Growing the Most Expensive Spice in the World

When I happen to mention that I'm growing my own saffron, most people are really surprised. There's something about the idea of spices that automatically transmits mental images of faraway places and really hot climates. Or something like that.

However it is a very real fact that in the Pacific Northwest of the USA it is completely possible to grow saffron. Yep, that saffron: the most expensive spice in the whole world.

As a hobby gardener, it's neither difficult nor too expensive to give this a try, so if you are curious, please read on to see how I got started, how to get a saffron bed ready, what growing is like, and when and how to harvest. And let's not forget a few comments on cooking and eating either...

Know Your Saffron Crocus

crocus blossom, photo by Relache You don’t want to confuse the saffron crocus for other species. Namely because the other varietals can be poisonous if eaten. Saffron crocus are known by the Latin name Crocus sativa or Crocus sativus. They bloom in the fall, anywhere from late September to early November depending on your regional climate.

As you are going for a productive crop here, and not just something decorative, these aren’t the sorts of bulbs you want to put into containers. They really need more depth and room if they are going to do their spicy thing. Also, they can be damaged by cold over the winter if you have them in pots. Saffron goes dormant in the summer and you don’t have to worry about watering then. You do have to worry if you don’t have good drainage as these bulbs can rot if they get too moist during their off-season.

My very first attempt was in a large outdoor container and after planting them a year earlier…. nothing happened! I dug up the container to try and see what happened, but couldn’t find a single bulb. Either they rotted away completely, or squirrels dug them up and ate them without leaving a hole in the dirt or any sort of sign. It was an unsatisfactory first year to say the least.

The Growing Process

Here's a gallery showing how I got started with the growing process

The part of my front yard garden I chose for my saffron bed was really weedy. You need to dig down 18" deep and make sure you get rid of everything.

In addition to removing all the weeds, and roots of weeds, you also need to remove and sift out the rocks from your saffron bed.

This leaves you with an area where your bulbs won't have to compete and won't get attacked.

After you clean the soil, you will want to add some nutrients. I mixed in some compost, and some general bulb food.

My saffron guru (my farmers market guy who I got my bulbs from) also told me to add some lime as he says the bulbs "like it a little sweet."

Here are the crocus babies themselves! They want to be planted a good six inches down, and about 4 inches apart. They will multiply over time.

That first year most of my bulbs didn't have the energy to bloom (having just been planted) but I got lots of nice shoots so I knew they were okay.

One little crocus DID bloom that first year, and my total harvest came to three tiny threads of dark orange saffron.

Saffron Tutorials

Here are some video guides to the different parts of the saffron growing process. Everybody does it a little bit differently so it’s great to get a few different points of view.

Weeding: Your Key to Growing Success

When it comes to saffron, the most important part of the tending/growing process is weeding. The bulbs are dormant for the majority of the year and you need to protect them. Weeds will not only gobble up nutrients in the soil, but the biggest danger is having your bulbs pierced by shoots of grass growing underground. Keeping your saffron bed weed-free in the off-season can be a big chore, but it pays off!

Harvesting Your Saffron

from blossom to picking

In the fall, you will start to see the saffron shoots coming up. They are just little white spikes at first, then green leaves appear.

The blossoms can take a day or two to follow the leaves, and that will depend on your rain vs sun. They go faster if it warms up.

One the day the flowers open fully, you will want to harvest the stigmas. Some people use tweezers, some use their fingers.

The bulbs can take a couple of weeks for all to open, depending on your weather and how many bulbs you have planted. Harvest daily until done.

Keep the picked threads safe from blowing around, and make sure they can breathe and they'll dry very quickly on their own.

Drying Your Spice

really, it's super easy

saffron threads, photo by Relache So, once you pick your bright red saffron stigmas, you need to dry them. This is really easily done. Let them sit out in some sort of container where they get good air circulation and where moisture can’t be trapped for several days.

The big threads you see on the left side of the glass container were just picked right before this photograph was taken. Those eensy-weensy, teeny red threads on the right are some which were picked a day earlier. As if three tiny bits of spice per flower didn’t seem miniscule enough, that is how much saffron will shrink up when it dries.

How To Use Your Spice

saffron harvest, photo by Relache For most people, growing their own saffron is going to be fun and will bring them a small amount of saffron for their home cooking. If you happen to have acreage, and can cultivate thousands of bulbs, you might consider selling your saffron to restaurants. In order to be able to go into the saffron biz, you need acreage devoted to this tiny flower.

