Saffron | More foods that grow in a surprising way

Last year, we wrote a post called 8 foods that grow in a surprising way, about the unexpected ways in which some common foods grow and where they originated from. It was quite popular. And it changed my life. No longer can I simply eat a meal… I now question everything on my plate; imagine the ways in which it might grow and where, and then research it thoroughly afterwards… I find I am eating alone a lot these days.

Anyway, I thought I’d do a follow-up, so you can also further regale your friends and family at meal times! Check back here each day this week for a new food!


Originates from Greece and southwest Asia

Saffron crocus

There are probably a few things you know about saffron already – that it’s more expensive gram-for-gram than gold, and that it’s yellow. But did you know it comes from a crocus? Yes, that lovely spring flower! I can read your minds – you’re wondering whether it’s possible to harvest some saffron from the local park/garden, aren’t you? Well, no! Not only do I not condone stealing, but it’s almost certainly going to be the wrong sort of crocus (there are over 70 different species of crocus and saffron is specific to just one of them.)

The cultivation of saffron has been going on for thousands of years, and it’s no surprise that the ancient Egyptians loved a bit of it (they did seem to have had expensive tastes). They used it for medicinal reasons, as did most. Apparently, Pliny the Elder listed 20 remedies that involved saffron; it seems saffron could pretty much cure anything! These days, however, it’s mainly used for flavouring and colouring.


Around 90% of all saffron produced now comes from Iran and the reason it is so expensive is because it has to be harvested by hand. Not only that, but each tiny purple flower yields very little spice. So, in the three weeks during autumn that the saffron crocus blooms, each flower is picked and their stigmas are carefully removed. The stigma is the female section of the plant (remember your science lessons?) and the bit that is actually the saffron. The stigmas are dried, packaged and then sold.

Saffron stigmas

If you still can’t quite understand just why this is this is the most expensive spice in the world then think about this: each flower has three stigmas… To make one pound of saffron 225,000 stigmas are needed. That’s 75,000 flowers that need to be picked and dissected by hand to make one pound of spice. Amazing!

Photo credits: たね (会話, Moka2002n, Guillaume Paumier and staciabriggs

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About Lizzie Brooks

Lizzie Brooks

The most beautiful place I have been (so far!) has been Norway. Coming in to land in Oslo was like coming in to land in a fairytale; pine trees that looked like velvet amongst frozen fjords, the occasional wisp of smoke coming up from a little yellow or red house within the trees. Beautiful!

I kind of expected to see a Moomin emerging (but they are from Finland, of course).

Lizzie works in our marketing team

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