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How to grow saffron, the famous “red gold”

Cultivating saffron is an agricultural practice that is making a strong comeback in our countryside. It is a flowering plant generated by a bulb, which gives us a precious spice with a high commercial value. With the return of young people to agriculture, the production of saffron pistils can be a very attractive crop choice. This is particularly valid in rural areas and on small lands, which do not require large material investments. Obviously, cultivating saffron can also be dictated by simple passion, given the beauty of its flower, so it can also be planted in a home garden without expecting large yields.

In this article, we will introduce you to saffron and its botanical peculiarities. Furthermore, we will explain the typical cultivation techniques of our regions.

  • Saffron, botanical context, and origins
  • Saffron Crocus sativus Saffron Crocus sativus
  • Saffron, the scientific name Crocus sativus, is a plant belonging to the Iridaceae family.

The term crocus derives from the Greek krocos = thread, to remember the long and typical thread-like stigmas of the saffron flower.

species is the most cultivated to obtain the precious spice. In Italy, however, the species Crocus vernus (wild saffron) is also present spontaneously. This is found in almost all regions, it prefers cool, grassy places, and wooded clearings, where it blooms from March to June.

Saffron is a plant with ancient origins that date back to Asia Minor, although it was known in India and China. The most distant writing in which it appears is an Egyptian papyrus of the fifteenth century BC It is also mentioned in the Bible, in the Song of Songs, and by authors such as Homer, Hippocrates, and Pliny the Elder.

The introduction of saffron in Europe dates back to the eighth century by the Arab conquerors. In Italy, the cultivation of this spice has spread mainly in the Center-South: Abruzzo, Sardinia, Sicily, and Tuscany.

Today the Italian production is concentrated especially in Abruzzo and Sardinia. On the other hand, Iran is the world’s largest producer, followed by Spain, Greece, and India.

Botanical characteristics of saffron

  • Saffron plants peculiarity of the saffron plant is that it originates from a bulb (tuber), such as tulips, daffodils, or Jerusalem artichokes.
  • The saffron bulb has very solid and compact consistency, it is white in color. It also has a circular shape and a flattened appearance.
  • The bulb has a diameter ranging from 3 to 6 cm.
  • Another characteristic is the covering of filamentous tunics of dark cappuccino color, which are gathered at the top, in a tuft.
  • Under the tunics, there are 2-3 buds that develop leaves and flowers and serve as an embryo for the new bulbs.
  • The bulb has adventitious, white, and filamentous roots. They are up to 20-25 cm long, have mycorrhizae, and are not very branched. They cease their activity when the yellowing of the leaves begins.
  • In the lower part of the bulb, there are also some contractile roots. These push the bulb deeper, in order to meet the growing needs of the plant.
  • The leaves and flowers, which are wrapped in a white spathe, sprout from the ground altogether shortly after the late summer transplant. The spathe is a transformed leaf that surrounds the flower and its base. It consists of 3-4 layers of very thin white tunics. The tunics have the consistency of a film similar to that which wraps the garlic. They tear at the tip and release the leaves, in numbers from 9 to 11.
  • The number of leaves that a saffron bulb can produce depends on the size and vitality of the buds.
  • The leaves are narrow in bunches, linear in shape, and almost triangular. Up to 40 cm long and 2-3 mm wide, they have an entire papillary margin. On the upper page of the leaf, there is a lighter central furrow, in the lower one, there are two parallel grooves with transparent prominences. The color is intense green.

Saffron flower

Saffron flower saffron flowers have the typical purple-pink color. We often see them closed in a tubular shape, but in the first-morning sun, they open. They have the shape of bellflower and consist of:

  • 6 tepals, welded into a tubule at the base;
  • 3 stamens with yellow anther;
  • 3 filamentous stigmas of crocus red color, with the enlarged apex in the shape of a trumpet. These gather in a colorless style, which ends in an ovary located under the ground whose seeds abort.

Usually, the appearance of the first flower precedes the emission of the leaves (the phenomenon of hysterics). In any case, the leaves appear before the anthesis of the flower.

The flower axis emerges from the end of October to mid-November. The showiness of the saffron flower is due (in addition to the bright color) to its few leaves.

