Where Saffron comes from and the story of its origin is integral to understanding the herb and its 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 farmers steer away from the illicit opium trade.
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 to 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 in 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.
There is an old Kashmiri legend connected to Saffron. It tells the tale of two foreigners who went to Kashmir and became seriously ill. They had 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 its mark as a well-known and 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 bathe 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 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 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 quickly and inexpensively.
Nuremberg 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 at 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 parish church in Essex—St. Mary’s Church, and artfully molded plasterwork called pargetting. It also boasts a market that has been around since 1141.
See Related: Herbalism
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