COMMON NAMES: Abir (Persian), Crocus (Roman), Gewurzsafran, Hay Saffron, Karcom (Hebrew), Krokos (Greek), Plam Phool (Pakistani), Saffron, Saffron Crocus, Z’afaran (Arabic/Yemen)
Crocus sativus is a perennial tuberous plant which blooms in the fall. It has narrow, long leaves and a beautiful violet flower which grows at the end of the stalk. This flowers has three yellow stamens and three red stigmas (Bowles 1952).
It is uncertain where the Crocus sativus plant originated, but it is presently cultivated in western Asia, Turkey, Iran, Greece, India, and Spain. Propagation occurs through the separation of small tubers, although precise cultivation methods are kept secret for economic purposes. Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, and thus its cultivation has great economic significance wherever it takes place. 1 kilo of saffron requires some 60,000 flowers to produce, and sells for about $10,000 USD (Ratsch 1998, 187).
TRADITIONAL USES: The saffron crocus has been cultivated by humans for so long that wild forms are no longer found anywhere on the planet.The herb may have been used as part of embalming rituals by the ancient Egyptians. The first written discussion of saffron comes from the Illiad, where it is mentioned as a fabric dye. The Song of Songs in the Old Testament also mentions saffron, along with calamus, cinnamon, myrrh, and aloe, as one of the most precious of spices. Indeed, saffron has been a very important source of dye and perfume ingredient since ancient times (Basker & Neghi 1983).
The herb was cultivated in Crete and Thera in the Minoan period, and some have suggested it was used as an Amanita muscaria substitute due to its bright red color. The Minoans regarded the saffron crocus as sacred, and used the plant in the worship of the goddess, nature, and fertility. The plant was only to be harvested by priestesses (Doumas 1992). Saffron was held sacred by the goddess Hecate, who wore robes dyed yellow by the plant. Similarly, women of high status such as priestesses wore garments dyed with C. sativus. Indeed, the famous statue of the Minoan Snake-goddess wears yellow garments, and other Minoan pottery pieces also represent the Crocus blossom. It is thought that Crocus sativus originated on the island of Crete, and was then propagated throughout Europe and Asia due to the value of the dye and spice obtained form the three female styles of each flower. C. sativus was the most widespread cultivar in the ancient world for at least 1000 years before the rise of Athens (Paghat n.d.).
Saffron was also used as a ritual incense in the Orphic mysteries of the cult of Dionysus. The ancient Greeks named saffron the ‘blood of Hercules’ and used it as a ritual incense and protective amulet. The Phoenicians ate saffron baked in to crescent cakes in honor of the moon and the fertility goddess Ashtoreth. In much of the ancient Mediterranean, the plant was associated with fertility, sexual potency, strength, and psychic sensitivity (Ratsch 1998, 188). Indeed, saffron was often added to love sachets and potions, and was added to wash water for cleansing prior to healing rituals (Cunningham 1985).
In the 18th and 19th centuries, saffron was used as an inebriant, with the effects said to resemble those of opium. However, since saffron is so incredibly expensive, its psychoactive effects have not been studied much at all (Voogelbreinder 2009, 143).
Saffron is used as an incense in Nepal. The local variety is more potently psychoactive than in most other places, and drinking an infusion of the spice is said to allow one to see the future. The spices are also commonly used to flavor and color foods, particularly rice (Ratsch 1998, 187-189).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: Saffron must be kept in a cool, dark place in an airtight container to avoid the evaporation of the volatile essential oils that make up the color and the potency of the spice. In ancient times, in both Europe and China, saffron was added to wine to produce additional inebriation. Later, the spice was an important ingredient in the soporific medicine laudanum. Saffron may be used in Oriental Joy Pills and other aphrodisiac blends (Ratsch 1998, 187).
A Greek papyrus from the third century B.C.E. contains a recipe, likely for an aphrodisiac, which calls for “two drams of copper oxide, three obols of rosebud hearts (perhaps specifically Rosa gallica), three obols of saffron, one-half obol poppy juice (Papaver somniferum), three obols of white (acacia) gum…Stir these…in wine as smoothly as possible (and) make ointments, apply” (Ratsch 1998, 187).
No risks have been documented from consuming saffron at a maximum daily dosage of 1.5 g. Twenty grams at once, however, is a lethal dose, and ten grams may induce an abortion (Ratsch 1998, 187).
MEDICINAL USES: Saffron is one of the key medicinal plants utilized by the Hippocratics, who used it in cases of excessive drunkenness and loss of male potency. Pliny tells us that saffron is a panacea and aphrodisiac, which increases the sex drive and promotes restful sleep. The spice was often added to love potions in ancient Rome. During the Renaissance, it was said that smelling C. sativus flowers opened the heart and excited the sexual drive (Ratsch 1998, 188). Crocus sativus flowers worn at the girdle are said to relieve menstrual cramps, and the spice may also be used for this purpose (Paghat n.d.). In Iran, pregnant women often wore a ball of saffron near the womb to ensure speedy delivery (Cunningham 1985).
Saffron promotes enzymatic activity and assists in protein digestion, thus benefiting the digestive process. It may also act as an abortifacient. Saffron has the highest riboflavin content of any plant known at present, and thus is very effective in lowering blood pressure, stimulating the nervous system, and preventing nerve spasms. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, saffron is used for depression, fear, confusion, menstrual difficulties, and abdominal pain. Long term use may relieve depression and anxiety and create feelings of joy. In Pakistan, 10 grams of ground C. sativus flowers are mixed in liquid yogurt and taken morning and evening for dysentry. In Yemen, the plant is used regularly as a stimulant (Voogelbreinder 2009, 143). C. sativus stamens are so potent, that one may even appreciate their aphrodisiac effects in the small doses necessary to make a delicious dish with the spice.
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: Saffron contains 8-13% solid oil and up to 1% essential oil, as well as a number of alkaloids and vitamins. The principal component of the essential oil is safranal, which produces the characteristic scent of the spice. The psychoactive effects of consuming a large quantity include delirium and uncontrollable laughter. The effects have been compared to those of opium. In low doses, saffron stimulates and lifts spirits, while in high doses it sedates and brings sleep. Some say that drinking an infusion of the spice allows one to see the future, and one early author warns that if too much saffron is eaten, one may ‘die of excessive joy’ (Cunningham 1985).
The vapors of the essential oil have a sedative, sleep inducing effect, and may cause happy delirium and some paralyzation of the motor nerves. Inhaling the essential oil may also cause ‘long, distinctive orgasmic sensations’. Very few actual reports of experiences with psychoactive doses of saffron are available, probably due to the impossibly high cost of the spice (Ratsch 1998, 188-189).
Basker, D., and M. Negbi, 1983. Uses of saffron. Economic Botany 37 (2): 228-36.
Bowles, E.H. A Handbook of Crocus and Colchicum. London: Bodley Head, 1952.
Campbell, Gordon. King James Bible . 400th anniversary ed. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010.
Doumas, C. The Wall-paintings of Thera. Athens: The Thera Foundation, 1992.
Homer. Illiad . London: J. Walker, 1813.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
Voogelbreinder, Snu, Garden of Eden: The Shamanic Use of Psychoactive Flora and Fauna, and the Study of Consciousness. Snu Voogelbreinder, 2009.