How To Grow Saffron: The Most Expensive Spice

The most exotic and sought-after rare spice in the world, the saffron crocus is a beautiful bloom that people love all over the world. While the flower itself is small, if you’re growing saffron, it’s for the even smaller three stigmas that lie in its center. Once dried, the saffron loses 90% of its weight, making it worth more than several times its own weight in gold. It’s easy to learn how to grow saffron! This hardy little bloom is a delight to behold and well worth space in the garden!

Grown from corms instead of seeds, the saffron crocus is primarily grown in Iran. Over 90% of the saffron consumed around the world grows there. This is in large part due to the labor-intensive harvesting and drying of the stigmas, and the relatively cheap labor force in Iran. However, the saffron crocus bulbs (called corms) are relatively inexpensive and easy to obtain for gardeners wanting to add this bloom to their gardens. 

Packed full of nutritional benefits, this spice is said to help with heart disease and depression. Many even say that handling the flowers and stigmas can cause uncontrollable laughing and joy! 

Farmers in the US have been growing the saffron crocus since the 17th century when the Pennsylvania Dutch first brought these little bulbs to the US. It’s possible to farm this spice here if labor costs permit. Grown in a raised bed garden or containers, this plant can fit anywhere! Just keep in mind, a family of 4 needs at least 150-200 corms for a year’s worth of cooking.

Quick Care Guide

How to grow saffron
Love saffron? Learn how to grow saffron in your garden! Source: kightp
Common Name(s)Saffron crocus
Scientific NameCrocus sativus
Days to Harvest6-8 weeks
LightFull sun
Water:Moderate water during production; no water during dormancy
SoilWell-drained sandy to loamy soil
FertilizerCompost or bone meal
PestsRabbits, voles, mice, gophers, saffron bulb mite
DiseasesCorm rot

All About Saffron Crocus

Just opening up
As the petals unfurl, the flower’s center opens to the sunlight. Source: LindaH

The world-renowned saffron crocus is by far the most expensive spice in the world. It’s known not just for its vibrant red color, but also for its scarcity. With 220,000 flowers needed to make a single kilo of dried spice, this spice needs several fields in production to make a crop worth selling. 

The Crocus sativus has traditionally been used in Middle Eastern, Indian, Greek, and Spanish cooking but has since been incorporated into food all over the globe. The plant is believed to have originated in Minoan-era Crete and thrives in other similar temperate regions of the world. You can plant saffron on farms, in the garden, or in containers. The crocus saffron will adapt to any number of growing conditions. 

The saffron crocus is a short and stubby flower that produces a purple cup-shaped bloom in beautiful jewel tones. The leaves or foliage are more like green spikes that look like pine needles and the entire plant is 4 inches tall at maturity. There are three stigmas in the center of the plant and this is the portion of the plant that is known as ‘saffron’.  It is a brightly colored red-orange tri-pronged thread that emerges from the base. It is shockingly bright and incredibly easy to spot. Only a single flower is produced from each bulb, however, each bulb does reproduce as it goes into its dormancy season over summer. 

The saffron life cycle can generally be broken down into 5 stages. Saffron crocus bulbs sprout 6-8 weeks after planting in late fall to early winter. It flowers and develops leaves and then begins to develop daughter corms while heading into dormancy. 

Planting Saffron Crocuses

If you’re growing saffron crocus, it’s ideal to start the bulbs in the late summer or early fall. Your growing zone will dictate the exact time. If in USDA zones 3-6 plant them in August, if in USDA zones 7-10, try for September. 

Plant saffron corms about 4 inches deep and 4 inches apart, although a bit closer together for dramatic effect won’t do much harm. Some people even grow 12 per square foot. Be sure to plant the bulb pointed size down in the planting hole. 

Care

Saffron crocus
The yellow center gives way to three slender red stigmas. Source: graibeard

It’s quite easy to grow saffron crocus bulbs! A great addition to the herb garden, this brilliant spice is great for beginners and a hardy corm that will come back year after year. There are just a few rules to follow to make sure these little guys have the right growing conditions. 

Sun and Temperature

For gardeners wishing to learn how to grow saffron crocus, most will find that saffron is easily grown in their climates. While not all will be able to grow saffron and leave the corms in the ground year-round, most will find that with a few adaptations, these plants will grow well almost anywhere. How is that? The saffron crocus thrives in temperate regions and is adaptable to growing zones 6-10. It needs a full day’s sun (at least 8 hours) and a steady warmth at the end of fall. 

It’s after the stigmas have been harvested that growers need to watch out for the temperature. In zones below USDA zone 6, the winters get too cold for the corms to overwinter in-ground. You’ll need to lift the bulbs and store them over winter to protect them from extreme cold. In zones 8-10, you’ll need to bring in the saffron crocus bulbs and artificially ‘winterize’ them in order for the saffron crocus bulbs to know to sprout the following season. 

Water and Humidity

It’s wonderful to see a blooming crocus in the landscape. However, be careful not to overwater these beautiful and hardy little saffron flowers.  In the days leading up to harvest, saffron crocuses need only a moderate amount of water, about a 1/2 an inch a week from the time of planting to harvest. After the saffron has been harvested, stop watering altogether. This will encourage the crocus to complete its life cycle and go dormant. 

When watering, it’s best to use a drip irrigation hose to evenly water your harvest. Using a strong hose or watering can accidentally damage these fall-blooming plants. 

