Knock-off saffron

April 13, 2024

As with many other valuable commodities, the sale of saffron has traditionally been taken rather seriously. Thankfully, these days, it has become highly unlikely that one will be burned at the stake or buried alive for the misdemeanour of selling adulterated saffron.

The Saffron Inspectors of Nuremberg (a real job title from the 15th Century) would have found no fault around here, as we have better things to do with our time than adding crushed marigold flowers or fat to what little saffron we could produce from our small patch of Crocus sativus. And besides, we get it from the supermarket.

On a related note to the fraudulent bulking out of saffron (which finds parallels in various corners of illicit trade these days), I have been fascinated for some time about which species have been used as saffron substitutes – on the basis of notes that I read in Janis Ruksans’ fine monograph on crocuses (and within other accounts). Considering that the saffron crocus, Crocus sativus, is now known to be a selected triploid form of a wild Greek species, Crocus cartwrightianus, it seems possible that the stigmas of various species might be used to similar effect (as cheaper or more readily-cultivated alternatives).

Within his monograph, ‘The World of Crocuses’, Ruksans writes about research within the former USSR about possible alternatives for yielding saffron – primarily from Crocus pallasii and Crocus speciosus (a former subspecies of which, xantholaimos, is pictured at the top of this article).

Crocus nudiflorus is generally considered to have been introduced to the UK (from moist high-altitude meadows of Spain and France) as a readily-grown source of ‘knock-off’ saffron, possibly by members of religious orders (such as the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, as surmised by W. B. Crump, a Yorkshire naturalist).

Our interest in crocuses is primarily focussed on those that flower in autumn – like the species pictured above, Crocus boryi, whose extravagant branched style emerges conspicuously from its white goblet-shaped flowers. Many of these hail from comparatively low altitudes in the Mediterranean, including the other 2 species pictured within this article – Crocus goulimyi from southern Greece, and Crocus longiflorus from southwestern Italy, Sicily and Malta.

Our mild, winter-rainfall climate doesn’t provide the cold conditions generally required for vernalisation in spring-flowering crocuses. However, as long as one allows a garden to experience dryness in summer (a natural state in our climate, but one that is frequently negated by reliance on automated irrigation in modern gardens), we can usually offer summertime conditions that stimulate flowering in the autumn crocuses.