Plant Monograph - Saffron

Saffron stamens


To buy UK grown Saffron please go HERE


Other Names: Hindi - kesar, zaffran; Sanskrit - avarakta, saurab, mangalya, agnishikha, kumkuma, mangal, kusrunam; English- saffron; Arab and Persian - zafrah, zipharana; Ben - jafran; Bom - safran, kessar; Mah - kecara; Guj - keshar; Tel - kunkuma-purva, kunkumma-purru; Tam. and Mal. - kunkumappu; Can. and Kon. - kunkuma-kesara; Fr.and Ger. - safran.


Botanical Name: Crocus sativa


Family: Iridaceae



Saffron is a world renowned spice with a rich history of use spanning thousands of years and multiple civilisations. This article will provide some basics on Saffron regarding it's botany, history, medicinal, culinary and other uses of Saffron.


The word "saffron" immediately stems from the Latin word safranum via the 12th-century Old French term safran. The French was borrowed from Arabic زَعْفَرَان (za'farān), and ultimately from Persian زَرپَران (zarparān) which literally means "golden leaves". This refers to the colour of the stigmas that we call 'Saffron'.



The taxonomy of Saffron is as follows:

Kingdom: Plant;

Phylum: Spermatophyte;

Subphylum: Angiosperms (Magnoliophyta);

Class: Monocotyledons (Liliopsida);

Subclass: Liliidae; Order: Liliales;

Family: Iridaceae;

Subfamily: Crocoidae;

Genus: Crocus (genus Crocus comprises about 90 species);

Species: C. Sativus L.


Crocus sativa is a perennial flowering plant in the family Iridaceae. It grows 10-30cm tall. It grows from corms, where it produces leaves and a flower stalk. The leaves are simple and rosulate. It produces a flower with purple petals and three red to orange stigmas. Saffron flowers once a year. It is these stigmas of the Crocus sativa flower that we call the spice 'Saffron'. It is a male sterile triploid, clonal and only survives through human propagation (commonly called a cultigen).


It is now distributed in the subtropical biome and mainly grown from Spain & Morocco in the west to Italy, Iran and India in the east, with most production occurring in Iran.



Whilst Saffron's early appearance seems omnipresent, there has been much debate regarding the origin of the Saffron Crocus. Researchers have utilised genetic investigation as well as archaeological evidence in the form of ancient art and folk references to better understand Saffron's origin.


Following genomic investigation the Saffron Crocus is now believed to have most likely originated in southern mainland Greece from its most likely wild progenitor Crocus cartwrightianus (6). Humans may have bred C. cartwrightianus specimens by selecting for specimens with long stigmas.


A definite identification of saffron crocuses in the archaeological evidence dates from about 1700-1600 BC, in the form of a fresco painting in the Palace of Minos at Knossos in Crete. Experts believe saffron was first documented in a 7th century BC Assyrian botanical reference compiled under Ashurbanipal. Since then, documentation of saffron's use over the span of 4000 years in the treatment of some 90 illnesses has been uncovered (4).


Saffron is the Karcom of the Hebrews (Song of Solomon iv. 14) (5)


Saffron was imported to England from the East many centuries ago, and was once grown extensively round Saffron Walden, in Essex. One smoke-pervaded spot in the heart of London still bears the name of 'Saffron Hill.' (5) English grown Saffron still occurs. See our blog article HERE for information on Devonshire grown Saffron available at Herbal Dimensions.


Ethnobotany – Culinary, medicinal & other uses

Saffron has been used for culinary, medicinal, perfumery and dye/pigment purposes by various cultures for millennia. The extant research is extensive, as such the following is but a brief outline. Please view the references for more detailed information.

Medicinal Use

Saffron has been used in Ayurvedic, Chinese, Arabic and various other traditional medicinal practices for millennia. It has been utilised for gastric conditions, sexual dysfunction, respiratory disease amongst many other ailments. It was previously widely used in the treatment of genital diseases, and menstrual regulation and relief. The spice’s abortive action was well known in the Middle Ages, during which it was also used by midwives in deliveries for the sedative and antispasmodic action of saffron. It has also been used to treat eye diseases, heal wounds, fractures and joint pain and for many other uses, leading to Pliny the Elder describing it as a kind of panacea in his Naturae Historiarum XXXVII (10).


