If you have ever bought saffron to make such treats as French bouillabaisse or Spanish paella, you know that it is the most expensive herb in the store. So, of course, I have considered growing the fall crocus that produces the costly ingredient but learned that it is a costly and arduous process. The saffron comes from the orange-red, hair-like stigma (tip of the female portion of a flower) and each flower only has three. In order to produce an ounce of saffron you would need several thousand plants. Of course, if you only need a little bit, you could cut back, but then why bother? One hundred plants are recommended by some for a modest crop and at about $20 for 25 plants, that is $80 for the corms. Unless you have hot, dry summers resembling those of the crocus’s native Mediterranean habitat you may have trouble growing it and/or having it bloom. Just to make matters worse, mice, rabbits, squirrels and other such varmints may gobble up the corms. Harvesting and drying the stigmas can be tedious. The three stigmas should be harvested mid-morning on a sunny day while the flowers are fresh and open. The stigmas can be plucked with the fingers, dried on a piece of paper, and stored in a sealed glass jar in a cool, dry place.
On the positive side, the crocus is a wonderful addition to the fall garden when their bright purple flowers pop out of the ground. Like other crocuses, they have no true stem and what appears to be a stem is actually a tube formed from fused petals and sepals. Corms can be planted in the spring or early fall and easily propagated from baby corms that are produced each year. The grass like foliage persists for 8-12 weeks. Saffron crocuses are definitely worth growing, but as an ornamental rather than as a source of saffron, at least for me.
Type: Fall blooming bulb.
Bloom: Lavender, white, or purple 1½ -2” fragrant flowers with red stigmas are produced in September and October.
Foliage: Linear, grass-like leaves, 1-1½’ tall.
Size: 1-1 ½’ H x 6” W foliage; 3-4” H flowers.
Light: Sun to bright light.
Soil: Moderately rich, light, well-drained.
Hardiness: Zones 6-8 in the South, 9 in the West.
Pests and Diseases: Nematoes, leaf rust, and corm rot may be problems.
Propagation: Division of cormlets.
Companion Plants: Cyclamen.