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An Expensive Spice Saffron (Crocus sativus L.): A Case Study from Kashmir, Iran, and Turkey

  • Muhammad Kafi
  • Azra N. Kamili
  • Amjad M. Husaini
  • Munir Ozturk
  • Volkan Altay
Chapter

Abstract

Saffron, originating from the Arabic word “Zafaran” meaning yellow, is a fascinating spice steeped in rich history. Its secrets stem from the dried red stigmas, which accumulate large amounts of three glucosylated apocarotenoids, namely crocin, picrocrocin, and safranal, which, among the more than 150 volatile and aroma yielding compounds, contribute to the color, bitter flavor, and aroma so typical of saffron. It is reported to have antidepressant, hypnotic, anti-inflammatory, hepatoprotective, bronchodilatory, aphrodisiac, inducer of labor, emmenagogue, and several other uses. Owing to extremely high demand from the dye, perfumery, and flavoring industries, it is one of the most expensive spices on earth. The components of the spice “saffron” are localized in the red stigmatic lobes of C. sativus flower and these are responsible for its distinct color, flavor, and smell. In this chapter the history of saffron, its economic importance, its pharmacological activities, cultivated area, production, as well as other uses are discussed. Further, we highlight the practices followed in saffron cultivation and discuss various issues connected with its production.

Keywords

Saffron Crocus sativus Spice Turkey Iran Kashmir Cultivation Production 

1 Introduction

The name saffron applies indistinctly to Crocus sativus L. , a herbaceous plant propagated vegetatively with corms, widespread throughout the tropical and subtropical regions of the northern hemisphere (Madan et al. 1966; Mathew 1984; Davis et al. 1988; Erol et al. 2014). The common names used in general are Zafran/Koung (Kashmir), Abir (Persian), Safran (Turkey), Crocus (Roman), Gewurzsafran (German), Hay Saffron, Karcom (Hebrew), Krokos (Greek), Saffron, and Z’afaran (Arabic/Yemen) (www.entheology.com/plants/crocus-sativus-saffron-crocus/).

The cultivation of saffron by humans is so old that wild forms are no longer found on mother earth. It was probably used as part of embalming rituals by the ancient Egyptians (www.entheology.com/plants/crocus-sativus-saffron-crocus/). Its name as one of the most precious of spices together with cinnamon, aloe myrrh, and calamus is seen in “The Song of Songs in the Old Testament.” Indeed, saffron has been a very important source of dye and perfume ingredient since ancient times because its first written discussion comes from the Illiad, where it is mentioned as a fabric dye (www.entheology.com/plants/crocus-sativus-saffron-crocus/). It was cultivated in Crete and Thera in the Minoan period, and is said to have been used in place of Amanita muscaria due to its bright red color. It was accepted as a sacred by the Minoans. They used it in the worship of the goddess, nature, and fertility, and harvesting was done only by priestesses (www.entheology.com/plants/crocus-sativus-saffron-crocus/). The goddess Hecate is said to have worn robes dyed yellow by saffron and was thus accepted as a sacred plant. The elite women like priestesses also used dresses dyed with saffron. This is fully supported by the fact that the Minoan Snake-goddess wears yellow garments, and other Minoan pottery pieces also represent the Crocus blossom giving thisa plant a famous statue. C. sativus is believed to have originated on the island of Crete, and was then propagated throughout Europe and Asia due to the value of the dye and spice obtained from the three female styles of each flower. It was the most widespread cultivar in the ancient world for at least 1000 years before the rise of Athens. Saffron is said to have been used as a ritual incense in the Orphic mysteries of the cult of Dionysus. The ancient Greeks named saffron the “blood of Hercules” and used it as a ritual incense and protective amulet. The Phoenicians ate saffron baked into crescent cakes in honor of the moon and the fertility goddess Ashtoreth. In much of the ancient Mediterranean, the plant was associated with fertility, sexual potency, strength, and psychic sensitivity (www.entheology.com/plants/crocus-sativus-saffron-crocus/). Indeed, saffron was often added to love sachets and potions, and was added to wash water for cleansing prior to healing rituals (www.entheology.com/plants/crocus-sativus-saffron-crocus/). Nearly 100–200 years ago, it was used as an inebriant, with the effects said to resemble those of opium. However, since saffron is so incredibly expensive, its psychoactive effects have not been studied much at all (www.entheology.com/plants/crocus-sativus-saffron-crocus/). Saffron is used as an incense in Nepal. The local variety is more potently psychoactive than in most other places, and drinking an infusion of the spice is said to allow one to see the future. The spices are also commonly used to flavor and color foods, particularly rice (www.entheology.com/plants/crocus-sativus-saffron-crocus/).

It is the most expensive spice on earth. Therefore, its cultivation has great economic significance, because 1 kg of saffron requires some 60,000 flowers to produce, and sells for about $10,000 USD. Propagation occurs through the separation of small tubers, although precise cultivation methods are kept secret for economic purposes (www.entheology.com/plants/crocus-sativus-saffron-crocus/).

Saffron is the dried orange-red trifid stigma of a perennial bulbous plant C. sativus , a triploid male-sterile plant flowering in autumn, one of the costliest culinary spice of the world. It is included in the family Iridaceae. The plant is cultivated widely in Kashmir, Iran, Turkey, and other Mediterranean countries (Hosseinzadeh and Nassiri-Asl 2013). In ancient Greek mythology, the friend of god Hermes was Krokos (Crocus), he killed Krokos by mistake and three drops of blood fell down from his head on the top a flower and colored stigmata appeared, this was named Crocus . The published data reveals that saffron was used as a dying agent and curative by the Phoenician people in Mesopotamia, as well as traded with Assyrian King, Ashur-nasir-pal. The Romans used it for the treatment of some health disorders, as well as in dyes, perfumes and ointments. The Romans imported it from Cilicia. The saffron is known as one of the oldest cultivated plants. This expensive culinary spice is used for flavoring and coloring food stuff. Interest in this plant is due to the effects of its carotenoids on human health, which is attracting much attention because of their high antioxidant capacity (Mashmoul et al. 2013). Saffron is a high-value low-volume spice that grows in the Mediterranean and West Asia between 10° west and 80° east longitudes and 30–50° north latitudes. The spice is used as a flavoring and coloring agent in food and is a vital part of the dye, perfumery, and flavoring industries (Pant and Semwal 2013). Saffron also shows medicinal healing features as anticancer, antimutagenic, and antioxidant (Abdullaev and Espinosa-Aguirre 2004; Mashmoul et al. 2013; Husaini 2014). This herb has unique characteristics, with flowers appearing before any vegetative development. The plant starts its growth in autumn and ends in spring, its seeds are sterile despite production of many flowers, and flowers are harvested early in the morning (Habibi and Bagheri 1989; Rashed Mohasel et al. 1989). The production technology of this plant is more complicated compared to other crops and is largely based on indigenous knowledge of the farmers involved.

Saffron has a great export value. Iran produces more than 65% of the world saffron and ranks first in production (Kafi 2006). Given the total production area of 72,162 ha, it means 14.5 million labor-days annually (Agricultural Research, Education and Extension Organization of Iran 1997; Mohammadi 1997). Currently commercial saffron production is limited to Iran, Azerbaijan, Spain, Italy, Kashmir, Greece, and Turkey. Cultivated area, annual production, and yield of saffron in the main saffron-producing countries are presented in Table 1 (Duke 1987; Ghoddusi et al. 2004; Khorasan Jehad e Keshvarzi Organization 2012). One of the key centers of production is the plateaus of Pampore in Kashmir, an area cultivated since 750 AD (Parray et al. 2012). The country, despite being one of the oldest historical saffron-producing areas, is now facing a rapid decline.
Table 1

Micronutrients in soils with and without saffron cultivation (mg/kg soil) (Gharii and Beygi 1991; Gharaii and Rezaii 1993)

 

Mn

Fe

B

Co

Cu

Zn

Cl

Year 1 of cultivation

2.15

0.80

196.0

0.01

0.36

0.22

142.0

Year 5 of cultivation

4.68

1.38

138.8

0.01

0.36

0.32

184.5

Year 10 of cultivation

2.67

0.92

312.4

0.10

0.36

0.16

138.0

Five years after one cycle of plantation

3.14

1.55

370.3

0.14

0.76

0.30

195.0

20 years after one cycle of plantation

7.40

2.91

486.0

0.01

0.90

0.20

114.0

Soil without saffron

4.61

1.47

486.0

0.14

0.63

0.33

315.5

2 Botany

It is uncertain where the Crocus sativus plant originated, but generally it is said to have originated from Iran, most probably around Zagross and Alvand mountains. Wild saffron, known as “Gouishi” or “Kerkomise” in Iran, shows some similarities with domesticated species. For example, corm, leaves, stamen, and style in Crocus are quite similar to Gouishi. However, because of its short style and low odor Gouishi has no economic value (Abrishami 1997). Molecular characterization to analyze the genetic diversity and phylogenetic relationship in Crocus and to find the possible closest relatives of cultivated saffron from Iranian species of Crocus showed that except C. sativus, Iranian Crocus genus shows high diversity within and between species (Alavi-Kia et al. 2008). In some cases, genetic variation is high among ecotypes of the same species from different geographical regions. These results also support the possibility of Iranian Crocus species (C. almehensis and C. mickelsonii) as wild ancestors of saffron.

