Botanical Name: Crocus sativus

Family: lridaceae

Hindi Name: Kesar

Saffron is cultivated from the West Mediterranean countries to India. In much smaller scale saffron is also cultivated in Italy, Greece, Austria, France, England, Turkey, Iran and Southeast Asian countries.

Of the Western and Central Asian cultivation areas, Iran is most productive, and together with Spain, produces more than 80 percent of world's production. The saffron grown in the Kashmir has particularly high reputation. The valley of Kashmir is famous for its saffron fields, and some saffron is also grown in the Kishtwar region of Jammu.

The saffron plant is bulbous and perennial. Its grows to a height of 15-25 cm, and has an underground globular corn. The flowers are blue or lavender, and scented.

Saffron is the slender, dried, reddish-brown, flattened stigma of a small Crocus of the iris family. Like most of the European spices, saffron derives its name from Arabic Za'fran- 'be yellow'. The Hindi and Sanskrit names have been derived from Kashmir.

Saffron's aroma is unique, and there is no subsititute for it. Saffron is unique among spices due to its aroma. It is water­ soluble, and when added to a dish, it gives a pure and homogenous colour. Though very intensively fragrant, it is slightly bitter in taste. The intensive colour of saffron is caused by pigments of carotenoid type.

Crocin, a diester of crocin with gentobiose, is the singlemost important saffron pigment. Being triploid, saffron is necessarily sterile, and its beautiful flowers cannot produce any seeds; hence, propagation is possible only via corms.

Since distribution over larger areas requires human help, it is surprising then that there is evidence that it was used by the Sumerians more than 5,000 years ago. In Europe, saffron is generally considered the best.

Saffron does, however, grow well in cooler climates, and since the fifteenth century numerous attempts have been made to introduce saffron production in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and England. Today, all these saffron cultivation sites have been abandoned, with the sole exception of Mund, a small Swiss village in Canton Wallis. No doubt saffron is the most expensive spice in world, but all that is required is just a pinch each time of use.

There are several other plants that give a yellow or orange colour to the food, yet none of these has the hypnotic fragrance of true saffron. Indian sweets, like kheer, ras malai, etc. ,are sometimes prepared with saffron.

Indian Muslims use it in zarda pulao which is prepared at the end of the fasting month and festive occasions. At times, Indian lassi includes a few strands of saffron to enhance the flavour of the yoghurt drink. In Rajasthan, saffron-flavoured ice creams and butter lassi are delicious.

North Indian biryanis and Mughlai pulaos are fragrant and aromatic dishes, usually with chicken or mutton, that are intensely flavoured by saffron in conjunction with spices and saffron.

The average composition of commercial saffron is as follows:

  • Moisture: 15.6 %
  • Starch and sugars: 13.35 %
  • Essential oil: 0.6%
  • Fired oil: 5.63 %
  • Nitrogin-free extract: 43.64 %
  • Fibre: 4.48 %
  • Ash: 4.27 %

The essentail oil is composed of terpene alcohols and esters, a coloured glycoside called crocin, and a bitter glucoside called picrocrocin. It is carminative, diaphoretic and emmenagogue. It is used as a diaphoretic drug for children and can also benefit female hysteria, absent or painful menstruation, and stopped chronic haemorrhage of the uterus in adults. It is used in fevers, melancholia and enlargement of the liver and spleen.

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