Crocus sativus (PROSEA)

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Plant Resources of South-East Asia
List of species

Crocus sativus L.

Protologue: Sp. Pl. 1: 36 (1753).
Family: Iridaceae
Chromosome number: 2n= 24; also recorded as 14, 16, 40

Vernacular names

  • Saffron (En)
  • Safran (Fr)
  • Azafran (Sp)
  • Indonesia: kuma-kuma, sapran
  • Malaysia: kuma-kuma
  • Cambodia: romiet.

Origin and geographic distribution

Saffron is known only as a cultivated plant. It probably originated in Greece, Asia Minor and Persia, where some probably related wild species occur. In very ancient times it was spread eastward to Kashmir. It was introduced in Spain by the Arabs in the 10th Century. Later its cultivation spread to neighbouring countries in southern Europe, Asia Minor, Iran, northern India, and China.

Saffron has never been cultivated in South-East Asia where the climate is not suited for this species. The product from this plant, the dried stigmas, are however imported on a small scale in South-East Asian countries.


Saffron is used mainly to colour and flavour foods. It was also used for textile dyeing, but this use declined with the advent of synthetic dyes. The many therapeutic properties of saffron are disputed, but it continues to be an important ingredient of the Ayurvedic and other systems of medicine in India. Saffron is sometimes sold in druggist's shops in Indonesia and Malaysia for medicinal uses or for flavouring food.

The very expensive saffron is often subject to adulteration. Not only is very impure saffron consisting of floral parts other than stigmas sold, but parts of other plant species with dyeing properties are also offered in markets in South-East Asia under the name "saffron", such as powdered rhizomes of turmeric ( Curcuma longa L.), and flowers of safflower ( Carthamus tinctorius L.). The dyeing substances from these plants can be used in the same way as true saffron, and are much cheaper.

Production and international trade

Saffron is by far the world's most expensive food-dye and spice. Spain is the major producer, accounting for 90% of the world's production. Other exporting countries are India (Kashmir), France, Algeria and Italy. The annual production in India in the beginning of the 1980s was estimated at 9-10 t. The international market price in that period was about US$ 1000 per kg.


The chief pigments of saffron are the yellowish-red glycoside crocin and the bitter glycoside picrocrocin. On hydrolysis crocin yields the sugar gentiobiose and crocetin, a carotenoid pigment. Saffron also contains a pleasantly odoriferous compound safranal which develops during the drying process by enzymatic or thermal dissociation of picrocrocin.


  • A small bulbous perennial plant, 10-30 cm tall, having a more or less globular subterranean corm which is 3-5 cm in diameter and surrounded by a finely reticulate-fibrous tunic.
  • Leaves grass-like, 1.5-2(-3) mm broad, appearing before the flowers or together with the flowers.
  • Flowers 1-3, each on a short subterranean pedicel subtended by a sheathing prophyll (spathe); perianth with a long cylindrical tube and 6 segments of 2.5-5 cm × 1-2 cm, deep lilac-purple or mauve coloured with darker veins, white or lilac in the throat; stamens 3; ovary inferior, style divided into 3 brilliant orange-red stigmas, 2.5-3.5 cm long.

C. sativus is a sterile triploid which reproduces only vegetatively. The corms reproduce annually, giving rise to new young cormlets. Saffron flowers in autumn.


Saffron thrives best in temperate and fairly dry climates. In the areas of Spain where saffron is cultivated, annual rainfall only rarely exceeds 400 mm. Two periods of heavy rainfall are adequate for good yields, one in spring for the production of new corms and a second at the end of summer to develop blossoms. Frosts or rains during flowering are harmful and can damage the crop.


Propagation is by means of corms. Cultural practices vary for the different producing countries. Once planted, corms may remain in the field for 3-12 years; sometimes saffron is even grown as an annual crop.

The flowering and harvesting season lasts for about 4 weeks. The flowers must be picked in the early morning, and the stigmas should be removed on the same day. The 3 stigmas are dried, along with about 5 cm of the style attached, and constitute the pure saffron of commerce. An average yield is about 1 000 000 flowers per ha, which in turn produces 10 kg dried saffron. Fire-dried saffron is more valuable than sun-dried. Saffron is marketed both as a powder and as the much less dense "hay saffron", i.e. loose stigmas. Quality is maintained by storage in low humidity.


As it is not suited to tropical and high-rainfall climates, saffron does not have good prospects in South-East Asia. However, as products from other plant resources are often confused with true saffron, it seems useful to give some attention to this species.


  • Basker, D. & Negbi, M., 1983. Uses of saffron. Economic Botany 37(2): 228-236.
  • Ingram, J.S., 1969. Saffron (Crocus sativus L.). Tropical Science 11(3): 177-184.
  • Madan, C.L., Kapur, B.M. & Gupta, U.S., 1966. Saffron. Economic Botany 20(4): 377-385.
  • Sampathu, S.R., Shivashankar, S. & Lewis, Y.S., 1984. Saffron (Crocus sativus Linn.)-Cultivation, Processing, Chemistry and Standardization. CRC Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 20(2): 123-157.


P.C. Wessel-Riemens