Some recent research reports indicate two possible sites of saffron origin: one in Greece in the Mediterranean area, and the other at East in Turkey-Iran-India. In both areas, records and place names connected with various species of Crocus constitute an important information source for the presence of saffron. Cytological, DNA, and reproductive studies on the allied species of C. sativus such as C. cartwrightianus, C. thomasii, and C. hadriaticus indicate that a more likely parent of saffron may be C. cartwrightianus or C. thomasii . Both these species are diploid with a karyotype similar to saffron (Caiola and Canini 2010).

It has been used as a cultivate spice during the last 4000 years and has spread out in the Mediterranean and West Asia. This genus is mostly distributed in the Eurasian region, from Morocco and Portugal in the west and extends to Russia, Khyrgistan, and ultimately Sin Kiang in Western China (Mathew 1999). At present saffron is cultivated on a large area in Kashmir, Iran, Greece, Spain, Italy, Turkey, Azerbaijan, China, France, Switzerland, Israel, Egypt, Japan, Afghanistan, and Australia. Wider distribution is reported from the Mediterranean region and West Asia particularly in the Irano-Turanian phytogeographical region, with cold winters and dry-hot summers, but rainy fall, winter, and spring. The plant grows actively from fall to late spring and survives in soil through its fleshy hard corm, which is covered by coriaceous, membranous, or reticulate sheath (Ghahraman 1995). The systematically problematic genus Crocus includes 85–100 species genus (Saxena 2010), of which approximately 30 are cultivated worldwide, some with beautiful flowers grown as ornamentals in home gardens, rock gardens, and parks. It has a solid underground corm, which terminates in adventitious roots (Komarov 1968). Leaves, bracts, bracteole, and flowering stalk are enclosed and protected inside a number of membranous sheaths called cataphylls, which apparently originate from corm. The cataphylls and true leaves originate from actively growing buds and the former are around 12–14 to protect young leaves and flowering stalk (Ahuja et al. 1994). Leaves are 5–30 cm long, navicular, sword shaped, and graminaceous type (Fig. 1) (Mathew and Brighton 1977).
Fig. 1

A general view of saffron flower model erected in Safranbolu city center in Turkey

The Plant List includes 336 scientific plant names of species rank for the genus Crocus. Of these, 104 are accepted species names (www.theplantlist.org). Its history goes back to approximately 3500 BC in Mesopotamia. The wild species of saffron are unknown but recent published data reveals that it resembles Crocus cartwrightianus . It is also said to show resemblances with C. thomasii .

There are more than 70 taxa of Crocus distributed in Turkey and 54 are endemics. The number of subspecies varies between 2 and 10 in some species. This stresses the fact that Turkey seems to be the gene center of this species (Fig. 1) (Mathew 1977, 1982, 1984, 1999; Mathew and Baytop 1976; Saxena 2010). Saffron flowers in autumn, others generally in the spring season. The corms of some Crocus species, locally known as “çiğdem” or “gözenek” (autumn flowering), are collected and eaten raw or cooked as “çiğdem pilav”—a rice dish (Arslan et al. 2007).

The genus Crocus belongs to the Division: Spermatophyta, Subdivision: Angiospermae, Class: Monocotyledonae, Subclass: Liliidae, Order: Liliales, Family: Iridaceae. The chromosome numbers in its series have been reported as 2n = 12, 14, 16, 26. The species reported from Turkey are Crocus abantensis T. Baytop & B. Mathew; C. adanensis T. Baytop & B. Mathew; C. aerius Herb.; C. ancyrensis (Herb.) Maw; C. antalyensis B. Mathew; C. asumaniae B. Mathew & T. Baytop; C. baytopiorum B. Mathew; C. biflorus Mill.; C. boissieri Maw; C. cancellatus Herb.; C. candidus E.D.Clarke; C. chrysanthus (Herb)Herb.; C. danfordiae Maw; C. flavus Weston; C. fleischeri J.Gay; C. gargaricus Herb.; C. graveolens Boiss. & Reut.; C. karduchorum Kotschy ex Maw; C. kerndorffiorum Pasche; C. kotschyanus K. Koch; C. leichtlinii (Dewer) Bowles; C. mathewii Kerndorff & Pasche; C. olivieri J. Gay; C. pallasii Goldb.; C. paschei Kerndorff; C. × paulineae Pasche & Kerndorff; C. pestalozzae Boiss.; C. pulchellus Herb.; C. reticulatus Steven ex Adam; C. sativus L.; C. scharojanii Rupr.; C. sieheanus Barr ex B. L. Burtt; C. speciosus M. Bieb.; C. vallicola Herb.; and C. wattiorum (B. Mathew) B. Mathew.

The morphological characteristics are affected by environmental factors acting during the developmental stages of the plant. The use of morphological characteristic in diversity studies can lead to misclassification. Many new taxa have been introduced in the botanical literature since the extensive work of Mathew (1982), and his subspecies system is no longer considered valid. Molecular markers such as DNA and isozymes are not affected by developmental processes or environmental influences and are used for determination of genetic diversity (Zubor et al. 2004; Mathew et al. 2009; Erol et al. 2014).

Taxa belonging to series Crocus and their countries of distribution (Erol et al. 2014).
  1. 1.

    Crocus asumaniae B. Mathew & T. Baytop—Turkey.

     
  2. 2.

    Crocus cartwrightianus Herb.—Greece.

     
  3. 3.

    Crocus sativus L.—Spain, Greece, Italy, Morocco, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan.

     
  4. 4.

    Crocus hadriaticus Herb. ssp. hadriaticus—Greece.

     
  5. 5.

    Crocus hadriaticus ssp. parnassicus (B. Mathew) B. Mathew—Greece.

     
  6. 6.

    Crocus hadriaticus ssp. parnonicus B. Mathew—Greece.

     
  7. 7.

    Crocus moabiticus Bornm. & Dinsm. ex Bornm.—Jordan, Palestine /Israel.

     
  8. 8.

    Crocus mathewii Kernd. & Pasche—Turkey.

     
  9. 9.

    Crocus naqabensis Al-Eisawi—Jordan, Palestine/Israel.

     
  10. 10.

    Crocus oreocreticus B.L. Burtt—Greece.

     
  11. 11.

    Crocus pallasii Goldb. ssp. pallasii—Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, Ukraine, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine/Israel.

     
  12. 12.

    Crocus pallasii ssp. dispathaceus (Bowles) B. Mathew—Turkey, Syria, Lebanon.

     
  13. 13.

    Crocus pallasii ssp. haussknechtii (Boiss. & Reut. ex Maw) B. Mathew—Iran, Iraq, Palestine/Israel.

     
  14. 14.

    Crocus pallasii ssp. turcicus B. Mathew—Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon.

     
  15. 15.

    Crocus thomasii Ten.—Italy, Croatia.

     

3 Ecophysiology

Saffron is a plant with special ecophysiological characteristics, somehow different from other plants. Plant development and economic yield of saffron is related to photosynthetic reserves in the corms from the previous growing season. Leaves are active from November to April and photosynthetic materials are stored in the corms for production of new corms and flower initiation. LAI of saffron is as low as 1.24, leaves do not stay in a vertical position during some part of the growing season, and therefore spread over the ground. This together with the white color of the main vine of the leaves causes low photosynthesis efficiency. Since most of the physiological process of saffron takes place under the ground, temperature and moisture conditions of corms in soil play an important role in the plant development (Sabet et al. 2010).

Although this plant grows well under temperate and dry climates, its vegetative growth coincides with cold weather and freezing conditions. Base temperature for saffron has not been recorded in literature, but Javanmard et al. (2002) recorded the minimum temperature tolerated by this plant as −18 °C. Since flower development mainly proceeds inside the soil, its temperature plays an important role in flower production. Planting depth is normally recommended to be in the deeper layers of the soil (15 cm). This may be associated with low variability of soil temperature at this depth (Sadeghi 1983). It has been noted that saffron is better adapted to flood irrigation than furrow planting system and this can be related to the deeper planting of corms (Shir Mohamadi 2002).

The growth of the plant starts with the beginning of rains in autumn and the vegetative growth ends by the termination of rainfall in spring. Water provided by rainfall is effectively used. Moreover, since water requirements of other plants are low in winter, there is no competition with saffron for irrigation water during this period (Kafi and Showket 2007). Initial irrigation in autumn, the most crucial time for saffron flowers to emerge, is an important factor. This is also based on competition with other crops.

In such cases, priority is given to saffron due to its higher economic return. Although water requirement is low in this plant, water stress affects the yield, growth, and development and water deficit reduces economic and biological yield (Shir Mohamadi 2002; Kafi and Showket 2007).