The floral stigmas constitute the precious part of the saffron. They are the reason why it is grown, being the only useful part of the plant.

These red stigmas are 3-4cm long, elastic, and tangled. When chewed, they dye the saliva a deep yellow. They have the characteristic bitter-spicy taste, with a strong aromatic smell that emerges at the time of drying.

Biological cycle of saffron

Before seeing in detail how to cultivate saffron, it is necessary to explain how the biological cycle of this plant takes place, also because the agronomic interventions to be carried out are different depending on the stage of life in which we find ourselves.

These briefly the different phases:

  • resumption of bulb activity;
  • germination of the bulb;
  • development of leaves and flowers;
  • flowering;
  • development of new cloves;
  • reproductive phase;
  • collection of new bulbs;

Resumption of bulb activity

This moment begins with the transplant, which in our country usually takes place towards the end of August.

From the implant, the apical buds come into activity and begin to develop.

Germination of the bulb

The vegetative restart phase ends between the end of September and the beginning of October. The apical bud forms a cylindrical organ, a real protective sheath. The sheaths stop their vertical development when they emerge from the ground and the sketches of the flowers and leaves begin to form.

Development of leaves and flowers

This phase begins in October and ends in the first days of November. From the protective sheaths, the leaves begin to emerge, surrounded by the spathe, which are the protections of the flowers. A flower bud is able to contain from 2 to 5 flower buds inside.

Flowering

The flowering of saffron occurs throughout the month of November and coincides with the harvest period. It lasts 15-20 days, a period called “coat days”.

Development of the new cloves

Immediately after the end of flowering, ie at the end of November, the development of the new bulbils begins. This phase covers a very long period of time, from December to February.

During this long period, the mother plant has an intense vegetative activity, with the production of leaves and roots. Through these activities, reserve substances are accumulated, which are used for the subsequent development of the new bulbs.

In this period it is important that the plant finds in the soil a good quantity of organic substance, sufficient humidity, and favorable climatic conditions. Under these conditions, a balanced and lasting photosynthetic activity is guaranteed.

It is also important that the presence of weeds is kept under control through periodic weeding. In this way, there is no risk of reducing the quantity and quality of the new bulb-tubers produced.

Reproductive stage

In early spring, the saffron plant passes from the vegetative to the reproductive phase. The plant gives the impression of moving towards a period of rest, but in reality, important generative processes take place within it. These lead the apical vegetative meristems to transform into root or flower buds.

In this phase, the plant has a high energy and water requirement. Therefore the ideal would be a rainy spring season. In fact, water helps the growth of newly formed bulbs. In areas such as Sardinia, where there is a risk that rainfall even in early spring is scarce. It is necessary to intervene with emergency irrigation.

Collection of the new bulbs

Between May and June, the activity of the plant is reduced, leading to yellowing of the leaves and drying out.

At the end of this period, the new saffron bulbs are harvested, which will be used for planting at the end of summer.

The cultivation of saffron

Pedoclimatic needs

A big advantage of growing saffron is that the plant survives both low winter temperatures and summer drought.

Despite this characteristic, we try to trace a favorable climatic trend for the crop during the course of the year.

The rains in late summer are very positive, immediately after the planting of the bulbs. The water favors the formation of roots and the entry into vegetation.

We have already said that a rainy season in early spring is important. On the other hand, incessant rains and stagnation of water in autumn and late spring can be harmful.

Soil preparation

Saffron adapts well to different types of soil, as long as they have a good supply of organic substance and do not give rise to water stagnation.

The ideal range for the soil pH is between 6 and 8

To start new saffron cultivation, it would be a good idea to use a new soil, that is, never cultivated with saffron and that has been dormant for at least a year.

Crop rotation is important for the success of the production, as saffron is a multi-year crop. In the production discipline of Sardinian PDO saffron, for example, a 4-year period for cultivation is indicated. Furthermore, the bulb cannot be replanted on the same soil for another 4 years.

In crop alternations, other tuber or root crops should be avoided. We are talking about cultures such as potatoes, onion, garlic, carrot, etc.

