The Story of Saffron: The World’s Most Expensive Spice — Saffron History & Lore

Where Saffron comes from and the story of its origin is integral to understanding the herb and it's intricate history.  Saffron is native to Southwest Asia.  It is believed that it was first cultivated somewhere near Persia, and then propagated through trade channels to other areas such as Eurasia, North Africa and North America.  Iran is now the biggest producer of the world’s saffron supply, growing 90% of the world’s saffron product every year.  This is not by accident.  With help from the European Union and the United Kingdom, Iran transformed its opium production into saffron cultivation to help Afghan farmer’s steer away from the illicit opium trade.

Saffron: The World's Most Expensive Herb

Saffron History and Lore

Saffron has been cultivated across cultures, continents and civilizations for over 3,000 years. Loved for its sweet, hay and honey like fragrance and revered for its multitudinous healing powers, saffron has a characteristic bitter taste with a slight metallic note, a taste that is welcome in many kitchens, leading to saffron being a very well-used seasoning.  Alongside its fragrance and taste, saffron’s rich color makes for an ideal dye and led to prominent use in cosmetics.  It has also been used as an ever-abounding medicine, treasured by healers attributed to the treatment of over ninety disorders throughout history.

There is evidence of saffron's use tracing back to the Bronze Age.  Saffron-based pigments have been found in Iraq in prehistoric paintings that are over 50,000 years old.  On the Aegean island of Santorini – or “Thera” as known in the times of the Ancient Greeks – Minoan frescos have been found of saffron flowers being plucked by young girls and monkeys.  In the Knossos Palace, frescoes exist displaying a saffron harvest.  There are many other murals that show evidence of saffron being a mainstay in Minoan life, from paintings of a young Minoan goddess using saffron to create an herbal tincture, to another of a woman treating a foot wound with saffron.

Minoan frescoes and murals only contribute to saffron's historical application as an herbal remedy.  Unfortunately, this saffron-rich Minoan settlement that produced these revealing frescoes was destroyed in a disastrous earthquake that gave rise to a violent volcano.  But perhaps luckily, the frescoes were preserved by the ash from the volcano, bearing witness of saffron’s ancient and powerful history.

Saffron enjoyed notable prominence in Greco-Roman times.  The Phoenicians took part in much of the prolific saffron trade across the Mediterranean Sea.  From perfumers in Rosetta, Egypt, to doctors and healers in Gaza, many cities benefited immensely from the active trade of saffron to their regions.  The townsfolk of Rhodes sought saffron for its distinct and potent aroma, which would mask the unpleasant odors coming from common folk when out in public.In Sidon and Tyre, the robes of the royalty were often dipped three times in purple dye to create a desired brilliant purple hue, however for royal pretenders and commoners, robes were only dipped once in purple dye, then twice in saffron to diminish its brilliance and as such, signify a less than royal status.

Saffron is irresistibly tantalizing drawing us in with its sultry, provoking aroma and passionate, seductive energy. -- Saffron Magical Properties and Uses

There is an old Kashmiri legend connected to Saffron.  It tells the tale of two foreigners who went into Kashmir and became seriously ill.  They has heard of a local tribe chieftain with the power to heal and sought him out for assistance.  Upon meeting the two foreigners, the chieftain agreed to heal them, and the foreigners were deeply grateful.  They gave the chief two crocus bulbs as compensation, and to this day, during the autumn harvest season prayers are lifted up for these men who had given this well-respected healer the gift of saffron and its power to heal.

Throughout history, saffron makes it mark as a well-known as widely used healing herb.  The Persians would scatter threads of saffron across the bed and make hot and soothing teas to help treat depression and melancholy.  Alexander the Great was a great fan of saffron’s healing power, and would bath in saffron-infused water to heal his battle wounds, guiding his soldiers to do likewise.

During the Black Death in Europe, the demand for saffron rose dramatically. People suffering from the plague sought the herb for its powerful healing abilities.  Unfortunately, even saffron farmers became afflicted with the plague, and as they died off, so did their supply.  In order to meet the insatiable demand, Europe began importing saffron in to aid the ill and plague-ridden.

Saffron was once the holy grail of herbs for thieves, pirates and counterfeiters. Being "worth its weight in gold and the world's most expensive herb made saffron prime booty.  A war even broke out over the theft of saffron when an 800lb shipment in Europe was stolen from nobles, and lasted fourteen weeks.  Others exploited the profit to made from saffron, adulterating the herbs by soaking it with honey and mixing in marigold petals to stretch the product. Saffron was often stored inappropriately in damp cellars and other unfavorable means by those hoping to gather the herb in bulk and sell it quick and inexpensively.