Soils with high moisture content and flooding condition are not suitable for saffron production, as these lead to corm decomposition (Ingram 1984). Each kg of total dry matter of saffron removes 0.012 kg N, 0.003 kg P, and 0.022 kg K from the soil (Kianmehr 1994). Shahandeh (1990) has found that 16–80% of yield variation in saffron is attributed to the edaphic factors and the determinant soil factors like soil organic matter, available P, N, and exchangeable K (www.abacholland.com/wp-content/). Source of nutrients has also been shown to be important. Ammonium N has a negative impact while nitrate N has a positive impact on flower yield of saffron. Different criteria of soil under saffron in the Estahban-Fars province of Iran have been investigated for a long period but no differences have been observed among soils under cultivation. Similarly, no differences in micronutrients in soils under saffron cultivation have been recorded when compared to other type of soils (Gharaii and Beygi 1991; Gharaii and Rezaii 1993) (Table 1, Figs. 2 and 3).
Fig. 2

(a) General view of Saffron flower from Safranbolu—Turkey. (b) Saffron cultivation from Safranbolu—Turkey

Fig. 3

Saffron picking from Turkey (a) and Kashmir (b) and folkloric presentation from a saffron field in Kashmir (c)

Çavuşoğlu and Erkel (2009) have studied two different horizontal corm dimension sizes (A = 1024; B = 2540 mm). Big size mother corm dimension has given statistically significant results as compared to the small corms; however, in the 2nd year saffron stigma yield parameters have increased in both corm sizes, and in the 3rd year stigma yield has decreased (Çavuşoğlu and Erkel 2009). Rahimi et al. (2013) have reported that if dried stigma are left for 20 months in light (at the room temperature), darkness (at the room temperature), and at 4 °C in the refrigerator, the crocin content lies around 290, 410, and 300 ppm, respectively. However, samples from other localities have shown that these values are around 300, 300, and 280 ppm in light, dark, and refrigerated conditions, respectively, suggesting thereby the best preservation for the dried stigmas is under dark conditions.

Çavuşoğlu (2010) has also studied the effects of cold storage of corms on different parameters in the field and glasshouse at the preplanting stage. Results of the daughter corm reproduction has shown that planting cold-stored corms at 8 °C for 7 or 28 days has more statistically significant negative effects on daughter corm weight and diameter from the controls (Renau-Morata et al. 2013).

Mycorrhizal studies in Gonabad and Ghaien of Iran showed the presence of VAM fungi on roots of saffron (Kianmehr 1994). Inoculation of corms with spores has enhanced the growth of corms and number of spores per 10 g soil and results recorded as 13–52 with the highest occurrence in December–January.

Sabet et al. (2010) in a greenhouse experiment reported that both chlorophyll a and b contents decreased significantly under drought stress and chlorophyll b content was 50% of chlorophyll a content. Effect of corm size and corm tunic and interaction of these treatments imposed a significant effect on the leaf number per plant, leaf weight, and chlorophyll content.

4 Phenological Stages

Phenological stages have been quantitatively evaluated for different cultivated plants (Haun 1973). Saffron shows a peculiar type of growth, e.g., some parts of its development take place under the soil surface. Overall growth stages can be classified as follows:

4.1 Generative Phase

It starts with the onset of cold weather in fall and is important for growers. Main stimulating factor in this phase is irrigation in late summer and early fall (www.abacholland.com/wp-content/). This phase starts with application of the first irrigation and emergence of the first flowers and ends with the termination of flower emergence (15–25 days); its physiological process starts well before the apparent flower emergence (Barshad et al. 1956; Shahandeh 1990). Heterogeneity and lapse in flowering time is associated with differences in the homogeneity in corm development, depth of planting, and soil physical criteria such as surface roughness. Soil crust has a negative impact on flowering characteristics (Biswas et al. 1975). In Kashmir, generative phase is recorded in mid-October to the first week of November and covers about 20–25 days (Husaini et al. 2010a).

In Turkey, approximately 40 farmers cultivate saffron on approximately 5 ha of land. From 80,000 flowers just ½ kg is produced. Nearly 100–200 thousand flowers give 5 kg of saffron, which is equivalent to just 1 kg of dried material. One female farmer collects 50–60 g of saffron in 60 min. As per the news published on October 26, 2015, by the Sabah News Paper, 0.4 ha were cultivated in Karabuk to get 27 kg of the product. The future hope is to produce at least 30 kg a year from the area. It can dye 100.000 times its weight to yellow color. Experimental trials are going on in the States of Tokat, Kastamonu, and Şanlıurfa. Earlier saffron imported from Iran, India, and Spain was sold under the name of Safranbolu saffron, but this has been prohibited by law from 2011 onwards. It was actually cultivated in the city of Viranşehir in Şanlıurfa nearly 100 years back, but the current trials have not been successful in the area. It can grow all over Turkey except the wet climatic areas in the Mediterranean phytogeographical region of the country. After cultivation people can make use of the plant for 3 consecutive years. Expenses for 1/10 ha are around a dollar. The cultivation on economic scale under natural conditions in going on since 1400 in Turkey but on very restricted area. From the year 2000 onwards work has been going on in the “Ditrectorate of Transit Zone Agricultural Research Institute in Eskişehir-Turkey (GKTAEM), where a new variety has been produced by Mr. Ismail Kara named as ‘Karaarslan’” (Arslan et al. 2007).

4.2 Vegetative Phase

This phase is the longest period in the life cycle of saffron and starts immediately after the flowering stage. However, when the initial irrigation starts earlier than the proper time, leaves may emerge simultaneously with flowers. This is not a proper practice because leaves could interfere with the picking of flowers. This phase lasts for at least 6 months (November–April). At this stage leaves develop and provide necessary nutrients for corms. Cultural practices such as control of pests and diseases are carried out at this stage (Biswas et al. 1975; Milyaeva and Azizbekova 1978; www.abacholland.com/wp-content/).

4.3 Dormant Phase

This phase starts with leaf withering and senescence in the spring and ends with the first irrigation in late summer and early fall. It lasts for 5 months. Since there are no cultural practices in this period, it has minor significance for the growers. This period is considered by the growers as a rest period for corms for flower production in fall (Milyaeva and Azizbekova 1978; Sadeghi 1983; www.abacholland.com/wp-content/). In Kashmir, this stage is observed from April to September.

A classification of these phases is based on leaf dimensions, number of leaves, and leaf area, which can be considered as a tool for a quantitative analysis of phenological stages of saffron.

5 Economic Yield

The world’s total annual saffron production is estimated at 205 ton, and over 80% of this harvest originated from Iran. Spain is generally accepted as a significant source of cultivated C. sativus, based on an annual export of approximately 60 ton. However, the bulk of saffron re-exported from Spain is in fact of Iranian and Moroccan origin. Currently the largest saffron producer in Europe is Greece, with 4.5 ton per year.

Economic yield is normally measured in terms of flower yield or dried saffron spice per unit of land (ha). Since dried saffron is composed of stigma plus style (which may be called stigyle), in some cases it is measured on the basis of each component separately as sargol (stigma) or dastah (stigyle). Flower yield is much lowering compared with leaf or corm yield. Yield of saffron (stigyle) is the product of the following components.

Y = A × B × C × D × E, where Y = dried saffron spice (g/ha), A = number of plants (hill) per ha, B = number of flowers per plant (hill), C = weight of a flower (g), D = proportion of style + stigma (stigyle) of flowers, and E = proportion dry weight of saffron spice.

Suppose, the number of plants are 500,000 per ha, the number of flowers per plant is 4, weight of a flower is 0.35 g and proportion of style plus stigma is 8% and dry matter content of saffron (stigyle) is 18%, yield per ha will be 10,080 g based on this formula. However, variation of yield in saffron is high and depends on different factors such as the age of the saffron field, size and number of the corms planted, management practices, and environmental conditions. Mean yield of up to 13.5 kg/ha for an 11-year-old field has been reached (Sadeghi 1989). Yield variation in saffron associated with age of the field is shown in Tables 2 and 3.
Table 2

Yield of saffron based on the age of saffron field (Sadeghi 1989)

Age

Yield of flowers (kg/ha)

Yield of dried saffron (kg/ha)

3

600.2

6.910

1

4.00

2

13.30

3

20.00

4

13.3

Mean of 11 years

850.0

13.48

1

4000.0

13.0

Table 3

Yield components for saffron based on different reports

Number of flowers (per kg)

Weight of flower (g)

Weight of fresh saffron (g/kg flower)

Weight of dried saffron (g/kg flower)

Weight of stigma (g/kg flower)

Weight of style (g/kg flower)

2500

0.3–0.5

87.5

17.5

2500

0.3–0.5

80.0

16.0

12.0

4.0

2173

0.46

76.32

12.74

9.48

3.26

0.4

82.78

15.86

11.50

8.05

3.45

2350

14.46

9.04

5.42

100.0

14.28

6 Saffron Production Technology

6.1 Crop Rotation

Rotation is crucial for control of pest and diseases and enhancement of soil fertility (Ingram 1984). There is evidence which shows that sugar beet, potatoes, and alfalfa are not suitable crops for rotation with saffron (Molaphilabi 2001). Farmers have experienced that saffron should not be cultivated on the same land and a proper fallow period should be practiced or other crops such as cereals or pulses sown in rotation (Behnia 1992). In Spain, a rest period of 10–20 years is practiced for soils under cultivation of saffron (Habibi and Bagheri 1989). Rotation of saffron fields after a planting cycle of about 15 years is a common practice in Kashmir. Saffron fields are kept either fallow or rotated with linseed, maize, oats for a period of 2–3 years. This helps in control of pests and diseases, and restoration of soil fertility (Nehvi et al. 2008).