The soil must be prepared in time, with plowing of at least 40 cm, to be carried out in autumn. After plowing, the soil is left to rest and, if necessary, fertilization is carried out.

Organic fertilization

Saffron greatly appreciates the presence of organic substances, especially the very old and mature ones. So there is no need to fertilize if abundant manure has been carried out on the soil for other crops in previous years.

  • Mature manure is the best fertilizer, but it should only be applied if the soil is really poor.
  • The manure can be spread on the ground after plowing at the amount of 3 kg per square meter.
  • The selection of bulbs
  • Transplant of saffron bulbsTransplant of saffron bulbs
  • The saffron bulbs destined for the plant are harvested in June and subjected to careful selection.

The sorting involves the separation of the bulbs, keeping aside those suitable for reproducing and flowering, with the presence of a beautiful apical bud. Bulbs with a diameter of not less than 2.5 cm are usually kept. Those that are too small, malformed, with signs of rot or gnawed by mice are discarded. The selection of the bulbs ends with a first “clean”, ie the elimination of the first layer of dry tunics, leaving the inner ones shiny.

The larger the bulbs, the greater their reproductive capacity, thanks to the greater presence of reserve substances.

For this reason, the cultivation of saffron is renewed every year with the selection of the bulbs. In theory, it could remain directly on the ground for several years, but to the detriment of the quality of the final production. The well-cleaned bulb must be kept in a dark and dry place, waiting for the transplant.

Of course, in this case, we are talking about saffron cultivation that has already started and is being renewed. If you are leaving for the first time, you need to get the bulbs on the market by contacting specialized dealers.

The plant of the zafferaneto

Saffron in 2-row flowerbed our country the planting of the zafferaneto takes place in the second half of August. We proceed with the milling of the ground, in order to make it clean and well leveled.

Then the bulbs are cleaned by removing the outer skins, after which they are planted.

Planting is carried out starting from one side of the ground, tracing a straight furrow with a triangular hoe. The groove must be approximately 15 cm deep. and 15-20 cm wide. The bulbs must be placed well aligned, one next to the other and with the tuft of the tunics facing upwards.

Once the first groove is finished, the second begins, tucking with the earth that rises from the first, repeating the laying of the bulbs. After the fourth groove, it is left empty by about 50 cm. and we start all over again. In this way, 80 cm wide flower beds are obtained, on which four rows of bulbs are placed and served by 50 cm wide walkways. This structure can also be organized in a different way, for example with 2 or 3 rows.

15 days after planting the saffron bulbs, the flower beds are regularized with a rake, leveling the edges of the furrows and deepening the walkways.

The saffron harvest

SaffronAs we have seen, the flowering of saffron begins in the second half of October, which is the moment of harvesting operations.

The flowers emerge from the bunch of leaves, are initially closed in a tubular shape, and open completely within 24 hours.

Harvesting must be done early in the morning when the flower is still closed. It cannot last beyond 9-10 hours.

Collecting the open flowers compromises the final quality of the product, as it risks ruining the stigmas. For this reason, it is important to visit the field every morning, to pick the flowers that have formed during the night.

The harvesting technique, assuming a 4-row flowerbed, is performed by walking along the path between the furrows, with a basket under the arm and picking the flowers in 2 rows at a time.

The flowering period lasts about 10 days, and it is at this moment that we must do our utmost for the success of the saffron production.

Processing of saffron after harvest

Once the flowers have been harvested, the red stigmas must be collected within the day, so the operations begin immediately after returning from the field.

The separation of the stigmas from the flower requires great dexterity, precision, and at the same time speed. The stigma must be detached at the right point, that is where the red color ends.

The freshly selected stigmas are then placed in a flour sieve and dried over the embers by a fireplace for 15-20 minutes. This phase is very delicate and determines the quality of the saffron. The drying of the stigmas must reach the point where, by pressing them between the fingers, they do not break completely, continuing to maintain a good elasticity. At the same time, they must be sufficiently dehydrated, so as not to undergo any fermentation. The color of the saffron must be a beautiful purple-red and the aroma well perceptible.

The final product thus obtained is stored in cloth bags or ground and placed in sachets. If everything is done correctly, saffron can be preserved for years, keeping its aroma intact.

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