Medicinal Spices: Saffron (Crocus sativus)
“Saffron was formerly in great repute as a stimulant, antispasmodic, and emmenagogue; but at present it is scarcely ever employed in this country, or in the United States, as a medicinal agent, except that it is sometimes given to young children in exanthematous diseases from its reputed power of promoting the eruption.” – Henry Trimen
Origin and Distribution
This exotic herb finds mention in several ancient texts. It is mentioned in classical western writings and also in the Bible. It is specially mentioned in Bhavprakash Nighantu, an Ayurvedic text. The Arabs, who introduced the cultivation of the plant into Spain as an article of commerce, bequeathed to us its modern title of Zaffer or saffron, but the Greeks and Romans called it Krokos and Karokam respectively.
Saffron is a native of Southern Europe. It was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Saffron was imported to England from the East many centuries ago, and was once grown extensively round Saffron Walden, in Essex, UK. One smoke-pervaded spot in the heart of London still bears the name ‘Saffron Hill’. This herb is now cultivated in Mediterranean countries, particularly in Spain, and also in Austria, France, Greece, England, Turkey, Persia, India and China. The La Macha belt of Spain is the largest producer of saffron in the world and contributes 80-90% of the world saffron production. In India the cultivation of saffron is confined to Pampore and Kistwar areas of Jammu and Kashmir, extending to nearly 4000 acres.
Saffron is very popular as a spice in all international cuisines. It is an indispensable ingredient in most Mughlai dishes and erstwhile Mughlai chefs used this herb liberally in the rich concoctions they prepared for the royal table. Saffron gives a beautiful tinge and a special aroma to a dish. It is used in sweets as well as in curries. In India, to serve dishes decorated with saffron is regarded as a mark of honor to the guest and has become the norm rather than the exception.
On account of its coloring and aromatic properties, saffron is used mostly as a food additive in culinary, bakery and confectionery preparation. It is used in several exotic dishes, particularly in Spanish rice specialties and French fish preparations. It is also used for coloring butter, cheese, pudding and pastry. People in Europe and India use it to season various foods.
Saffron finds many uses in Ayurveda, Unani, Chinese and Tibetan medicine. It is popularly known as a stimulant, warm and dry in action, helping in urinary, digestive and uterine troubles.
In Ayurveda, saffron is used to cure chronic diseases such as asthma and arthritis. It is also useful in treating cold and cough. Ayurvedic medicines containing saffron are used to treat acne and several skin diseases. A paste of the spice can be used as a dressing for bruises and superficial sores.
Ancient texts on Ayurveda have information about the herb’s use as an aphrodisiac. It is a stimulant and promotes libido. It is largely used as an indigenous medicine across India. Saffron enjoys great reputation as a drug which strengthens the functioning of the stomach and promotes its action. It also counteracts spasmodic disorders and sustains involuntary muscle contraction.
It is beneficial in the treatment of several digestive disorders. Its use has been found specially valuable in flatulent colic. It is also used in the fevers, melancholia and enlargement of the liver and spleen. It is used in medicines that reduce inflammation. A combination of saffron and ghee is used to treat diabetes. Saffron also merits usage as a strengthening agent for the heart and as a cooling agent for the brain. It has been found beneficial in the treatment of urinary problems. It acts as a diuretic if soaked overnight in water and administered with honey.
The spice is useful in promoting and regulating menstrual periods. It soothes lumbar pains, which accompany menstruation. Saffron is also beneficial in the treatment of other ailments concerning women such as leucorrhoea and hysteria. Pessaries of saffron are used in painful conditions of the uterus. Saffron oil is used as an external application in uterine sores. In modern pharmacopoeias, saffron is employed only to color other medicines or as a cordial adjunct.
It is the saffron seed extract that is used for medicinal purposes in many countries, including Iran, where one of the first studies on the use of saffron for the treatment of depression was conducted. Researchers concluded that saffron was just as effective as imipramine, an established tricyclic antidepressant. The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database stresses that more research on saffron is necessary, but describes it as “likely safe” and “possibly effective.”
Saffron may induce abortion, hence pregnant women should not take it in large doses. Saffron bulbs are toxic to young animals and stigmas in overdose are narcotic.
Also, Saffron contains a poison that acts on the central nervous system and damages the kidneys. Large doses can have severe effects; 10 to 12 grams is a fatal dose for human beings. More info about toxicity of Saffron can be found here
Traditionally saffron is believed to promote fairness of the complexion. It is widely used in cosmetics, specially in fairness creams. It is an age-old belief that pregnant women give birth to ‘fair’ babies, if they consume saffron.
In India the valley of Kashmir is famous for saffron which is an important cash crop. Since it is very expensive, unscrupulous dealers often adulterate it. So one has to be very careful while buying saffron and should never buy it from roadside hawkers.
In order to understand commercial saffron, it is important to know the make-up of the saffron plant. Commercial saffron comes from the bright red stigmas of the Crocus Sativus. The stigmas are the female part of the flower. In a good year each saffron crocus plant might produce several flowers. Each flower contains three stigmas which are only part of the saffron crocus that when dried (cured) properly, become commercial saffron. Each red stigma is like a little capsule that encloses the complex chemicals that make up the saffron’s aroma, flavor and yellow dye. In order to release these chemicals the threads are to be steeped.
Though powdered saffron is more efficient there is increased scope for adulteration. Sometimes the male parts of the saffron flower (the stamens) are added to increase weight. Sometimes ground yellow stamens are sold as powdered saffron. Legitimate powdered saffron is red-orange and is made by grinding saffron stigmas.
Since over-use of saffron in cooking may lead to a bitter taste, one has to be careful. According to experts, for every tablespoon of saffron that you need to use, add three tablespoons of water. Use a spoon and make sure that the saffron threads get properly soaked; take care not to crush the threads.
Then add the mixture to a glass containing about 30-50 ml of lukewarm water and mix thoroughly. Leave the saffron in the glass for a minimum of 2 hours. Prepare your recipe as usual and add the contents of the glass along with the saffron threads when required.
Kashmiri saffron is valued all over the world for its fine quality and a large part of the saffron produced in Kashmir is exported.