6.2 Multiple Cropping

In some part of Khorasan, saffron is cultivated as alley cropping between rows of orchard plants such as grapes, barberry, and almond. This is also practiced in Kashmir, where saffron is planted between 6 × 6 m rows of almond. In Spain, saffron has also been planted between rows of olive trees and in vineyards (Rashed Mohasel 1990). Planting saffron with ornamental plants such as rose has also shown promising results.

6.3 Cultivation of Saffron: Soil Preparation

Medium textured soils with a good natural drainage potential, deep and smooth surface area with no salinity is preferred for saffron planting. Soil is ploughed in autumn or winter and animal manure of 20–100 ton ha−1 is applied (www.abacholland.com/wp-content/). In Spain, a deep ploughing of 25–35 cm is practiced in winter and the fields are harrowed to eliminate weeds. A second shallow tillage is carried out in early April and this may be repeated in a later stage and finally animal manure applied. In Kashmir, in spring (March–April), the field is ploughed using either a plough or tractor twice with an interval of about 20 days. In August, levelling and hoeing operations are carried out and fields are pulverized 3–4 times. Well-decomposed farm manure (15–20 t ha−1) is applied by some progressive farmers and thoroughly mixed into the soil before the last tillage operation. However, in addition to the application of farm manure, chemical fertilizers composed of nitrogen (40 kg ha−1), P2O5 (50 kg ha−1) and K2O (30 kg ha−1) are recommended to restore and sustain soil fertility, although in actual practice the farmers do not apply these chemical fertilizers (Mir 1992; Munshi et al. 2001; Melnyk et al. 2010).

6.4 Planting Methods

Saffron is planted either in dry or moist beds (Molaphilabi 2001). In traditional systems, corms are planted in hills 25 cm apart with sometimes up to 15 corms per hill with no row arrangement. When corms are planted in rows, shallow ditches 30–35 cm apart are made by a furrower and corms are arranged in hills of 3–15 corms and finally covered with soil (Behnia 1992). Flat bed planting is also reported (Azizi Zehan 2001) to be advantageous compared with furrow planting (Kafi and Showket 2007). However, due to shortage of labor, mechanized planting may be required in future (Mehri and Kahi 2003; Raghimi 1991). Raghimi (1991) made some modifications on a potato planter to make it suitable for planting of corms and found that the time required to plant 1 ha was 4 h.

Mohammadabadi et al. (2011) reported that the planting pattern of 10–20 cm was comparatively advantageous with respect to fresh flower yield (170 kg ha−1), dry stigma yield (12 kg ha−1), average weight of corms (9.2 g), and average corm diameter (1.5 cm).

In Spain after preparation of soil, 20 cm deep ditches are made and corms are placed at the bottom of ditches in two rows, 8–10 or 12–15 cm apart from each other, depending on the arrangement as either rectangular or alternate (zigzag) (Fig. 4). Corms are then covered with soil from the adjacent furrow which is 30–35 cm apart from each other (Rashed Mohasel 1990; Reres Bueno 1989; Sadeghi 1997).
Fig. 4

Two different types of arrangement of corms in furrows

In Kashmir, the field is laid out into rectangular strips (1.5–2 m wide and 2–3 m long) with drainage channels (30 cm wide and 20 cm deep) on both sides (Husaini et al. 2010a). The corms are sown at depth of 12–15 cm in these raised beds with 10 × 20 cm spacing (inter-corm and inter-row). The most suitable time for sowing the corms is from the last week of August till mid-September (Mir 1992; Munshi et al. 2001) (Fig. 4).

6.5 Selection of Corms

The selection of proper corms is crucial for saffron production because it solely reproduces by corms (Abrishami 1988; Behnia 1992; Habibi and Bagheri 1989). Large corms with no injury from 2- to 4-year-old fields are preferred (www.abacholland.com/wp-content/). Size of corms is very variable and ranges between 1 and 20 g (Behnia 1992). Sadeghi (1994) in evaluating the effect of size of corms on flowering potential found that corm weight up to 2 g has no flowering potential and up to 8 g their potential is limited. However, corms with 10 g or more are productive and those with 14 g weight produce flower in the first year with a yield of up to 3.5 kg saffron per ha. In Kashmir, corms with diameter greater than 2 cm and 10 g in weight are recommended for sowing, but due to nonavailability of standard corms, farmers generally plant substandard corms of smaller size and weight. In addition, only one corm per hill is sown which leads to further low plant population and low productivity (Hassan and Shah 2001; Munshi et al. 2001). Due to the repeated use of the same substandard seed material year after year, the productivity of saffron in Kashmir is grossly compromised. Age of saffron fields in Kashmir is 6–8 and in Spain 4–5 years (Rashed Mohasel 1990). Highest yield of saffron in Iran is normally obtained from the 3rd year farm; therefore, it appears that with increasing age, the crowding of corms in the soil causes reduction of their size and production of more corms with smaller size. It is therefore recommended to lift the corms for replanting not later than 4 years (www.abacholland.com/wp-content/). This practice is normally done on an annual basis in Italy (Tammaro 1999).

6.6 Time of Corm Lifting

Corms are lifted in dry or wet bed; the former is preferred because corms remain dormant during the summer months (Behnia 1992). In the latter, corms are transferred directly to the new field for an immediate planting. Since corms are dormant from April to June, lifting is recommended in June (Behnia 1992; Raghimi 1991; Molaphilabi 2001) for cultivating in the new field as soon as conditions permit. However, corms may be stored in dry and cool stores (3–5 °C) for some time. Storing corms may reduce flowering potential and is not recommended (Amirghasemi 2002; Behnia 1992; Eftekharzadeh Marghi 1997; www.abacholland.com/wp-content/).

6.7 Time of Planting

Corms are planted from the time of leaf senescence in late May till early October (Amirghasemi 2002; Behnia 1992; Molaphilabi 2001; Sadeghi 1997). In Iran this is normally carried out in August to early October, but in some cases early planting in June and July may be carried out. Planting in the hot months of summer may cause desiccation of corms and therefore is not recommended (Amirghasemi 2002; Behnia 1992). In Spain planting is done in April and June (Habibi and Bagheri 1989; Kaith and Sharma 1983; Rashed Mohasel 1990) and in Kashmir in July and August (Habibi and Bagheri 1989). Sadeghi (1997) in his trial on the effects of storage and planting on flower production found that April till June is the appropriate period for corm planting (Fig. 5a, b). This has also been confirmed by others (Molaphilabi 2001).
Fig. 5

(a, b) Effect of time of planting on flower production of Saffron in the 1st year

Large and healthy corms from young fields are selected and outer corm cover is removed before planting. It is recommended to apply fungicide on the corm before planting (Behnia 1992; Habibi and Bagheri 1989; Molaphilabi 2001). The number of corms required per unit of land depends on the planting method and size of corms and the habit of farmers and varies between 1.5 and 10 ton ha−1 (Amirghasemi 2002; Behnia 1992; www.abacholland.com/wp-content/). In Kashmir, saffron is grown using corms of diverse sizes at a low seed rate of 1.5–2 ton ha−1, with the exception of a few progressive farmers who use about 4 t ha−1 while in Morocco nearly 3 ton ha−1 is generally followed (Ait-Oubahou and El-Otamani 1999). In Greece 230–250 thousand corms per hectare and in Spain 300 thousand corms are used (Tammaro 1999). Alavi Shahri et al. (1995) found that increasing plant density increased the yield and 50 plants per m2 (10 × 20 cm) were recommended. Based on an optimum size of corm for planting, which is 8 g, this plant density requires 4 ton corms per hectare (Sadeghi 1994). Ghalavand and Abdulahian (1995) found 30 × 10 planting distance to be more productive than other pattern studied. In general, findings in Iran indicate that 50 corms per m2 with a size of 4–5 g is an appropriate density (Alavi Shahri et al. 1995; Azizi Zehan 2001). Koocheki et al. (2011) reported that the maximum flower and stigma yield was obtained with 15 cm planting depth and 19 t ha−1 corm planting.

According to a comparative study by Kafi and Showket (2007), the number of corms sown unit−1 of land in Kashmir is much lower than Khorasan (Iran). For instance, 40–50 corms are sown in 1 m2 of saffron farm in Kashmir compared to 150–250 corms m−2 in Khorasan. In addition, only a single corm hill−1 is sown in Kashmir (at a depth of 10–15 cm) in contrast to 3–15 corms hill−1 (at 15–20 cm depth) in Khorasan. This could be the main reason why the farmers of Kashmir harvest negligible saffron flowers in the 1st year.