Nuremburg officials passed the Safranschou code to crack down on the illicit saffron trade.  With all the factors contributing to a hostile environment within the trade of saffron, the Safranschou code was enacted to allow the punishment of those who would ruin the prestige of saffron trade, either by fines, imprisonment, or oddly, execution by immolation.

Saffron found its way to North America by the hands of those fleeing religious persecution in Europe.  These settlers made roots near the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, and later became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch.  The Pennsylvania Dutch became known for their cultivation and production of saffron, and this tradition still survives today in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

There is a quaint Essex town called Saffron, Walden that shares an interesting history with saffron. The town got its name for its participation in the cultivation of saffron during the 16th and 17th centuries.  Saffron, Walden is an old, very historical town, containing landmarks such as the largest parrish church in Essex—St. Mary’s Church, and artfully molded plasterwork called pargetting.  It also boasts a market that has been around since 1141.

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Although the saffron plant itself is sterile, it is closely linked to the energies of fertility and sexuality.  The Phoenicians would bake saffron into crescent-moon shaped cakes and present them as a gift to the moon and fertility goddess Ashtoreth. -- Saffron Magical Properties and Uses Although the saffron plant itself is sterile, it is closely linked to the energies of fertility and sexuality.  The Phoenicians would bake saffron into crescent-moon shaped cakes and present them as a gift to the moon and fertility goddess Ashtoreth. -- Saffron Magical Properties and Uses
In Persia, women would wear a ball made of saffron at the base of their stomach during pregnancy to help with a speedy delivery.  Saffron is closely connected to the moon cycles and as such women’s menstrual cycle.  -- Saffron Magical Properties and Uses In Persia, women would wear a ball made of saffron at the base of their stomach during pregnancy to help with a speedy delivery.  Saffron is closely connected to the moon cycles and as such women’s menstrual cycle.  -- Saffron Magical Properties and Uses
Saffron is an ideal herb for attracting love and beauty. The Sumerians would often use saffron as an ingredient in love potions.  -- Saffron Magical Properties and Uses Saffron is an ideal herb for attracting love and beauty. The Sumerians would often use saffron as an ingredient in love potions.  -- Saffron Magical Properties and Uses
The Egyptians commonly used saffron to increase feelings of lust and enhance sexual pleasure, as it is a powerful aphrodisiac, and supreme in love sachets and oils. -- Saffron Magical Properties and Uses The Egyptians commonly used saffron to increase feelings of lust and enhance sexual pleasure, as it is a powerful aphrodisiac, and supreme in love sachets and oils. -- Saffron Magical Properties and Uses
Queen Cleopatra herself lauded the magical powers of saffron and relied on it to make her sexual encounters with men more enjoyable.  She would take luxurious baths steeped in saffron to maintain her legendary beauty. -- Saffron Magical Properties and Uses Queen Cleopatra herself lauded the magical powers of saffron and relied on it to make her sexual encounters with men more enjoyable.  She would take luxurious baths steeped in saffron to maintain her legendary beauty. -- Saffron Magical Properties and Uses
To relieve herself of her new found burden, Smilax turned Crocus into a saffron crocus flower.  The orange stigmas to this day have come to symbolize the warm yet yearning glow of undying and unrequited love. -- Saffron Magical Properties and Uses To relieve herself of her new found burden, Smilax turned Crocus into a saffron crocus flower.  The orange stigmas to this day have come to symbolize the warm yet yearning glow of undying and unrequited love. -- Saffron Magical Properties and Uses
Saffron has potent magical effects on the mental, psychic and divinatory pursuits.  The wafting, uplifting aroma of saffron incense can help focus the mind, improving concentration and clarity and lifting the spirits. -- Saffron Magical Properties and Uses Saffron has potent magical effects on the mental, psychic and divinatory pursuits.  The wafting, uplifting aroma of saffron incense can help focus the mind, improving concentration and clarity and lifting the spirits. -- Saffron Magical Properties and Uses
Drinking liquid that contains saffron can help with envisioning the future.  It enhances psychic power and increases the potency of spell work, and can also help strengthen protection spells and charging of energy. -- Saffron Magical Properties and Uses Drinking liquid that contains saffron can help with envisioning the future.  It enhances psychic power and increases the potency of spell work, and can also help strengthen protection spells and charging of energy. -- Saffron Magical Properties and Uses
In Indian tradition, saffron is mixed with sandalwood paste and applied to the forehead to help calm the mind and nerves before meditation. -- Saffron Magical Properties and Uses In Indian tradition, saffron is mixed with sandalwood paste and applied to the forehead to help calm the mind and nerves before meditation. -- Saffron Magical Properties and Uses
The Persians would use saffron to “raise the wind,” as wind power was quite important to Persian culture and was used to moderate the temperature in their homes and storehouses. -- Saffron Magical Properties and Uses The Persians would use saffron to “raise the wind,” as wind power was quite important to Persian culture and was used to moderate the temperature in their homes and storehouses. -- Saffron Magical Properties and Uses
Saffron is notably the world’s most expensive spice and has long has a magical association with wealth and fortune. -- Saffron Magical Properties and Uses Saffron is notably the world’s most expensive spice and has long has a magical association with wealth and fortune. -- Saffron Magical Properties and Uses
In Ancient Greek mythology, sailors would make the long, arduous journey to the island of Cilicia just to gather the world’s most prized saffron for promises of riches and fortune. -- Saffron Magical Properties and Uses In Ancient Greek mythology, sailors would make the long, arduous journey to the island of Cilicia just to gather the world’s most prized saffron for promises of riches and fortune. -- Saffron Magical Properties and Uses

