to our landscape I’m relieved that I don’t have to dig the holes. So, while my expansive-garden friends are toiling in their fields, I can relax, happily researching potential candidates for our tiny patch of heaven. 

Those plants allowed to stay in my garden must earn their keep. One plant that delivers for me is saffron.

A member of the iris family, Crocus sativus, sometimes called saffron crocus or autumn crocus, doesn’t require much space, adds intense color to less-than-sunny spots while producing the obscenely priced saffron threads much prized by cooks better than I.

Before you grumble that spring is behind us and fall planting is months away, I’d like to encourage you to consider this tiny treasure now as saffron requires some planning. Demand for saffron typically outstrips supply, so savvy gardeners get their orders in early, waiting patiently for their fall shipments to arrive.

Saffron grows from corms, underground storage organs, which are often confused with more familiar bulbs. Though structurally different, both store energy, in the form of carbohydrates and water that help the plant to endure harsh conditions.

Saffron is hardy from USDA zones 6 through 8; in colder areas the corms should be lifted for winter storage. I keep mine in a wooden box stuffed with peat moss under the house, planting them out after the last hard frost has passed. Depending on the climate in your location they can bloom anywhere from September through January.

All this fuss is for the three tiny red stigmas, the female part of the flower, that only appear for a couple of days. Called “threads,” the stigmas add a unique spicy flavor and delightful color to meals.

My saffron adventure began a few years back when I came across a recipe for Spanish paella that I longed to try. My plans evaporated in the spice aisle of my grocery store. A bottle of saffron was $32 — for only eight threads! Gardener that I am, the bottle went back on the shelf, the recipe went into the drawer and I spent the money on an order of saffron corms. No regrets on that money spent.

At the end of growing season the corms are encircled by small cormels that will develop into new plants. My initial purchase more than doubled over a couple of seasons.

Saffron has thin, grass-like leaves. A couple of weeks before the flowers arrive the foliage emerges as short spikes. Once the flowers have disappeared, the foliage grows to 18-24”, warm weather turns the leaves to a pretty gold that eventually drops off. I grow my saffron in tall pots highlighting the foliage cascading over the edge. 

Once the foliage is gone, evidence of the corms is hard to find. Because I grow mine in pots, they are easy to find at the end of the season. By adding a marker to those plants in the ground, it is easy to locate them for winter storage.

The flowers seem fragile, easily defeated by hard rains. If the weather cooperates, flowers will stay around for a couple of weeks.

Growing saffron for their threads requires more vigilance as they only last a couple of days. I stand watch, tweezers at the ready, for the day the blooms open. Plucking the threads, I carefully lay them out to dry for a couple of days before transferring them to a seed vial for safekeeping.

A tiny vial sits on my desk containing a few dozen saffron threads from this season. With Spanish paella mastered, I’m now happily searching for more recipes to try with my precious harvest. 

Resources to consider: Brecks.com, WhiteFlowerFarm.com, HighCountryGardens.com, Brentandbeckysbulbs.com

Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email: info@absentee-gardener.com

 

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