7 Field Management

7.1 Application of Fertilizer

Saffron is a low nutrient demanding plant and requires a modest amount of nutrients (Housini 1998), but high application of fertilizers, in particular nitrogen fertilizer, promotes vegetative growth but lowers the yield (Housini 1998). Application of more than 100 kg urea/ha has shown to reduce yield (Behnia 1995; Shahandeh 1991). Split application also showed unsatisfactory results compared with one application of complete fertilizer (Housini 1998).

In Iran cow manure with rates of 20–80 ton ha−1 based on the type of soil and farmers habit is applied to saffron field (Abbasi 1997; Amirghasemi 2002). However, chemical fertilizers are used with rates of 100 kg/ammonium phosphate at the time of breaking the soil crust (after first irrigation in early autumn) and 100 kg/ha urea at the time of first weeding (Behnia 1992; Kafi and Showket 2007). In Spain, due to high soil organic matter only 10–15 ton ha−1 animal manure is applied (Rashed Mohassel 1990). In India 15–22 ton animal manure per ha at the time of planting with 5–10–15 kg NPK is used. Shahandeh (1991) found that soil organic matter, available phosphorus, mineral nitrogen, and exchangeable potassium are important yield determinants. He also noted that NH4-N has a negative effect but NO3-N has a positive effect on saffron yield. Sadeghi (1988) in Torbate Hydariah and Mashhad found that soil in Torbate Hydariah with 1% organic matter require 50 kg N and in Mashhad where organic matter in soil is low (0.3%) application of 25 ton ha−1 of manure was the most effective treatment. Sadeghi (1994) recommended application of 100 kg/ha urea after picking the flowers. Higher rates of N fertilizer seem to stimulate more vegetative growth and hence lower flower yield. Behnia (1992) found that under climatic conditions of Birjand, the highest yield of flower was obtained by application of 50 kg N, 50 kg P2O5, and 20 ton of animal manure per hectare. He also found that higher rates of N (100 kg N/ha) reduced yield of flower.

Growing saffron year after year without the supply of nutrients through organic manures and/or chemical fertilizers drastically reduces the fertility of the soils in Kashmir saffron fields. These soils have become deficient in organic carbon as well as in micronutrients. Consequently, the size and vigor of the corms produced each season is reduced, directly affecting the crop stand and flowering potential of plants. The application of organic manures in recommended doses helps to enrich the soil with an adequate quantity of essential nutrients, improves soil health, water use efficiency, and better growth of saffron shoots. Production of higher vegetative biomass (more leaves, longer leaf length, and higher dry matter content of aerial shoots per corm) in turn results in the production of better daughter corms. The application of farmyard manure (FYM) (17.5 t ha−1) in combination with inorganic fertilizers N:P2O5:K2O (30:20:15 kg ha−1) to quality saffron corms (>10 g) planted at a density of 0.5 million corms ha−1 resulted in corm yield of 16.5 t ha−1 (Nehvi 2004).

7.2 Breaking Soil Crust

Breaking soil crust is an important operation in saffron production. This is done after the first irrigation by harrowing, cultivator, or other similar implements. Breaking crust in the soil surface at a depth of 5–10 cm facilitates flowers to emerge.

7.3 Weed Control

Weed management is an important practice in saffron production. Weeding is practiced after the harvest of flowers (second irrigation). This also helps impacted soil between rows to loose up. When required, second weeding is carried out one month later. For control of spring and summer weeds additional weeding may be needed. During the summer dormancy of corms, light cultivators could be used (Mashayekhi and Lotfi 1998). Rashed-Mohassel (1993) found 184 species of weeds in saffron fields in South Khorasan of which 20 were dominant. These belong to 128 genera and 33 families; 113 are annuals and 71 perennials. Most prevalent species are from Asteraceae (32 species), Fabaceae (24 species), Poaceae (21 species), Brassicaceae (19 species), Chenopodiaceae (12 species), Caryophylaceae (10 species), Boraginaceae (10 species), and Ranunculaceae (17 species). The major weeds found in saffron fields of Kashmir include Euphorbia helioscopia, Papaver rhoeas, Lepidium virginicum, Salvia moorcroftiana, Chorispora tenella,Galium tricorne, Tulipa stellata, Erodium cicutarium, Lithospermum arvense, Ranunculus arvensis, Medicago lupulina, Filago arvensis, Poa bulbosa, Crepis saneta , Descurainia sophia, Polygonum aviculare, and Chenopodium album, among others (Pir et al. 2008). Despite the presence of these weeds, saffron growers except for harvesting of some weeds as fodder by farm women in May and cattle grazing by some farmers in August follow no weed management practices.

7.4 Saffron Irrigation

Saffron is an ideal plant for arid and semiarid regions with water limitations because its corms have a 5-month dormancy period without irrigation requirement, which starts from early May when spring rainfall is almost finished. Once out of its dormancy, has to be irrigated like any other crop. Irrigation starts from mid-October to early November depending on local climate in Iran. However, irrigation may start from early October in cold regions and be delayed till late November in warmer climates (Abrishami 1997; www.abacholland.com/wp-content/).

The first irrigation is practiced when plants have not appeared on the soil surface. Shortly after this irrigation, flowers will appear and plant development will follow later with leaf growth. The best time for the second irrigation is about 4–5 weeks after the first. The next irrigation is scheduled with 12–14 days interval depending on water availability and continues until May when leaf color changes to yellow. Irrigation usually stops after mid-May (Abrishami 1997; Habibi and Bagheri 1989).

Based on the indigenous knowledge of Iranian saffron producers four irrigations are recommended for harvesting a good saffron yield.
  1. 1.

    The first irrigation is required for start of growth and facilitation of flowering. However, timing of this irrigation is crucial. If scheduled at a proper time, flowers will appear immediately after irrigation and vegetative growth will start later, otherwise flowering and vegetative growth will start simultaneously and the latter may interfere with harvesting practice.

     
  2. 2.

    The second irrigation is delayed until flowers are harvested and leaves appear. In practice it takes about a month after the first irrigation.

     
  3. 3.

    The best time for the third irrigation is after weeding and spreading fertilizers.

     
  4. 4.

    The last irrigation should be scheduled by the end of growing season (usually May) (www.abacholland.com/wp-content/).

     

Summer irrigation is not a common practice. However, Sadeghi (1998) in a 2-year experiment showed that irrigation in July was harmful but irrigation in August led to an increase in saffron yield of both newly established and old saffron fields by 17 and 40%, respectively. Mosaferi Ziaedini (2001) also showed that irrigation in mid-June resulted in 17% reduction in saffron yield but flower yield increased by 20% when summer irrigation was conducted in late August. It has to be noted that summer irrigation will usually increase the risk of fungal attack on plants.

Information about the water requirement of saffron is scarce. In fact in many countries like Spain, parts of Italy and Kashmir saffron is produced in a rainfed system with no irrigation (Poglini and Groose 1971). In Spain where up to 90% of saffron is produced in a rainfed system, irrigation during August and September had positive effects on yield. However, it is usually avoided because of corm rot diseases.

In Kashmir during the years with low summer rainfall, irrigation in September is a common practice to enhance flowering (Poglini and Groose 1971). According to Nehvi (2004) and Nehvi and Mi (2007), the saffron crop requires 10 irrigations, and should be sprinkler irrigated at 70 m3 ha−1 at an interval of 7 days at the sprouting stage (25th August–15th September) followed by three irrigations at the post-flowering stage (8th November to 30th November) at weekly intervals. In a separate study, Aga et al. (2008) recommended five irrigations, each on the 20th August, 1st, 10th, 20th, and 30th September.

The lowest and the highest crop coefficient values (Kc) of 0.41 and 0.98, respectively, for October–November and February–March have been reported by Mahdavi (1999). Shir Mohammadi (2002) reported Kc values of 0.45, 0.80, and 0.30 for initial, mid-season, and late season growth stages of saffron, respectively. Based on the results of these experiments for initial, mid, and late season stages Kc values of 0.4, 0.85, and 0.55, respectively, could be used as conservative values.

In an experiment in Mashhad, different dates and amounts of the first irrigation were investigated for their effects on saffron yield (Mosaferi Ziaedini 2001). Results showed that mid-October with the highest fresh flower and dry saffron yield was the best time for the first irrigation. Four levels of applied water with constant interval of 15 days were used in each irrigation. Irrigation levels were 10, 20, 40, and 80 liters m−2 corresponding to 100, 200, 400, and 800 m3 ha−1, respectively. Based on the results (Table 4) the highest saffron yield was obtained when 20 lit m−2 irrigation water was applied at 15 day intervals.
Table 4

Effects of different levels of applied irrigation water on saffron yield

Applied water (L m−2)

Number of flowers (m−2)

Flowers dry weight (g m−2)

Saffron yield (g m−2)

10

18.5a

25.01

0.150

20

25.7

37.01

0.160

40

25. 0

33.95

0.153

80

21.25

27.13

0.117

aIn each column means with the same letters are not significantly different at P < 0.05.

