Saffron

Uses of this pricey commodity are emerging in the West; in the East, it has a long history.

During the month of November, in the villages on the Absheron Peninsula in Azerbaijan, knock on any door and you will probably be greeted by someone with red stained hands. This is the time of year when families are separating the stigmas, which yield saffron, from the flowers of Crocus sativus. It is common here to grow the plant in one’s yard. It requires relatively little care, and although summers are usually dry in Absheron, watering is seldom necessary. The plant is propagated from corms—bulb-like structures in appearance but internally different. Separating groups of corms every four years is about the extent of care needed. Corms don’t usually flower in the first year after separation, but in the following year flowers are abundant. Crocus sativus is known as the autumn crocus, because it blooms that time of year for about three weeks.

A detail from the “Saffron Gatherers” fresco, one of many depicting saffron at the Minoan settlement of Akrotiri, on the Greek island of Santorini, 1600–500 BCE. 

© Yann Forget/Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0
The quality of saffron produced throughout Azerbaijan varies. Saffron from the Bilgah area is considered the finest. One gram of dried Bilgah saffron stigmas, or threads, sells for 3 to 5 AZN (1 to 2 USD). Bilgah had been the site of a large state farm that produced saffron for export from 1941 until the early 1990s. Now, there is no export trade. Acreage has dropped from the original 250 hectares to 23 hectares. Traditional vendors sell their familygrown saffron on the streets of Bilgah to local citizens. Selling usually starts one week after the drying period.

Reddening one’s hands in November in order to have cups of saffron tea throughout the year is one level of engagement. Producing saffron on a large commercial scale is more labor intensive and accounts for its high cost. To make one kilogram of the coveted red spice, it takes more than 240,000 threads from 80,000 flowers—enough to cover a football stadium. Today, the price of saffron threads, ranges from 1,100 to 11,000 USD per kilogram. Despite the high market value, acreage for saffron production has been declining in recent decades in many saffron-growing countries, largely because of the high cost of processing, land pressure from developers, soil pollution, and viruses. In Spain, where there is a strong market for saffron, saffron fields have shrunk from 6,000 hectares to 200 hectares since 1971; in Greece, hectares have dropped from 1,600 to 860 since 1982. Absheron’s endemic plants have been threatened primarily by viruses, believed to have been introduced by non-native plants. Within the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences, Tofig Garagozov, head of the plant biotechnology laboratory at the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, believes, along with his colleagues, that viruses—if not controlled—could lead to extinction of native plants.

Crocus sativus blooms in mid- to late autumn and is known as the autumn crocus or saffron crocus. The three red stigma on each flower must be separated by hand—a labor-intensive task—and processed to yield small quantities of saffron.

Said Huseynov
In contrast, Azerbaijan’s neighbor, Iran, now produces 94 percent of the world’s saffron. Most of it is grown in North Khorasan province where annual production on 44,000 hectares has been 172 tons. In 2014, Iran exported to 53 countries 170 tons of saffron, worth 244 million USD. In 2015, Iran produced a record 310 metric tons. It expects to double its production in the next ten to fifteen years. Americans consume 50-60 tons of saffron annually; with the resumption of trade between Iran and the United States, the U. S. is expected to become Iran’s “biggest export nation,” according to Ali Hosseini, a member of Iran’s National Saffron Council.

Saffron will always be an integral part of the history and culture of Azerbaijan, regardless of its price and availability. As a spice, it enhances roasted meat and sweets. It’s an essential ingredient in plov, a basic dish prepared with rice, meat, and dried fruits. The most common use is in hot tea—three stigmas per cup. To cool off in summer, people squeeze two lemons into three liters of water and add sugar and saffron stigmas. Because of its cost, people no longer use it to dye carpet, although its coloring power is extremely high. One gram of saffron can color one-hundred liters of water.

The author in his kitchen separating stigmas, from which saffron is derived, from the blossoms.

