Grow saffron, saffron is a very precious spice, perhaps you will be amazed to know that it can be grown without problems in the garden. The latitude of Italy, like that of Spain, Greece, Iran, and India are perfect for growing the crocus sativus bulb, from which saffron is obtained.
Having been a state monopoly in the past, today the common belief is still widespread that special permits are needed to grow saffron, but this is not true: anyone can plant it on their land.
The high cost of this spice is due to a lot of work that requires producing even a small amount of stigmas, however, it is not at all difficult to obtain some saffron from home cultivation and make a homemade yellow risotto at “zero meters” from the ‘vegetable garden.
It is also possible to consider creating a saffron grove as an income and farming as a profession: it is a crop that allows for interesting revenues, even if it must be taken into account that it involves a lot of work.
The crocus sativus plant
The saffron plant comes from a bulb (crocus sativus) and the multiplication of the bulbs is the only way that the species has to reproduce: the flower is sterile, it cannot fertilize and produce seeds, and is only useful for obtaining the spice.
It is an annual cycle crop: the bulbs (which it would be more correct to call corms) are in vegetative stasis during the summer, in September they awaken and jets, called spates, emerge from the ground.
The filiform, emerald green leaves come out of the spathe, which combs with a creeping pattern and vegetates throughout the winter. Also from the buds, a beautiful purple flower emerges from which the spice is obtained (taking only the dried stigmas, three red threads that are part of the female apparatus of the flower). Find a nice photo gallery on the page dedicated to saffron flowers.
Finally, in late spring the saffron plant multiplies the corms and dries up, the plants of the following year will be born from the new bulbs.
Start growing saffron
It is not difficult to start growing saffron. I recommend starting with a modest amount of bulbs, to learn and realize how much work cultivation involves.
- To grow saffron in pots as a curiosity and see the flowers appear, 4-5 bulbs are enough.
- For a home cultivation 200/300 bulbs allow a satisfactory harvest.
- For an income saffron, a first test can be of 1000/2000 bulbs, to become familiar with the work and cultivation techniques. While to speak of professional agriculture it takes several tens of thousands of corms.
Suitable climate and terrain
Climate. Saffron can be grown without problems throughout Italy, it does not fear the cold or summer drought very much and is very resistant to sudden changes in temperature. Instead, a lot of light is needed for photosynthesis, so the saffron must be well exposed.
Ground. Saffron needs soil that drains the water, in soil with stagnation or excessively clayey and compact earth, good results are not obtained and the bulb gets sick easily. Apart from that, the optimal soil should be fertile and well worked. Excellent gently sloping soils because rapid drainage of rainwater is guaranteed.
Since as anticipated the saffron bulb is particularly afraid of water stagnation in addition to working the soil in-depth, we recommend if the soil does not drain perfectly to make raised trunks to have the bulbs sown above the ground level and prevent rottenness.
Purchase of bulbs
A very difficult thing in starting a small saffron grove in the garden is to buy good quality saffron bulbs.
If we want to see the flowers already the first year we have to choose corms with a caliber greater than 2 cm, but they should be 3-4 cm in diameter, otherwise, they will bloom little and for the first year, the results will be poor.
Always check that the bulbs are dry, intact on the outside, and without any rot.
Saffron bulbs can be very expensive: a medium-sized bulb of about 3 cm has a price that varies between 30 and 60 cents, in general. We take into account that it is an investment to be made only in the first year, then if all goes well the corms multiply and we become self-sufficient.
I do not recommend buying Dutch bulbs, even if they are often cheaper, being grown in greenhouses they are not very productive, weak in developing and multiplying. Better to look for bulbs from Italian saffron producers.
The bulb lasts one year, so if you don’t plant it, throw it away and it is no longer good the following year.
Type of cultivation
Saffron can be grown with different methods, the first big difference is between annual cultivation and multi-year cultivation.
- Annual means that every year the bulbs are excavated and replanted on another soil.
- Polyennial means leaving the bulbs for 3/5 years in the same soil without moving them.
The advantage of annual cultivation is to save labor in weeding and better prevent pests and diseases, for more rotation. However, the work of explanting and planting the bulbs that this method involves is very intense and tiring.
The multi-year cultivation of crocus sativus, on the other hand, requires a little more effort as regards cleaning from weeds and is riskier as regards diseases, in particular fusarium (the main fungal disease of this crop), but certainly generates much less work, because it does not require implantation and explant every year.
Planting of bulbs
The planting of the saffron must be done in August or early September, in any case before the summer ends, because with the end of the hot season the corms emit the spathe and begin to vegetate.
Crocus sativus bulbs are placed in the ground at a depth of about 10 cm (even 14 if you want to do a multi-year crop).
Plant sixth. The distance I recommend is about 10/12 cm between the plants in the case of a multi-year plant, which can be reduced if you practice annual cycle cultivation. Generally, rows are made 20 cm apart. If the bed is made, 2 or 4 rows can be placed on each raised pallet depending on the width of the porches. To learn more and get help in defining the sixth implant, I created a special tool, use it for free (attached a pdf ebook for explanation)
The cultivation of saffron
Cultivation operations. Saffron must be kept clear of weeds periodically, apart from that, no special care is required. It is not advisable to grow saffron in greenhouses because it resists frosts well.
Irrigation. The crocus sativus except in particular drought does not ask for particular irrigation: the plant needs water before flowering (September-October) and in spring (March) for the multiplication of the bulbs, in these periods there are usually seasonal rains and the fact that the corms are well rooted and well-rooted does the rest.