Saffron should be irrigated by supplemental basin irrigation. Since rainfall is usually delayed in autumn, a pre-flowering irrigation of about 100 mm is needed. In areas with a seasonal rainfall of 600 mm a post-flowering irrigation of about 50 mm is adequate for economical yield. In areas with seasonal rainfall of 400 and 200 mm continuous supplemental irrigation is needed with intervals of 24 and 15 days or irrigation regimes of 50% ETp and 75% ETp, respectively (Sepaskhah and Kamgar-Haghighi 2009).

7.5 Saffron Pests and Diseases

Saffron spends most of its growth period in winter at low temperature. Thus, it faces low insect pests; however, rodents are highly destructive for this plant. Porcupine, Afghan mole rat, and Bandicoot rat are among the main rodents that attack saffron fields. The most important methods to control these pests are using poisonous baits and trap. Saffron corm mite is also reported from corms and leaves of saffron throughout central and southern Khorasan (Rahimi 2003). This mite is active all year long, but it has a high population growth during fall and spring. It can be controlled by cultural practices, mainly weed control and no irrigation during summer.

Thrips is a pest that is usually nurtured from the sap of saffron leaves and may transmit viral diseases. Saffron plants in their natural environment are constantly under siege by a multitude of disease-causing organisms including bacteria, fungi, viruses, and nematodes. These phytopathogens invade into the plant apoplast and proliferate by assimilating nutrients from plant cells, hence provoking important economic damage to saffron around the world. Most pathogenic species affect the corm, causing pre- and post-development of this organ, which in turn affects saffron viability, propagation, and yield. However, only a relatively small proportion of these pathogens is capable of invading the host plant successfully and causing disease (Ahrazem et al. 2010). Introductory studies have been carried out on corm rot, corm trunk rot, root rot, leaf chlorosis, and Saffron smut (Tacon), but their biology as well as life cycle and control measures have not been investigated at length (Jafar Pour 1988; Rahimi 2003). In Kashmir there is frequent occurrence of corm rot disease caused by pathogens such as Rhizoctonia crocorum, Phoma crocophila, Fusarium moniliforme var. intermedium, a non-sporulating basidiomycetous fungus, Macrophomina phaseolina, Fusarium oxysporum, F. solani, F. pallidoroseum, F. equiseti, Mucor sp., Penicillium sp., and Sclerotium rolfsii. Of these, corm rot of saffron caused by F. oxysporum and F. solani is considered to be most destructive in Kashmir (Husaini 2014). These infections generally take place through the injury of corms. Infected corms possess dark-brown sunken and irregular patches below the corm scales, mostly near root and bud regions. In severe cases, the entire corm turns into a black powdery mass. The foliage of infected corms show symptoms of “die-back.” The disease is quite widespread and causes loss of considerable proportion of the produce every year. Different groups have reported different figures for corm rot incidence in different parts of Kashmir (Husaini et al. 2010a). Besides the damage caused by corm rot, plant parasitic nematodes of many species infesting saffron-growing soil cause damage to corms by sucking the sap. Zaki and Mantoo (2008) have reported the percentage infestation at the Konibal area of Pampore as Helicotylenchus vulgaris (16.6%), Pratylenchus thrornei (8.8%), Tylenchus sp. (13.0%), Tylenchorynchus sp. (10.7%), Xiphinema sp. (14.6%), Aphelenchusavenae (5.8%), and Hemicriconemoides sp. (3.2%). The sap sucking causes necrosis in roots and predisposes saffron corms to corm rot, causing heavy production losses.

8 Harvesting

Harvesting saffron includes picking the flowers and separating the stigma. Picking flowers starts as soon as they appear in the field (www.abacholland.com/wp-content/). This is done on a daily basis because flowers are short-lived and if they are left for a longer period, not only can they be damaged, the quality of saffron also decreases (Raghimi 1991). Picking flowers begins from October to November in Khorasan-Iran, but differs in the region according to the climate variability and time of first irrigation (Kafi and Showket 2007). Flowering period of a field lasts for 15 to 25 days, starting gradually and reaching a peak from the 7th to the 10th day. Flowers are picked early in the morning and before sunrise, while in some areas this is also done in the afternoon (Abrishami 1988). In Kashmir, it is done at the end of autumn. Picking flowers is carried out by hand and there is no mechanical device for this purpose (Rashed Mohasel 1990). In Kashmir flowers are picked early in the morning mostly by female members of the family and to a limited extent by hired labor. The flowers are collected in wicker baskets, called in local language “Tokri.” These are then taken to sheds or houses for separating the stigma and other flower parts. This is a tedious job and generally takes the whole night or more for each day’s harvest. The separated flower parts are then dried in the shade for 2–3 days provided the days are sunny, otherwise drying is extended by a day or two (Husaini et al. 2010a). Low cost solar heated dryers have been designed and fabricated in Kashmir, and these have reduced the drying time to 3–4 h and maintained quality (Kamili and Nehvi 2005; Husaini et al. 2010b). A hot air dryer and its modified version have also been designed, especially for inclement weather, so that farmers can use it indoors. It is a tray dryer in which heated air (45 ± 5 °C) is circulated and is operated with electricity or liquefied petroleum gas (Alam 2007; Husaini et al. 2010b).

The flowering of saffron is also expecting the same fate as other plants due to global warming. This plant is highly sensitive to temperature changes. Koocheki et al. (2010) in an experiment conducted under controlled environment has reported that no flower has appeared from the corms incubated at 30 °C. Increased duration of incubation period had adverse effects on flower emergence and corms incubated for 120 days flowered only under 27/19 °C temperature regime. An increase in the mean daily temperature by 2 °C during summer and autumn results in a considerable delay in flowering of saffron.

9 Production

Saffron is a spice of great economic value; one kilogram of good-quality saffron produced from C. sativus can cost more than 2000 US dollars. Approximately 150,000 flowers are needed to produce 1 kg of dried saffron and in order to grow this amount, one would need about 2000 m2 of land under cultivation. Spain and Iran are the largest producers of the spice, accounting together for more than 80% of the world production (Table 5). The total area under this crop in the State in 2012 was 3785 ha with an annual production of 11 ton while almost one and half decade back in 1997 the area recorded was 5707 ha with an annual production of 15.95 ton. The lowest productivity of 1.57 kg ha−1 was recorded in 2003–2004 due to an acute drought from 1999–2003. According to the data available for 1990–1996 the area of saffron cultivation in Kashmir varied in a narrow range of 4036 to 4496 ha, with more or less constant annual production (13.0–14.1 ton) and productivity (2.90–3.21 kg ha−1). There are many factors responsible for decline of saffron industry in the country. The lack of availability of good-quality corms as seed material, poor soil fertility, lack of assured irrigation, infestation by rodents and diseases, poor postharvest management, improper marketing facilities, increased urbanization on saffron land, rampant adulteration, and clandestine smuggling of cheap saffron (Husaini et al. 2010a; Pant and Semwal 2013).
Table 5

Cultivated area, production, and yield of saffron in different countries

Country

Cultivated area (ha)

Yield (kg ha−1)

Annual production (ton)

Irana

72,162

3.5

254.0

Spain

4184

6.5

29.2

Kashmir

3785

2.9

11.0

Greece

860

5.0

4.3

Azerbaija

675

4.3

3.7

Morocco

500

2.0

1.0

Italy

29

8.4

0.3

Turkey

3.7

0.5

0.04

aIn Duke (1987) cultivated area and production in Iran has been reported as 6000 ha and 30 ton, respectively, which was corrected, based on national statistics in 2012.

The latest and most formidable challenge that threatens the existence of saffron industry is the adverse effect of climate change (Husaini 2014). In addition, mechanization, though strongly advocated, has not been successful due to the delicacy of certain operations in saffron cultivation and processing. Moreover, because of the marginal nature of this crop, investments by manufacturers are unlikely to be repaid as quickly as they would expect. In fact, this is a general limitation with the saffron crop and Kashmir is no exception (Husaini et al. 2010b).

Initiatives are needed to reverse the declining trend by adopting strict quality control measures, preventing adulteration, mechanizing production, and introducing marketing interventions. Adoption of novel scientific technologies, including biotechnology, can go a long way to reduce the costs of saffron production in future (Husaini et al. 2010a, b). A consortium composed by 14 groups of 9 EU and non-EU countries has taken the responsibility of the creation and maintenance of the genetic variability of saffron and the European Commission approved a project on “Genetic Resources of Saffron and Allies (Crocus spp.): CROCUSBANK” to create, characterize, and exploit a germplasm collection (bank) in Crocus species (Fernández 2006). This plant material can be used in selection programs and serve as source of resistance to be transferred between saffron clones through appropriate breeding and biotechnological programs (Husaini and Ashraf 2010). In realizing this objective, bioinformatics tools will be inevitable for locating these genes of resistance and agronomically important traits (Husaini et al. 2009).