References

  1. Nassiri, M. (2006). Saffron (Crocus Sativus): Production and Processing. United States: Science Publishers, U.S.
  2. Murray, M. T., Pizzorno, J. E., & Pizzorno, L. (2005). The encyclopedia of Healing Foods. New York: Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group.
  3. Braun, L., Cohen, M., Braun, P. L., Cohen, P. M., & Morrow, L. M. (2010). Herbs and natural supplements: An evidence-based guide (3rd ed.). Sydney: Churchill Livingstone.
  4. Gardner, Z., & McGuffin, M. (2013). American Herbal Products Association’s Botanical Safety Handbook (Second Edition ed.). CRC Press.
  5. Johari, H. (2000). Ayurvedic Healing Cuisine. Inner Traditions / Bear & Co.
  6. Sanmugam, D. (2007). Naturally Speaking: Indian Recipes and Home Remedies. Marshall Cavendish.
  7. Liversidge, C. (2015). Homegrown Tea: An Illustrated Guide to Planting, Harvesting, and Blending. Macmillan.
  8. Puri, Ph.D., R. K. (2011). Natural Aphrodisiacs: Myth or Reality. Xlibris Corporation.
  9. Jyot Singh, D., & Davidson, J. (2015). The Magic of Saffron - For Beauty and to Heal. Mendon Cottage Books.
  10. Cole, K. (2015).Saffron Walden & Around. Saffron Walden (England): Amberley Publishing.
  11. Ovid & Metamorphoses (2017). History of saffron. In Wikipedia. Retrieved from Web.
  12. Heidary, M., Vahhabi, S., Nejadi, R., Delfan, B., Birjandi, M., Kaviani, H., & Givrad, S. (2008). Effect of saffron on semen parameters of infertile men. Urology journal.5(4), 255–9. Retrieved from Web.
  13. SAFFRON: Uses, Side Effects, Interactions and Warnings. (2005). Retrieved February 22, 2017, from WebMD, Web.
  14. Saffron (2017). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from Web.
  15. 7 Must Know Skin and Hair Benefits of Saffron. (2015, November 6). Retrieved February 22, 2017, from The Indian Spot, Web.
  16. Saffron Improves Vision in Aging Humans. (2017). Retrieved February 22, 2017, from Life Extension, Web.
  17. Top 10 Health Benefits of Saffron. (2015, April 23). Retrieved February 22, 2017, from Top 10 Home Remedies, Web.
  18. Benefits of Saffron Milk. (2012, June 29). Retrieved February 22, 2017, from Fawesome.tv, Web.
  19. Astarte (2017). . In Wikipedia. Retrieved from Web.
  20. Javaheri, E. (2012, March 20). How Ancient Persian Architecture Captured Wind Energy Underground to Green Buildings. Retrieved February 22, 2017, from This Big City, Web.
  21. Visit Saffron Walden. Retrieved February 23, 2017, from Visit Saffron Walden, Web.
  22. "Saffron." Saffron. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.
  23. "Magickal Herbs." Magickal Herbs. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.
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  25. Cunningham, Scott. Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1985. Print.

2 thoughts on “The Story of Saffron: The World’s Most Expensive Spice — Saffron History & Lore

  • March 2, 2017 at 11:41 am
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    In the 1930’s Mrs M Grieve wrote ‘A modern herbal’ which drew together both scientific and traditional approaches. Recently the interests in herbs and the relationship between food and medicine has grown.

    Reply

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