Saffron: Sometimes More Expensive Than Gold

Saffron is a warm light orange that has a strong history throughout all cultures in the world. The colour compound comes from a very fragrant flower of the same name. It is grounded up and dried usually consumed as a spice. It was used as a dye for food, clothes, painting, scribing and hair for centuries. There’s a lot of history with this bright orange-yellow that just touching on some interesting facts is still astonishing.

It produces a strong, pure, translucent yellow that could be used to pose as gold. It is an autumn perennial plant that grows predominately in the warm climates of the Mediterranean, Middle East and Spain. Recently, some saffron farmlands started to be grown out of Western Canada and Quebec. The saffron flower is believed to originate in Iran. The colour and the spice of saffron come from the stigmas of the flower. Those are the three long orangey threads that grow out of the center of the flower. It is the most expensive to farm than most spices. It takes 8000 handpicked flowers to collect one hundred grams of pure saffron threads at dawn before sunlight burns the flower threads. Saffron strands are dried at room temperature before selling. Most saffron flowers only have three strands per flower.

Image of the saffron flower. On the field and up-close. Source: Unsplash.

There are different grades of saffron that rank the strength and colour of the stigmas and the preparation methods. The non-stigma content is also ranked as “flower waste content” in three categories with I having the finest quality and III as the poorest quality. There was a IV category as a standard but not always included. They are measured in specific spectrophotometric absorbance that ranks the levels of crocin, picrocrocin and safranal which has an impact on the colouring potential and strength per gram. The absorbance reading of crocin is known as the “colouring strength” of the saffron. On a label of saffron, this is called the ISO 3632 with the category listed. ISO states for the International Organization for Standardization and 3632 stands for “Spices-Saffron.”

Saffron was cultivated and used for the past 3500 years across many cultures and civilizations. The origin of the name saffron is a mystery. The traced history of the word might come from the 12th-century Old French word safran which derives from the Latin word safranum then the Arabic word zafaran which comes from the Persian word zarparan which means “golden leaves.” The saffron colour is a range from bright orange-yellow to a colour close to bright yellow.

Hex Code for Saffron Orange #FFAF12
Hex Code for Saffron Yellow #F4C42D

In food preparation, saffron threads are soaked in hot water. The aroma of saffron based on connoisseurs is of metallic honey with grassy or hay-like notes. It is used to flavour and colour many dishes, many of them rice dishes like risottos, paella, biryani and khoresh.

Photo of Fresco of saffron gatherers from the bronze age excavations in Akrotiri. Public Domain.

There is a fresco of “Saffron Gatherers” on the “Xeste 3” building at a Minoan settlement at Akrotiri on the Aegean island of Thera (also called Santorini.) The fresco was from the Late Bronze Age and it was the first image of saffron and saffron culture. The fresco depicted females gathering saffron crocus blooms and bringing baskets to a saffron-cushioned goddess seated on a three-tiered platform. The Thera Eruption, the largest geological event of ancient times, both destroyed and preserved the town in volcanic ash.

Saffron was used often in the age of Antiquity. It was used as a perfume and medicine. It was also known as a sexual aphrodisiac and as a stimulant for pain relief. In Ancient times, baths used saffron to perfume the air.

Alexander the Great used saffron in his infusions, food and baths as a treatment for battle wounds during his Asian campaign. And Cleopatra of Hellenistic Egypt (Ancient Egypt) used a quarter-cup of saffron in her warm baths because of cosmetic and colouring properties.

Alexander the Great dyed his hair the saffron colour to have it look like gold. Many nobility would don saffron-dyed robes to wear for luxury or military wear. In Ireland, the Irish saffron war shirt (léine croich) was a linen shirt dyed saffron with silk embroidery. It was worn once a year as a fancy dress for Christmas and Easter in Ireland. The Léine Croich was also worn by the Highlanders during battles throughout the Middle Ages. The shirt was worn for its practicality and form of armour because the shirt was fairly thick to handle a sword blow. Poor clansmen would have to dye linen with horse urine, bark and crushed leaves to achieve the yellow colour since saffron is expensive and rare.

Image of saffron with mortar and peddle. Source: Unsplash – Photo by marlik saffron.

The Egyptians used it for dyeing bandages for mummies. Ancient Egyptian healers used crushed saffron crocus seeds mixed with ox fat, coriander, and myrrh as an ointment or poultice to apply to the body.

