Get Involved
About Us
Our Members
Welcome to HerbClip Online
Published by the American Botanical Council
HerbClip News

Saffron – Exotic Scent in History

The word saffron (Crocus sativus, Iridaceae) has origins in the Arab word zafaran, meaning yellow, with further derivations coming from the Old French safran, Medieval Latin safranum, and Middle English safroun. In Greek mythology, Krokos (Crocos), a mortal, fell in love with the beautiful nymph Smilax. Smilax had no interest in Krokos, and he was turned into a purple crocus flower. Another Greek myth of Smilax and Krokos says that he was transformed into the small purple flower after Smilax, his lover, died, and yet another story says Hermes, who loved the youth, changed Krokos into the flower after the young man died. Native to Asia Minor, where it has been cultivated for thousands of years, saffron has been used in medicines, perfumes, dyes, and as a flavoring for foods and beverages. While Iran has the largest production of saffron, Spain is its largest exporter.

Saffron, one of the most expensive spices, has an herbaceous, warm, woodsy, hay-like aroma. It has also been described as bittersweet and leathery, with an earthy base note. Cleopatra used the spice as an aromatic and seductive essence, and it was also used to make aromatic offerings in temples. The spice has also used by pharaohs as an aphrodisiac. The aroma of saffron blends well with other exotic scents, such as cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum var. cardamomum, Zingiberaceae) and ylang ylang (Cananga odorata, Annonaceae). An essential oil, although expensive, can be produced by CO2 distillation or as an absolute.

Crocus flowers were a sacred flower in ancient Crete. It was considered a symbol of the sun, and was used to dye foods and garments the color yellow as part of solar worship. In present times, saffron robes are associated with Buddhist and Hindu divinity and priests and are worn by Buddhist monks and nuns. A well-known Minoan snake goddess figurine shows her wearing yellow garments. An additional pottery representation of an apron-like garment found at Knossos was decorated with images of crocus blossoms. The spice is often said to be worth its weight in gold and is one of the most expensive spices in the world. Its high price often leads to adulteration, which was a significant crime under Henry VIII's reign, as he condemned to death those who adulterated saffron.

Abu Ali (Ibn) Sina's (Avicenna; 980-1037 CE) discourse on saffron included its benefits as a heart tonic, an eye strengthener, aphrodisiac, digestive aid, and as an anti-inflammatory, among many other uses (See HC 091238-464). The results of a double-blind, placebo-controlled study published in 2010 found that saffron extract suppressed the appetite (See HC 081238-462). A 2012 article on a longitudinal, follow-up study reported that saffron improved early age-related macular degeneration (See HC 081237-463).

Lori Glenn,  Managing Editor