10 Saffron Yield

Yield of saffron depends on climatic and edaphic conditions and management practices such as planting methods, weed control, and size of corm at planting (Habibi and Bagheri 1989). Yield in the 1st year is low and increases in the following years (Abrishami 1988; Behnia 1992). Average yield of saffron in Iran for a period of 25 years has been recorded at 4.7 kg/ha (Behnia 1995). Maximum yield is obtained in the fourth and the 5th years (Behnia 1992; Molaphilabi 2001). Annual yield of 15 kg/ha and minimum of 3.8 kg/ha for some fields has been recorded (Sadeghi 1994). Yield can be improved by shortening the average age of saffron fields from 8 to 4 or 5 years (Sadeghi 1994).

Average yield of saffron in Spain has been recorded at 10–12.5 kg/ha, with 6–10 kg/ha for the 1st year and 16–18 kg/ha for the following year (Habibi and Bagheri 1989; Rashed Mohasel 1990). In Table 6 comparative analysis on yield are shown for Iran and Spain.
Table 6

Comparison of saffron yield for Iran and Spain on annual basis (kg/ha)

Country

Year 1

Year 2

Year 3

Mean

Spain (farmer fields)

4–6

10–12

16–18

10–12

Iran (farmer fields)

0–23

1.8

3.7

1.9

Iran (experiment)

2.5

11.7

20.3

11.5

Aerial parts of saffron are a good source of animal feed and the leaves are used directly or after harvesting for animal feed (Valizadeh 1988; Rashed Mohasel 1990). Corms are also a source of income for farmers and yield of corms in the 4th year reaches four times higher than the 1st year. Use very small corms, which are not suitable for planting, as animal feed (Alavi Shahri 1996).

11 Processing of Saffron

It applies to all stages after flower harvesting in order to deliver an acceptable product to the market and is done either by the producers themselves or by specialized workshops and factories (www.abacholland.com/wp-content/). The processing includes several stages such as flower picking, transportation, stigma separation, sampling, testing, sorting, packing, and bringing to the market. Iranian Standard and Industrial Research Organization (2003) has given the following stages for the processing of saffron: (1) Saffron flower; (2) Harvesting; (3) Separation of stigma; (4) Drying process of saffron; (5) Maintenance of saffron; (6) Transporting saffron for packing; (7) Sampling and testing; (8) Weighing; (9) Packing; (10) Sampling and testing of the final product, and (11) Sale (www.abacholland.com/wp-content/).

Kashmir Valley is a major saffron (Crocus sativus “Kashmirianus”) growing area of the world. The saffron is grown on uplands (termed in the local language as “Karewas”), which are lacustrine deposits located at an altitude of 1585–1677 m above mean sea level (amsl), under temperate climatic conditions. Despite being one of the oldest historical saffron-producing areas, the country is facing a decline in saffron industry. Among many other factors responsible for this decline are the preponderance of erratic rainfalls and drought-like situation, which have become major challenges imposed by climate change. Saffron has a limited coverage area as it is grown as a “niche crop” and is a recognized as “geographical indicator,” growing under a narrow microclimatic condition. Therefore it has become a victim of climate change effects, which has the potential of jeopardizing the livelihood of thousands of farmers and traders associated with it (Husaini 2014). The saffron in the country is dried under shade or sometimes under direct sunlight. The stigmas are left there until the moisture evaporates, and only 10–11% water content remains (Alizadeh 2001). The dried material (stigma alone, called “ Mongra ,” or stigmas attached with parts of the style, called “ Laccha ”) is packed mostly in small transparent packs and stored at room temperature until the farmer gets the desired price. The storage period varies from 25 days to 6 months (Husaini et al. 2010a). The tests that have been conducted (Raina et al. 1996) on saffron in Kashmir show that the parts of a fresh saffron flower contain 8% stigma, 2% style, 80% sepals and petals, 8% stamen, and 2% residue (Kafi and Showket 2007). The weight of one three-branched stigma is around 16–27 mg, the length of the stigma varies between 18 and 35 mm and the diameter between 3 and 4 mm. The time of harvesting of flowers from the field is the foremost factor that has a great effect on the quality and quantity of saffron. Raina et al. (1996) have tested the flowers at three stages. They took the balance weight of the product in dried form and examined its traits in all the three stages (Table 7).
Table 7

Effect of different methods of saffron drying on the level of smell/aroma composition (Raina et al. 1996)

S.No

Drying method

Volatile oil (mg/g)

Saffranal in volatile oil (mg/g)

4-Beta hydroxy saffranal in volatile oil (mg/g)

1.

Fresh saffron (wet)

Partly

2.

Drying in shade, sun, or by electric oven

(at 65, 50, 40 and 20 °C)

6.0

550–680

140–200

3.

Drying by blowing air in the opposite direction or under vacuum

5.0

200–350

500–700

The stigma of fresh saffron has no smell. The composition undergoes a change through thermal and picrocrocin enzymatic activity [4-beta-(D-Gluco Pironozyloxy)-2-,6,6-Tri-methyl-1-Cyclohexon-1-Carbo Coxaldehid], with changes to glucose, safranal (2 & 6 & 6-Tri-methyl-1-3- Cyclohexa D-N-1-Carboxaldehid), and 4-Hydroxy safranal. Resulting safranal changes to izaforon by enzymatic and nonenzymatic reactions, decarboxidation and isomerization during storage. Khakhki and Rahimi (1994), Ghalavand and Abdulahian (1995), and Hemmati Khakhki (2001) have also examined in a series of experiments the effect of different methods of drying saffron; including the traditional Iranian method, the Spanish process (using of the sieve of silken threads), electrical oven, and also drying in vacuum on the main compositions of saffron; on the compositions particularly the factors which influence the color, taste and smell of saffron. Their results have proved that the color of saffron can be maintained better by drying it in an electric oven at 60 °C for a period of 2.5 h as compared to other methods.

12 Quality and Chemical Composition

Saffron carbohydrates are mostly from reductive sugars, which consist of 20% of saffron dry weight. Among these carbohydrates the presence of glucose, fructose, gentibiose, and small quantity of xylose and rhamnose are fixed (Negbi 1999; Melnyk et al. 2010). The total weight of different elements in 100 g of dried saffron is reported to be as follows: calcium 111 mg, phosphorous 525 mg, potassium 1724 mg, sodium 148 mg, and zinc and magnesium in small quantities (International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 3632-1 1993; International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 3632-2 1993). The total ash and acid insoluble ash of saffron has been measured as one of the main factors of quality as per international standards. The ash content of saffron is also important for its purity. In 1993, Iran introduced and published guidelines for saffron standards under the title “Saffron Specifications.”

13 Trends in Modern Saffron Biology

Saffron has a triploid genome that causes meiotic abnormalities and consequently variation in sporogenesis and gametogenesis. Therefore, development potential of megasporocytes is strongly limited. However, reproduction system of saffron, like fertile species of Crocus, provides the possibility of introgression with relative species (Chichiriccò 1996). The plant has a low vegetative propagation rate. During the past three decades a number of attempts have been made by different workers across the globe having different objectives for in vitro studies in saffron (Husaini et al. 2010b). Using tissue culture techniques and regeneration of somatic embryos (Devi et al. 2014; Vahedi et al. 2015), faster propagation of virus-free corms from differentiated embryos is possible. Micro corms have been regenerated from shoot apical and lateral buds in medium containing sucrose and in the absence of growth regulators. Corm tissues could also be used for regeneration of seedlings or micro corms (Quadri et al. 2010; Parray et al. 2012). Yellow-orange structures similar to stigma have been formed in a medium containing growth regulators. Crocin and picrocrocin content of these structures were lower or the same as natural stigmas (Plessner et al. 1990; Sharma and Piqueras 2010). A recent study has revealed high-frequency somatic embryogenesis (Devi et al. 2014; Vahedi et al. 2015) and in vitro plant regeneration protocol for the Turkish species, namely C. specious ssp. specious, C. oliveri ssp. oliveri, C. pestalozzae, C. abantensis, and C. paschei (C. abantensis–C. oliveri ssp. oliveri). Out of these species C. pestalozzae, C. abantensis, and C. paschei (C. abantensis–C. oliveri ssp. oliveri) are endemic to Turkey. A protocol has been developed for germplasm preservation which is expected to contribute efficiently towards the maintenance of genetic material of C. sativus . These embryological and regeneration studies have great importance for plant biotechnologists as well as agricultural scientists. Further studies are needed to improve the efficiency of corm production and make it cost effective for commercial exploitation.