Soil

Saffron crocuses are a fairly hardy plant and tolerate sandy soils to loamy soils. They can even be grown in poor soils if the soil is partially amended with compost or bone meal. The one requirement needed is that the soil is well-draining. Soil that retains too much water will invite rot, one of the very few problems to affect the wonderful saffron spice. 

Fertilizing

For gardeners who want to learn how to grow saffron, this fall-blooming flower is pretty low maintenance. The saffron flowers do not require much in the way of fertilizing. However, if amending poor soil or fertilizing overwintered in-ground corms, add 1 inch of compost over the ground where the crocus corms have been planted. Alternatively, you can amend the soil with some bone meal at the time of planting. Given the quick bloom time of the plant, and the tiny crop, little is truly needed in order for these bulbs to produce. 

Pruning

The only time a saffron crocus is pruned, is when it’s harvested. Using sharp scissors or your hands, gently separate the flower from the stem and separate the petals from the stigma. Be sure to leave the foliage to allow the bulbs to slowly develop daughter bulbs as it heads into dormancy. 

Propagation

The saffron crocus is exclusively propagated by allowing each corm to complete its full life cycle. After the saffron flowers have been harvested, the leaves need to be allowed to die back. It’s during this time that ‘daughter’ bulbs develop. If desired, you can dig up these new corms and select the healthiest to store for the next year’s growth, or cover with mulch and leave them until the following fall if your climate is amenable.

Harvesting and Storing

Saffron crocus stigma
The stigma is the part we use for culinary color and flavor. Source: graibeard

The saffron spice is a somewhat labor-intensive spice to pick and store. This is why the spice costs so much despite it being a rather easy plant to grow. The bright red stigmas of this wonderful plant are a beautiful and eye-catching sight, and easily signal when they’re ready to be picked. 

Harvesting

The time window for harvesting saffron crocus is pretty short. You’ll ideally need to visit your garden mid-morning while you’re in the harvest window. Saffron is best harvested in the morning on a dry day when the sun has not yet begun to beat down on the flower. This is usually about 6-8 weeks after the corms are planted. Wait until the bloom is partially open to pick the flower. Snip the bottom portion of the flower without taking any of the leaves. You’ll want to first open up the flower, letting all the parts fall onto a table or napkin, and pick out the stigma gently either by hand or with tweezers. 

Storing

Saffron threads are finicky, they can’t take too much sunlight before their quality starts to degrade. After picking, immediately store them indoors in a shaded area. 

Saffron threads can be used immediately after picking (within a 24 hr period), or it can be dehydrated for long-term storage. If drying there are two methods available. For a small crop, try drying on a paper towel on a shaded table or shelf. They should be dry within 3 days. If using a dehydrator, spread the threads out evenly on a dehydrator sheet and dehydrate for 3 hours at 45 degrees. 

After drying, the stigmas need to be sealed in an airtight container in a dry place. Try wrapping the stigmas in foil or another light blocking material to store them for the long term as sunlight degrades the quality of this spice. Commercial sellers use black plastic to shield them from the sun. 

Don’t be surprised when your saffron loses much of its weight! The dehydration process strips 90% of the weight from the stigma! 

Troubleshooting

Cluster of crocuses
These lovely flowers are beautiful ornamentals as well! Source: antonychammond

Fortunately for people who grow saffron crocus, these bulbs have relatively few predators and growing problems. Aside from the hungry rabbit or gopher, this hardy little bulb is sometimes affected by rot or mites, but rarely at that. 

Growing Problems

Growing saffron crocus is thankfully a pretty easy task! This plant is blessed with very few growing problems. However, it’s important to keep in mind your growing area if growing in regions dissimilar from its native environment of Greece. It performs best in USDA zones 5-8; while it can grow in zones 9-10, be careful not to plant too early as it will need cool temperatures to flower. If it’s too hot, the corm may produce just leaves and none of the flowers we crave.

Pests

Most of the pests that affect the saffron crocus are small mammals. The bulb of the saffron plant is a very delicious nugget of nutrients that can be dug up and eaten by a variety of animals such as rabbits, gophers, voles, and mice. These corms are especially susceptible to attack during the winter months when food is scarce. 

The saffron bulb mite is a small .8mm long beetle-looking bug that causes the plant to grow in a stunted manner. The flowers will grow shorter with thinner leaves as well. It’s best to prevent it as the short-lived plants cannot be truly cured once the problem shows itself, but you can consider spraying the corms with miticide before planting. 

Diseases

While fortunate to not suffer from too many diseases, corm rot is a definite concern for growers with soil that retains too much water. Corm rot is actually a collective term for several different fungal diseases including Rhizopus, Aspergillus, Penicillium, and Fusarium. They all manifest themselves by rotting the bulb and foliage of the plant and making them appear yellow or brown in appearance. These rots, similar to root rot, can be avoided by planting in well-draining soil and reducing watering. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Where does saffron grow best?

A: Saffron grows best in well-draining soil with full sun and a moderate amount of nutrients. 

Q: Is it profitable to grow and sell saffron?

A: It can be profitable to grow and sell saffron. However, as much of the cost is from the labor-intensive process of harvesting, that will be a big factor in its profitability. 

Q: Is saffron easy to grow?

A: It’s pretty simple to grow saffron crocus if you have a sunny location with well-draining soil.