Crop rotation. Saffron must not return to the same soil for at least 5-6 years, to reduce the risk of diseases such as fusarium.
Harmful insects and parasites
Saffron is not afraid of many insects, apart from elaterids and nematodes that can damage the bulb, otherwise, its potential enemies are animals.
Some problems can give the snails that go to eat the flower, to be treated only at the moment of flowering.
Mice and voles dig by eating the bulb, especially in winter, moles, on the other hand, being carnivorous, do not bother unless the tunnel passes right on the sown.
Hares, rabbits, roe deer eat the leaves, while the worst enemies of saffron are porcupines and wild boars, but they are not widespread in all areas. Against them, there is little that can be done except fencing.
Diseases of saffron
Fusarium is probably the worst enemy that can affect saffron, a fungal disease that causes the rot of the underground part, compromising the bulb.
As methods allowed in organic farming you can only do a preventive bath to the bulbs in copper oxychloride (a technique called tanning of the bulbs). Fusarium is recognized when, instead of coming out of the ground, opening and releasing the leaves, the shoot of the shoot (spathe) is long and yellowish, often deformed. In this case, all that remains is to remove the entire plant and perhaps the land adjacent to it, to prevent the disease from spreading to other bulbs.
There are other fungal and bacterial diseases, in all cases, the best prevention lies in planting healthy bulbs and managing the soil correctly, as well as monitoring and eliminating diseased plants promptly.
Multiplication and collection of bulbs
Every year the bulbs multiply in the soil, even if the original plant dies, a bit like garlic does.
If you have chosen annual cultivation or at the end of the last year of a multi-year cycle, the bulbs must be removed. The operation is simple but tiring, you have to dig the earth a bit like harvesting potatoes, taking care not to damage the corms. Precisely for this reason, it is better to proceed by hand, with the aid of a digging fork. The bulbs are harvested from June and can be done throughout the summer.
The collected bulbs must be kept in a dark and dry place until the end of August when the new plant will be made. To avoid diseases, it is advisable to check the bulbs carefully and discard the damaged ones.
The collection of flowers
In autumn, between October and November, the saffron flower harvest takes place. It is a magical moment, for the beauty of flowering and the satisfaction of the precious harvest, but also days of hard work.
The actual flowering usually lasts about ten days, it depends a lot on the climate, between the first and the last flower it can take more than a month.
If you want a top-quality product, you have to harvest the saffron within the day, possibly before the flower opens. It is better to take the whole flower and then clean it at home, on a table.
Hulling or skimming
Hulling consists in eliminating the petals (purple) and pollen (yellow), keeping only the stigmas (three red threads, sometimes erroneously called pistils).
The stigmas are the real spice, they will then be dried directly on the day of harvest, just “touched”.
Drying of saffron
Saffron can be safely dried in a ventilated oven. Leave the oven just open, put it to the minimum and dry the saffron on sheets of baking paper. When the stigmas “rustle” by moving the paper they are ready. It is not easy to find the right timing, the stigmas must not be damp and soft but neither should they burn. The timing depends on the oven and humidity but still requires a short time.
Drying on embers or stoves is even more variable, which is why I do not recommend it.
For an excellent result, it is advisable to rely on a dryer that allows a controlled temperature, the best model is undoubtedly this.
In a tightly capped glass jar, the saffron in stigmas remains good for a few years. It should be kept in a cool and dry place, preferably not illuminated to maintain its properties.
Over time the spice becomes more bitter.
Use the saffron in pistils
The saffron that you find in the sachets at the supermarket is generally in powder form, the saffron in stigmas that you can get from your garden is the same thing, it does not need to be pulverized for use (although it would be possible to do so).
The simplest method to use dried “pistils” in the kitchen is to soak them for an hour in hot water (a cup of water is enough). You will see the water turn an intense yellow and you can use it by putting it in the recipe together with the pistils themselves. If you want some details, we advise you to read this article on how to best use pure saffron in stigmas.
A few numbers on saffron
I leave you at the end some numbers that may be useful for making estimates and accounts, even for those who would like to cultivate a professional saffron orchard.
- It takes about 150 flowers to make one gram of spice.
- A gram of saffron is still a good quantity, you get about thirty portions of Milanese risotto.
- A medium-sized bulb can have an average of 2 or 3 flowers (one flower if small, but if it is large it can also reach 7-8 flowers).
- The bulbs multiply every year, increasing in number and volume if they are well cultivated. We are talking about an annual growth that can be 30% up to double. For this reason, after buying the bulbs in the first year, hopefully you are fine.
Those who want to start growing saffron to get an income can read the article explaining what investments are needed for a saffron grove and the one on costs and revenues of saffron cultivation in Italy.
A course to start a saffron cultivation
I involved two saffron experts, Guido Borsani and Dario Galli from Zafferanami, in creating a course that contains all the information you need to learn how to grow and sell your saffron, to the point of turning it into an income business.
From fieldwork to bureaucracy, from the economic calculation of the yield to sales strategies: Saffron PRO is the complete path for those who want to embark on the adventure of growing the most precious spice in the world. Come and discover the program and previews.
Beware of fake saffron
In nature, there are hardly any spontaneous saffron plants, while there are many similar flowers, some varieties of crocus can be easily mistaken for saffron but are not edible. These flowers can also be toxic, for example, colchicum is also called “bastard saffron” or “vegetable arsenic” and must not be ingested.
Since there have been cases of poisoning and even deaths due to misunderstandings, it seems important to me to invite you to be very careful and not to seize presumed wild saffron during your walks in nature.
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