Romans and Greek women would dye their hair and clothes. In Ancient Greece, saffron was widely associated with professional courtesans and retainers known as hetaerae. The hetaeraes wore yellow hair or dyed their hair to indicate their profession and attract customers. Saffron was often mixed into hair dye products for the colour. Blonde hair was expensive to create with cumin seeds, saffron, oil and celandine. Red dye was made with saffron and sulphur powder. Bleaches were made with blended flowers, saffron and calf kidneys.

Saffron was rarely used in manuscripts during medieval times. Saffron was used has yellow paint in the books. It was one of three of the plant-based paints used for yellow. Turmeric and weld were the other yellows used.

It’s iconically connected to Buddist robes. Buddhists used a combination of turmeric roots and jack fruits for the bold orange colour like saffron for their robes. It was possibly due to the expense. They are often used as an example of the colour saffron without their robes usually made out of the flower. Buddhist monks in the Theravada tradition usually wear saffron robes. The Buddha taught the first monks and nuns to make their robes of cloth that no one wanted. This was known as “pure” cloth. Then the cloth was boiled with vegetable matter (tubers, barks, flowers and leaves) and spices (turmeric and saffron.) The saffron colour is meant to symbolize simplicity, spiritualism and the detachment of materialism.

According to legend, Madhyântika was an Indian Buddhist missionary who was sent to Kashmir in the 5th century reportedly sowed Kashmir’s first saffron crop. The saffron crop spread across the Indian subcontinent afterwards. At the death of Buddha Siddhartha Gautama, the religious leader regarded as the founder of the world religion of Buddhism, his attending monks decreed saffron as the official colour for Buddhist robes and mantles.

It is also associated with religious ceremonies. Mahamastakabhisheka is a Jain festival that’s only held once every 12 years. The translation of Mahamastakabhisheka is “Grand Consecration”/”The Great Indian Festival.” They use saffron paste with milk and sugarcane juice to bath and anoint with libations the 17.8 m monolith statue of Jain prophet Bhagavan Gomateshwara Bahubali with sprinkled powders of sandalwood, turmeric and vermillion by devotees.

A letter of a German poem from 1629. Describes medicinal and moral values of the plant. Source: Wellcome Library.

During the Black Death of 1347-1350, the demand for saffron went up in Europe. It was coveted for plague victims for medicinal purposes. Many of the farmers died from the plague before recouping their crops. The lack of supplies led to getting saffron from abroad which led to piracy of shipments. This led to the three-month battle when one 800 lb of saffron was stolen by nobles when the cargo was en route to the town of Basel, Switzerland. Then Basel ended up growing their supply and never. Many pirates at the time would ignore gold to steal saffron. This was known as the Saffron War. The plus in this event was the start of the cultivation of saffron crocuses in Europe which led to regulations needed. When the European production and trade centre moved to Nuremberg, Bavaria (Germany) they passed the Safranschou code to prevent adulteration of saffron. The adulteration of saffron under this code was punishable by fines, imprisonment and death by fire.

The colour is a part of the flag of India. The colours of the flag mean courage, sacrifice and the spirit of renunciation. The flag was adopted in 1947 with a different meaning. According to Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, “the saffron colour denotes renunciation of disinterestedness. Our leaders must be indifferent to material gains and dedicate themselves to their work.” The saffron colour on the flag is known as India saffron (Kesari). Kesari comes from the Kesariya flag also called the Bhagwa flag. The colour represents bravery. The saffron is almost an orange colour and is known otherwise as deep saffron. The addition of the colour on the flag has been seen as controversial with some people believing that the colour should not be politicized because it is a sacred colour.

Hex Code for Deep Saffron #FF9933

Nowadays, saffron is readily available at the expense of around 12 dollars per gram at specialty food shops. It is used now as a flavouring agent or a food colour. Saffron is often used to colour and flavour traditional Easter buns. It makes the buns a light golden orange with a delicate orange water-like taste. It is still known as the most expensive spice in the world. It’s still expensive because cultivating the spice is still done by hand and it is very labour intensive.


The Rambling Epicure – Saffron Culture: A Pictorial Cycle on Santorini, Part I

CNN – From rainbow to gray: The evolution of hair dye

F Yeah History – The Horrifying History of Hair Dye

McGill University – History of saffron The History of Saffron

The Scotsman – Dead men didn’t wear plaid – meet the saffron Braveheart

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