We who are more familiar with spring-blooming crocuses find it
surprising that Crocus sativusspreads its large lavender to purple
corollas in the fall. So it is easy to confuse this crocus with autumn crocus.
Autumn crocus, a member of the Liliaceae family, has six stamens and three distinct styles,
while saffron crocus, which belongs to the Iridaceae family, has three stamens and a style
divided into three stigmas. Saffron comes from these three very long (about 2.5 cm) reddish-orange
stigma of C.sativus. The word “crocus” is said to derive from the Greek word krokos, meaning thread,
probably an allusion to the long, thin stigmas. The word “saffron,” for its part, comes from the
Arabic word za'farân, meaning yellow, which is the colour obtained from the stigmas. The oldest
image of saffron, dating from 1700 to 1600 BC, was found on a fresco in the palace of Minos, in Crete.
Real Or Fake?
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a member of the Zingiberaceae (ginger) family.
Its dried rhizome yields a yellow colour used in making curry powder.
It was once known as Indian saffron. Meadow saffron is the common name of
autumn crocus (Colchicum automnale), which we mentioned earlier. It has no
culinary applications at all, and in fact produces a poison called colchicine,
sometimes used to improve plants by inducing genetic mutations.
But above all there is safflower, known as bastard saffron or Portuguese saffron.
Carthamus tinctorius is native to western Asia, and is an annual in the Asteraceae
(or Compositae) family. Its capitula resemble those of thistles, but the florets are
bright yellow turning to burnt orange as they age or dry. Thanks to this colour and
especially because they release a yellow colorant (even red at higher concentrations),
the florets of C. tinctorius are the main saffron substitute. It takes five times more
safflower to produce the same effect, however, and it has a mild, insipid taste
In India its seeds are used to produce a highly polyunsaturated cooking oil
called safflower oil. Before synthetic products came along, its main colorant
was employed in dyeing. It is also used to colour butter and margarine.
In Europe and the United States, safflowers are cultivated as ornamental plants,
and make a lovely addition to dried flower arrangements.
The cosmetic industry chemically extracts carthamine, a red powder
that is mixed with talcum powder to produce rouge, or blush.
As far back as the 1st century AD, Pliny the Elder said that saffron
was the most falsified commodity, and the situation has not changed
with time. A number of tricks are used to increase the weight of
saffron: adding oil or glycerine, broken safflower flowers, obviously,
but also garden and French marigolds, poppies, corn silk (stigmas),
and even bits of coloured plastic! It is even easier to adulterate
the powder, as you can imagine, by adding different spices, sugar,
starch and so on. But only real saffron imparts its characteristic
flavour and rich yellow colour to foods.