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Growing Saffron Crocus
submitted by Sarah Browning, UNL Extension Educator
If you're planning to plant bulbs this fall, it's time to decide what you need and get them ordered. Fall bulb planting begins in late September and continues into October. An interesting bulb to consider planting this fall for its beauty, but also for its culinary value, is saffron crocus. Saffron has been an important spice since ancient times, used as a dye, spice, medicine and perfume.
Unlike most crocus, saffron crocus, C. sativus, blooms in early to mid fall. Plants are sterile male triploids meaning they cannot reproduce via seed, but must be propagated vegetatively through their bulb-like root structures called corms.
In the garden, it's a small plant, with several slim, green grass-like leaves growing from a globe-shaped corm. Plants reach 6 to 12 inches tall, and 2 to 4 inches wide. Each plant typically produces 2 to 4 large, lavender to violet-blue flowers, with a sweet, hay-like fragrance.
Their leaves appear in early spring and grow until hot weather induces summer dormancy. A second crop of leaves appear in fall, followed shortly by flowers.
Flowers are the key to saffron production. Each flower is made up of the showy outer violet-blue petals. Inside the petals are three short, yellowish male pollen structures called stamens, and three very long blood-red stigmas, the female pollen receptors. The stigmas are harvested with tweezers, shortly after the flowers open.
Avid saffron gardener Wallace Howell from Washington State University states that 150-200 corms keep his family fairly well supplied with enough spice for a year's cooking. Any extras he gives away to family and friends.
Saffron is light sensitive, so wrap the threads in a foil packet to protect them. Then place them in an air-tight container, and store in a cool, dark place to retain the best flavor.
Iran produces over 90% of saffron globally, followed by Greece, Morocco and Kashmir.
Growing Saffron Crocus
Plants are hardy in Zones 5-8, and prefer full to partial sun. For best plant growth, choose a protected planting site that gets at least five or six hours of direct sunlight per day.
Saffron crocus require very well drained soil, especially in winter, preferably sandy loam. Wet soil causes bulb rot, so if your garden is poorly drained or heavy clay then soil amendment is needed. Add 2 to 3 inches of compost and work it into the upper 4 to 6 inches of soil.
Plant the corms about 2 inches deep is groupings. The flat side of the corm, where the roots and growth plate are located, should be pointed down in the planting hole. Plants are quite drought tolerant once established, so don't overwater!
If your site is good, and the plants are healthy, they will multiply fairly rapidly. Dig up and divide the corms every 2 to 5 years, during their late July or August dormant period.
Finding Saffron Crocus
Finally, a note about availability. Not many garden centers carry a specialty bulb like saffron crocus, so you may need to order them through a specialty bulb catalogue if you can't find them locally. Below are a few sources, but not every bulb company carrying saffron crocus is listed. No endorsement of these companies by University of Nebraska- Lincoln Extension is intended, nor criticism implied of companies not listed.
- Brent and Becky's Bulbs, 7900 Daffodil Lane, Gloucester, VA 23061; Telephone: (804) 693-3966; Website: brentandbeckysbulbs.com
- Michigan Bulb Company, P.O. Box 4180, Lawrenceburg, IN 47025-4180; Fax: (513) 354-1499; Website: www.michiganbulb.com
- Wayside Gardens, One Garden Lane, Hodges, SC 29653: Telephone: (800) 845-1124; Website: www.waysidegardens.com
- White Flower Farm, P.O. Box 50, Route 63, Litchfield, Connecticut 06759; Telephone: (800) 420-2852; Website: www.whiteflowerfarm.com
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in Lancaster County is your on-line yard and garden educational resource. The information on this Web site is valid for residents of southeastern Nebraska. It may or may not apply in your area. If you live outside southeastern Nebraska, visit your local Extension office
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