What you see here is the total of my first year’s harvest. If I had a kitchen scale that measured tenths or hundredths of a gram I would be able to tell you exactly what my yield was, but with what I have, the answer is “not even a gram.”

It takes somewhere between 50,000 and 75,000 flowers to get enough stigmas harvested to make a pound of saffron. The market prices per ounce of saffron are higher than the price for an ounce of gold.

Saffron bulbs do multiply over the years. You will want to dig up the bulbs and split them every three years. Some people choose to replant their crop, expanding the corm patch every few years, while others find that they prefer to sell the bulbs to other interested gardeners.

Anyone else growing saffron?

or got a question about it?

Are you giving growing saffron a try? What did you get when you tried cultivating your own saffron? I shared my story above, please share a bit of yours!

I’m open to questions, just remember I only know about this stuff from my own experiences and can’t speak more broadly for other growing regions or comment on conditions where I’ve never lived. For those sorts of questions, your best advice will come from garden experts in your area. I get a lot of my own free gardening help by asking at my neighborhood garden center, consulting with farmer’s market resources and using local university guides online.

And in case you were wondering, here’s what my saffron is doing now.
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  • kellyybrownn617 Apr 12, 2014 @ 2:48 pm
    hello this is great.
  • ChocolateLily Apr 02, 2014 @ 10:59 pm
    I would have never thought of growing saffron before reading your lens. Wow! I doubt I will give it a try, but it's really neat.
  • RubyHRose Apr 01, 2014 @ 12:58 am
    After reading this helpful lens I am sure going to give it a try. Congrats on Lotd and a purple star too.
  • relache Apr 01, 2014 @ 12:20 pm
    Be sure to come back, Ruby, and let us know how it worked out for you.
  • skiesgreen Apr 01, 2014 @ 12:38 am
    Great lens and nicely done information. Congrats on LOTD, well deserved. Growing this spice is not something I would care to do and your instructions are ideal for anyone who would.
  • mansfisa Mar 31, 2014 @ 8:02 pm
    Nice Lense
  • Arachnea Mar 31, 2014 @ 5:20 pm
    this sounds like a fun project. i have a patch of dirt for which this will be perfect. i wonder if the texas climate will suit. the place i have in mind has a very warm, sunny morning to noonish then is in shade the rest of the day. i'm sorry if i missed it, but once the stigmas are picked from a plant will more grow back with the next growing season? great lens. congrats on lotd.
  • relache Mar 31, 2014 @ 10:50 pm
    Saffron reblooms each fall.
  • daria369 Mar 31, 2014 @ 10:43 am
    Enjoyed your lens, thank you! I've been growing many herbs but it never crossed my mind to grow saffron even though I do use it when cooking soup...
  • tonnytheviet Mar 31, 2014 @ 3:31 am
    This is very helpful for me! Thank you very much!
  • Marke-ting Mar 31, 2014 @ 12:23 am
    I've heard it's incredibly hard to grow and very expensive on the grocery store shelves. I really wish I could just cook more with it! ha!
  • relache Mar 31, 2014 @ 11:26 am
    Well, it IS expensive, but I think I've shown here that is is NOT incredible hard to grow.
  • snoopcat1 Mar 30, 2014 @ 10:21 pm
    Thanks. I live in an arctic region and grow cool stuff inside. Miss my paella!
  • relache Mar 31, 2014 @ 11:25 am
    Wow, an Arctic region... I can see why anything would have to be grown indoors.
  • snoopcat1 Mar 30, 2014 @ 9:24 pm
    Can you grow this indoors?
  • relache Mar 30, 2014 @ 9:52 pm
    No. Saffron crocus are only going to reproduce and thrive in an outdoor location.
  • DebMartin Mar 30, 2014 @ 8:18 pm
    Wow. Who knew. I didn't even realize saffron came from a crocus. Yet I use it all the time. Thanks for the tips and the knowledge. Even if I never grow my own saffron, it's important to know where those things that are important to you come from.
  • relache Mar 31, 2014 @ 11:18 am
    Deb, that's totally one of the factors that contributed to my interest in growing it.
  • tipsanddeals Mar 30, 2014 @ 6:55 pm
    Interesting article.
  • StephenJParkin Mar 30, 2014 @ 5:44 pm
    No, but I was thinking about growing Hascap berries! Seems like I could make more with Saffron if only it could stand Nova Scotia winters. I will have to check to see if I could manage it?

    Well done on the LOTD. Only I do have a clay soil so it would probably be too wet!

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