Growing saffron is surprisingly easy, and saffron readily grows in zones 6 and above without issue. With a bit of care and attention, you can also learn how to grow saffron in zones 3-5 as well!
The spice saffron comes from the red thread-like stigmas of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus). Each flower only produces a few tiny threads, which when dried weight almost nothing. Those tiny threads are incredibly flavorful, and there’s a reason that saffron is the world’s most expensive spice.
It takes about 150 flowers to yield just a single gram of dried saffron, and a whole field may only produce a pound or two in a season. Now you understand how the bright red stigmas of this tiny purple flower can sell for as much as $10,000 per pound…
The thing is, no one really needs a pound of saffron. Recipes are flavored with a few threads or a tiny pinch of this powerful spice.
Growing saffron at home is incredibly satisfying, and all you need is a small patch to supply your family with the freshest, most flavorful saffron imaginable.
Where to Buy Saffron Bulbs
It’s important to note that saffron crocus is not the regular spring-blooming crocus. You need a special variety, known as Crocus sativus. You cannot just harvest parts of normal spring-blooming crocus or even parts of just any old autumn crocus.
Saffron crocus is a specific strain, and you should not consume any of the others.
How to Grow Saffron
Unlike common spring crocus flowers, Saffron crocus are fall blooming. The plants are native to a Mediterranean climate, and they go dormant during the summer to survive dry arid conditions. The bulbs sprout greenery in the early fall, before putting on a showy display of late fall purple flowers.
A summer dormancy period means that the bulbs are usually dug at producers in mid-summer, and shipped for late summer planting. I received my saffron bulbs in late summer and planted them on September 1st.
Early September is a little late here in Vermont, where the autumn season is often cut short by early snow, but it was still plenty of time to harvest some homegrown saffron.
Start by planting the saffron bulbs in sandy, well-drained soil that’s moderately rich in organic material. Our soils are clay-filled and wet, so I built a raised bed for growing saffron. The soil is made up of sand (harvested from the edge of our pond), combined with compost and a bit of peat moss.
The saffron thrived in that light growing medium.
Plant saffron bulbs 3-4 inches deep, and 3-4 inches apart. The deep depth is important, as the bulbs will multiply by growing new bulbs above the old ones. If they’re planted to shallow there won’t be enough space for next year’s bulb to develop.
A few weeks after planting, the first thin grassy foliage will appear….
After the foliage is established, the saffron crocus bulbs will send up numerous pale purple flowers. It’s kind of impressive how many flowers a single bulb can put out in a year, and even though they’re planted quite a ways apart, each bulb will put out a big cluster of saffron flowers.
It takes 5-8 weeks from planting for the first flowers to appear, but once they get started the flowers keep coming steadily for about 3 weeks. The prolific nature of the bulbs is important since each one only produces a few saffron threads.
The saffron plants will only be visible for a brief fall growing season, and after a few months, they’ll go dormant again until the following fall. There will be no trace of them what so ever until that point.
It’s important to carefully mark the location of your saffron bulbs so you don’t accidentally dig them while they’re dormant through the late winter, spring and summer season. Our saffron bulbs are in a purpose-built bed, and it’d devoted to growing saffron so that makes it easy.
Propagating Saffron Bulbs
Saffron naturally multiplies beneath the soil, and new bulbs will develop atop the original bulb. They’ll keep growing up toward the surface until they’re just to shallow to stay healthy year-round. It’s important that they stay deep to weather dry summer conditions or cold winter weather.
Every 4-6 years, dig up the saffron bulbs and break apart the older bulbs from the newly developed bulbs. Replant them all as you originally did, 3-4 inches deep and 3-4 inches apart. This will help avoid overcrowding and keep the saffron growing deep in the soil where it’s protected.
Growing Saffron in Cold Climates
Saffron plants can handle mild frosts and continue growing in the fall. That’s essential here in Vermont where early snows begin right as blooming is just getting started. We’ll have 20 degree nights and snow flurries right in their peak bloom season.
For the most part, that’s not an issue and keeps on producing until the real hard frosts arrive and the ground is blanketed with snow.
Generally, saffron is considered consistently hardy to zone 6. If you’re in zone 6 or above, there’s no real need to do anything special to grow saffron. Just plant them in the fall, harvest and keep the soil weed-free during their dormant season.
In Zone 5, the saffron bulbs need to be heavily mulched after blooming to help insulate the soil. If properly mulched, saffron bulbs can be overwintered successfully even in zone 5. I put down about a foot of straw mulch over our saffron patch just as the first big snowstorm of the season was starting.
Remove the heavy mulch covering in the spring after the lasts frosts have passed, but don’t water or tend them (other than weeding) until the fall.
In zones 3 and 4, saffron can be planted in pots and overwintered indoors. Start by planting several bulbs to a pot in the fall, all about 3 inches apart. Bury the pot outdoors in a growing bed, covering the rim by at least 2 inches.
After the saffron bulbs have flowered, it’s important to bring this pot indoors. Wait until the first frosts have passed, but be sure to dig the pots up before the ground actually freezes.
Bring the pots indoors and place them in a cool dry place that’s about 40-50 degrees. DO NOT WATER THEM.
The following spring, re-plant the pots out in the garden again. Wait until after the last frost date, and plant about the same time as your tomatoes.
Saffron needs a dry dormant season, so make sure they’re in a well-drained bed and do not water them until the fall. Obviously some rain will happen during the summer months, that’s fine, just avoid watering them when you water the rest of your garden.
Then in the fall months, the saffron will sprout up tiny grass-like stalks again and the cycle will repeat itself.
The first year after planting, the bulbs are still getting established and may not produce heavily. Generally, the 2nd and 3rd years crops are the heaviest, and then the bulbs are divided in the 4th year.
In the 2nd and 3rd year, each bulb should produce roughly 6 to 9 flowers, each one with three precious saffron threads.
Generally, the whole flower is plucked in the field and then they’re brought indoors to delicately harvest the threads in a clean, dry environment. Harvest the flowers mid-morning, once the flowers are fully opened and any morning dew has dried.
Bring them indoors and then pluck out the saffron threads from each blossom.
Saffron needs to be dried immediately to prevent spoilage, but since the threads are so small, they readily dry in a few hours in the sun. Place the fresh saffron threads in a warm, dry, well ventilated sunny space for a few hours and they’ll naturally dry on their own.
Once completely dry, store saffron in an airtight container.
How to Use Saffron
Once you have your own homegrown saffron, you’ll be amazed at the difference freshness can make. Some of that difference is more than just freshness…
Since saffron is so expensive, it’s common the victim of food fraud. Corn silk is cut, dried and died bright red and then sold as saffron. You might be convinced that your “saffron” is just old and the flavor is lost, or perhaps you’ve never even tasted real saffron in your life…just the imposters.
Once you’ve learned how to grow saffron and you’re growing it in your own garden, you’ll be sure that every thread that goes into your cooking is the real thing.
Saffron is common in middle eastern cooking, but it’s also quite popular in European and Nordic countries thanks to the spice trade. Historically it was reserved for special occasions like Christmas, and there are still many celebration treats that just aren’t complete without it.
Saveur has an unbelievable collection of recipes using saffron from around the world, and now that I have the real thing in my hands I’m going to work my way through it!
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All of these tasty crops are (or have been) grown on our zone 4 permaculture homestead…
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