Modern research on the medicinal and biological activities of Saffron corroborates much of the traditional applications. Research into Saffron's medicinal qualities has demonstrated the following actions; anticonvulsant, anti-Alzheimer, anti-Parkinsons, antidepressant and anti-schizophrenic effects. It has also shown beneficial effects pertaining to oxidative damages and neurotoxicity, neuronal injury and apoptosis, neuro inflammation, brain neurotransmitters effects and also its effects on the opioids system (8).


Saffron’s rich phytochemical profile provides a promising approach in the prevention and treatment of many age-related diseases. Indeed, saffron and especially its main constituent molecules (crocins, crocetin, picrocrocin and safranal) exert beneficial effects on frequent neuropsychiatric (depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, etc.) and age-related (cardiovascular, ocular, neurodegenerative diseases and sarcopenia) diseases (9).

Culinary Use

Saffron is used in India, Iran, Spain and other countries as a condiment for rice and for many other popular dishes such as Biryani in India, Paella & Zarzuela in Spain and as a tea in Morocco to name but a few. Its ability to impart its colour is also utilised in butter, cheeses and pasta.

Pigment & Dye Use

Saffron is used to dye various textiles. Saffron continues to dye the clothes of Buddhist monks, silk, wool, and Oriental carpets. Natural dyes have better biodegradability and compatibility with the environment, lower toxicity and less allergenic than some of the synthetic dyes (7).


Chemical constituents

Chemical analysis of C. sativus stigmas has shown the presence of about 150 volatile and non-volatile compounds. Fewer than 50 constituents, however, have been identified so far (7). The three main biologically active compounds are:


  1. Crocin, a carotenoid pigment responsible for the yellow-orange color of the spice;
  2. Picrocrocin, bringing saffron flavor and bitter taste;
  3. Safranal, a volatile compound responsible for the aroma and smell so specific to saffron.



(1) Kew, Plants of the World Online


(2) Wikipedia


(3) Wikipedia – History of Saffron,literally%20means%20%22golden%20leaves%22.


(4) Srivastava R, Ahmed H, Dixit RK, Dharamveer, Saraf SA. Crocus sativus L.: A comprehensive review. Pharmacogn Rev. 2010 Jul;4(8):200-8. doi: 10.4103/0973-7847.70919. PMID: 22228962; PMCID: PMC3249922.




(6) Zahra Nemati, Dörte Harpke, Almila Gemicioglu, Helmut Kerndorff, Frank R. Blattner, Saffron (Crocus sativus) is an autotriploid that evolved in Attica (Greece) from wild Crocus cartwrightianus, Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, Volume 136, 2019, Pages 14-20, ISSN 1055-7903,


(7) Mzabri, I.; Addi, M.; Berrichi, A. Traditional and Modern Uses of Saffron (Crocus Sativus). Cosmetics 2019, 6, 63.


(8) Khazdair MR, Boskabady MH, Hosseini M, Rezaee R, M Tsatsakis A. The effects of Crocus sativus (saffron) and its constituents on nervous system: A review. Avicenna J Phytomed. 2015 Sep-Oct;5(5):376-91. PMID: 26468457; PMCID: PMC4599112.


(9) El Midaoui A, Ghzaiel I, Vervandier-Fasseur D, Ksila M, Zarrouk A, Nury T, Khallouki F, El Hessni A, Ibrahimi SO, Latruffe N, Couture R, Kharoubi O, Brahmi F, Hammami S, Masmoudi-Kouki O, Hammami M, Ghrairi T, Vejux A, Lizard G. Saffron (Crocus sativus L.): A Source of Nutrients for Health and for the Treatment of Neuropsychiatric and Age-Related Diseases. Nutrients. 2022 Jan 29;14(3):597. doi: 10.3390/nu14030597. PMID: 35276955; PMCID: PMC8839854.


(10) José Bagur M, Alonso Salinas GL, Jiménez-Monreal AM, Chaouqi S, Llorens S, Martínez-Tomé M, Alonso GL. Saffron: An Old Medicinal Plant and a Potential Novel Functional Food. Molecules. 2017 Dec 23;23(1):30. doi: 10.3390/molecules23010030. PMID: 29295497; PMCID: PMC5943931.