Growing the Desert Garden

Welcome to the Desert Garden, with garden coach Tyler Storey, where we talk about everything having to do with gardening and landscaping in the Desert Southwest. From composting to Cercidium and agaves to arugula — we'll cover everything you want to know to grow your own beautiful Desert Garden.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Plant to Ponder: Saffron Crocus

Saffron Crocus © Tyler Storey Some plants we put in the landscape just because they're beautiful, others because they're edible, or functional, or have an interesting story. Some, like Crocus sativus, the Saffron Crocus, are all of the above.

Crocus sativus, as you can tell by the botanical name, is part of the familiar Crocus family. The species epithet, sativus, comes from the Latin word meaning "cultivated," a good descriptor, as we have evidence of saffron being cultivated as far back as the Minoans and beyond. Saffron has been a painting pigment, a fabric dye, a sacrifice to pagan gods, and, most famously, a spice for food.

Saffron is the key ingredient in paella, and here at The Ranch it regularly appears in Morrocan lamb and lentil harira and in a Risotto Milanese with morels (you wouldn't think that a combination of saprophytic fungi, animal bones, fermented sheep's milk, and crocus parts would taste so good, but such is the miracle of cooking).

The edible portion of the plant, the part called Saffron in the spice trade, is the stigma, three per flower. In the picture above, the stigmas are the brilliant orange thread-like structures. Harvest these with tweezers a couple of days after the bloom is fully open, and dry carefully before storing them away in a spice jar. Yes, they're tiny, but if you purchase them at the market they go for around $1000 a pound, so don't sneeze.

Overall, the Saffron Crocus is tiny, reaching only a few inches in height and is easily overlooked in the garden. It is widely grown in Mediterranean climates, and thus does well in those areas of the Desert Garden where we re-create more Mediterranean conditions, as in your existing herb garden. Hot and dry, with occasional irrigation, well-drained soil and full to perhaps very slightly filtered sunlight suit it well. Dig up and divide the bulbs every couple of years to keep the plants vigorous; wait until the foliage dies down in late Winter or very early Spring.

The Autumn Crocus, Colchicum autumnale is superficially similar in form and habit to the Saffron Crocus, differing most notably in being deadly poison – always an important consideration when cooking. The Autumn Crocus also lacks the deep orange stigmas, so as long as that's the only part you're harvesting from crocus in your garden, then no problem.


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