Dilruba Huseynova
Saffron is certainly in my family’s life. Almost twenty years ago, a woman from Bilgah gave my grandmother three corms to plant in the yard of her ground-floor apartment here in Baku, where I live. Some years later, the corms extended to groups. Six years ago, I separated them and now forty corms produce annually about twenty saffron blossoms. They seem to flower more in rainy autumns. The increased flowering is also strange because my yard faces northwest and suffers from limited hours of direct sun. While my saffron start to flower in mid-October, I observed this past November that in sunny Bilgah saffron didn’t blossom until late October and into the first ten days of November—a difference of more than twenty days. Although my saffron came from Bilgah, it doesn’t smell as fragrant as Bilgah saffron. The soil may account for the difference. Because we produce so little, we supplement our family supply with saffron from Bilgah.

If you ask Absheron residents about the medicinal benefits of saffron, they will link its efficacy to diseases of the liver, eyes, pancreas, heart, circulation system, and kidneys, among other ailments. They will typically recommend taking saffron for fifteen consecutive days and repeating the regimen a few times a year. For at least the past 3,500 years, every country and culture with the use of saffron in its history has its own list of diseases and conditions that can be remedied by saffron. Supposedly, Cleopatra soaked in a saffron bath to heighten her libido and appeal, and Alexander the Great did likewise to heal his battle wounds. A farming family in the Netherlands maintains a website devoted to saffron, with an excellent summary of the traditional medicinal uses of saffron, www.sativus.com/en/saffron/medical-use. The site points out that “saffron first became known in the field of traditional medicine before it became a household name as condiment and dye.”

Women gathering Crocus sativus blossoms from a former state farm in Bilgah, Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijan government still owns the land but acreage has been reduced from the original 250 hectares to 23 hectares.

Said Huseynov
The sheer volume and long history of folk remedies attributed to saffron have made its biomedical properties and potential use the subject of numerous clinical trials in recent years. Avenues of research are as extensive as the folk remedies attributed to saffron. Double-blind, randomized trials have shown petals of Crocus sativus to be safe and as effective as fluoxetine, or Prozac, in the treatment of depression, and without some of the side effects of the drug. Other trials show saffron is effective in treating mild Alzheimer’s disease. Saffron contains crocin, which is a neuronal antioxidant potent enough to combat neurodegenerative disorders. According to sativus.com, there is research on the effectiveness of saffron to unclog arteries; ease asthmatic attacks; strengthen the immune system; delay macular degeneration; cure flatulence; relieve headaches, toothaches, mouth sores, anal pain, muscle cramps, stomach pains, and insect bites; and treat bruises and open wounds. Saffron is being tested to induce hair growth and to stimulate or suppress appetite. No wonder saffron is the most expensive spice in the world! However, more extensive study is warranted before a recommendation can be made to order five grams of premium quality stigmas for 75 USD.

Perhaps the most promising area of saffron research is in its ability to suppress tumors. From 1997 until his untimely death in 2006 at age 62, Fikrat Abdullaev, a native of Azerbaijan, was head and founder of the Experimental Oncology Laboratory at the National Institute of Pediatrics in Mexico City. He believed saffron could be a natural cancer-preventing agent in the diet. After years of research on the subject in the Soviet Union, Abdullaev joined Gerald Frenkel and his team in the Department of Biological Sciences at Rutgers University. They published three pioneer papers, which—together with those of S. C. Nair and coworkers at the Amala Cancer Research Centre in Kerala, India—first described the antitumor effects of saffron extract. This research initiated a search for the responsible saffron constituents, the mechanism of action, the specificity to different cell lines, and the in vivo effects in animal models, leading to about 40 experimental and review articles from various research groups. In 2015 Alireza Milajerdi and colleagues at Tehran University of Medical Sciences reviewed 276 scientific articles, including 73 focused on saffron’s antioxidant effects. In the January 2016 issue of the Journal of Nutrition & Intermediary Metabolism (JNIM), they concluded that “emerging evidence suggests that saffron extract and its crocin, crocetin, and safranal have a selective toxicity effect against cancer cells and also may have cancer preventive functions. However, saffron and its constituents’ toxicity against normal cells is negligible and they are even non-toxic in oral administration.”

Scientific evidence may indeed emerge that confirms the many proposed medicinal applications of saffron. For those of us steeped in the lore of saffron it would establish scientifically what we have known anecdotally for centuries. And new uses of saffron in emerging markets may revive saffron production in traditional saffron-producing countries such as Azerbaijan. But no double-blind test is needed to establish the therapeutic effects of a fragrant, hot cup of saffron tea.--SF