Genetic diversity is the most important prerequisite for genetic improvement programs. Many marker-based studies have been performed for studying the genetic diversity of Crocus. For example, Moraga et al. (2009) analyzed the randomly amplified polymorphic DNA (RAPD) and inter simple sequence repeat (ISSR) marker profiles of 43 isolates of C. sativus to determine if this species is mono/polymorphic and assessed variability of saffron collected from different geographical areas. The results obtained from this study showed that all the clones collected from different geographical areas appeared as identical ones not only because of morphological characters but also at molecular level. In another study ISSR markers were used to characterize C. sativus and C. cartwrightianus , however, no differences were found, thus confirming the earlier reports (Moraga et al. 2010). Similarly, no polymorphism has been recorded among 17 C. sativus accessions obtained in the region from Kashmir through Iran to Spain. In contrast to the intraspecific variability seen in other Crocus species, C. sativus has minimal genetic variation, and it is concluded that the triploid hybrid species has most probably arisen only once. The data show that saffron is an allotriploid species, with the IRAP analysis indicating that the most likely ancestors are C. cartwrightianus and C. pallasii ssp. pallasii (or close relatives) (Alsayied et al. 2015). High levels of polymorphism are reported between accessions of the six species of Crocus series Crocus related to C. sativus, with further variation between the species. The results stress resynthesizing saffron with improved characteristics with the aim of conservation and collection of wild Crocus (Alsayied et al. 2015). Biotechnological approaches have therefore increasingly become a valuable tool assisting breeders to release new species and cultivars into the market more rapidly. Further, biotechnological approaches offer the capability to produce large quantities of propagating material in short time.

Husaini et al. (2009) had proposed that large-scale expression profiling experiments with saffron could generate huge amounts of data about the saffron transcriptome, and that characterization of the transcriptome of saffron stigmas would be vital for understanding the molecular basis of flavor, color biogenesis, and the biology of the gynoecium. Bioinformatics shall serve as an effective tool in understanding metabolic pathways, and data generated using genomics, transcriptomics, and metabolomics of saffron (Husaini and Ashraf 2010). Recently several reports have been published on saffron transcriptomics which can act as milestone in understanding saffron biology (Jain et al. 2016). The information derived can be utilized to construct biological pathways involved in the biosynthesis of the principal components of saffron as well as flowering (Tsaftaris et al. 2010; Maggi et al. 2010; Wafai et al. 2015). Understanding carotenoid metabolism in stigma of saffron is a principle area of focus where a lot of work is underway (Gomez-Gomez et al. 2010a). A lot many studies are underway on genomics, transcriptomics, and phytochemical profiling of the active compounds using modern technologies and these will be of immense significance in understanding the physiological behavior of this peculiar spice crop (Melnyk et al. 2010; Fiore et al. 2010). Attempts have been made to transfer current knowledge about flowering and vegetative propagation in model species to the Crocus genus (Tsaftaris et al. 2010). Although some genes involved in flower formation and meristem transition in other species have been isolated in saffron, the role of these genes in this species awaits further progress. Also, genes related with the synthesis pathway of abscisic acid and strigolactones, growth regulators related with bud endodormancy and apical dominance (paradormancy) have been isolated (Ahmad et al. 2014; Sevindik and Mendi 2016; Ahrazem et al. 2015; Verma et al. 2016). Further, some vital defense genes too have been identified in saffron which can help in developing a better understanding into its defense mechanisms (Ahrazem et al. 2010).

14 Pharmacological Properties, Potential Therapeutic Applications, and Economic Uses

Modern medicine has rediscovered saffron indicating several therapeutic effects and pharmaceutical applications. More than 400 papers have been published in the last decade related to antioxidant properties, cancer, neuronal injury, and sedative effect, among others (Licón et al. 2010; Premkumar and Ramesh 2010). However, the healing properties ascribed to saffron in ancient times are found in Materia Medica , by Pedanio Dioscorides, a Greek medical practitioner of the first century A.D. from Anazarba—nowadays Tarsus in Turkey. Physicians have used it with great advantage in cases of excessive drunkenness and loss of male potency as one of the key medicinal plants mentioned by the Hippocratics , whereas Pliny records it as a panacea and aphrodisiac. Both mention that it increases the sex drive and promotes restful sleep. The spice was often added to love potions in ancient Rome. During the Renaissance, it was said that smelling C. sativus flowers opened the heart and excited the sexual drive (www.entheology.com/plants/crocus-sativus-saffron-crocus/). C. sativus flowers worn at the girdle are said to relieve menstrual cramps. In Iran, pregnant women often wore a ball of saffron near the womb to ensure speedy delivery but may act as an abortifacient (www.entheology.com/plants/crocus-sativus-saffron-crocus/).

Traditional knowledge on medicinal properties of saffron has attracted the attention of many workers during the last two decades (Escribano et al. 2000). Reduction of blood bilirubin level and decrease in blood cholesterol and triglycerides after using crocin and crocetin are the best examples (Nair et al. 1991). The anticancer effects of this spice are also reported by researchers (Duke 1987; Abdullaev and Espinosa-Aguirre 2004). Saffron could be a potential source of allergenic reactions, but there are not many studies concerning it (Gomez-Gomez et al. 2010b).

Saffron and its constituents are known for a quite large number of possible uses and actions. The pharmacological properties of saffron components, like safranal, crocin, and crocetin, are due to their chemical structure. The most important pharmaco-active properties of saffron were reported in studies based on in vitro experiments that appeared in the Chemical Abstracts between 1925 and 1999. However, those old reports were observational and their clinical relevance remains questionable. For instance, saffron has been proposed as one of the modifiers of the gastrointestinal chemical function. Through this action it may stimulate appetite and prevent gastrointestinal atonia.

Saffron has also shown to act therapeutically on the female genitals. Regarding its major components, safranal may be useful in treating respiratory, mostly chronic bronchitis. Because of its extensive distribution to the lungs, safranal sedates coughing, by acting as an anesthetic on the vagal nerves of the alveoli. Crocin has been proposed for painful dysmenorrhea relief because it may decrease uterine contractions. Picrocrocin seems to have a sedative effect on spasms and lumbar pains. However, the most remarkable effects of saffron have been attributed to crocetin, because it is a substance able to increase the speed of oxygen transport and diffusivity, both in vivo and in vitro. This ability to transport oxygen makes crocetin useful therapeutic candidate in various situations, such as atherosclerosis, alveolar hypoxia, hemorrhages, fermentation and cell reproduction, arthritis, and tumors.

The plant promotes enzymatic activity and assists in protein digestion, thus benefiting the digestive process. It is reported to be very effective in lowering blood pressure, stimulating the nervous system, and preventing nerve spasms due to highest riboflavin content of any plant known at present (www.entheology.com/plants/crocus-sativus-saffron-crocus/). In Traditional Chinese Medicine, saffron is used for depression, fear, confusion, menstrual difficulties, and abdominal pain. Long-term use may relieve depression and anxiety and create feelings of joy (www.entheology.com/plants/crocus-sativus-saffron-crocus/). Approximately 10 g of ground saffron flowers are mixed with yogurt and consumed morning and evening for dysentery in Pakistan, whereas in Kashmir a watery ointment is messaged on forehead sides for relieving from headache. In Yemen, the plant is used regularly as a stimulant (www.entheology.com/plants/crocus-sativus-saffron-crocus/). The stamens are so potent that one may even appreciate their aphrodisiac effects in the small doses necessary to make a delicious dish with the spice. As a source of plant polyphenols/carotenoids saffron has been used in traditional medicine for treatment of different types of illnesses since ancient times. Many of its medicinal characteristics can be attributed to a number of its compounds like crocetin, crocins, and other substances having strong antioxidant and radical scavenger properties against a variety of radical oxygen species and pro-inflammatory cytokines. It is also regarded as a natural potent antioxidant and promising anti-obesity drug (Mashmoul et al. 2013). Highly water-soluble crocins (or crocetins) are widely used as a natural food colorant, extensively used in the Indian medicinal system (Ayurveda) for healing a variety of diseases including arthritis, acne, skin disorders, impotence, and infertility. It has traditionally been considered as an anodyne, antidepressant, respiratory decongestant, antispasmodic, diaphoretic, emmenagogue, and expectorant. Saffron is used in folk medicine as a remedy against scarlet fever, smallpox, cold, asthma, and eye and heart disease. Apart from these, often saffron is used to help clear up sores and to reduce the discomfort of teething infants. Recently, there has been a growing interest in its anticarcinogenic compounds which can be used in the prevention of tumors.

On an average saffron contains approximately 1% of essential oil, plus many alkaloids and vitamins. In the essential oil principal component is safranal responsible for the characteristic scent of the spice. The psychoactive effects of consuming a large quantity include delirium and uncontrollable laughter. It is reported to stimulate and lift spirits when used in low doses, but using high doses is said to produce sedative effects and brings sleep. It is also said that drinking an infusion of saffron allows one to see the future. Some mention that consumption of too much saffron can lead to death due to excessive joy (www.entheology.com/plants/crocus-sativus-saffron-crocus/). The essential oil vapors too have a sedative, sleeping effect, and may cause happy delirium together with motor nerve paralyzation. Inhaling the essential oil may cause “long, distinctive orgasmic sensations.” Very few actual reports of experiences with psychoactive doses of saffron are available, probably due to the impossibly high cost of the spice (www.entheology.com/plants/crocus-sativus-saffron-crocus/).

The spice is generally kept in a cool, dark place in an airtight container to avoid the evaporation of the volatile essential oils that make up the color and the potency of the spice. Earlier in Europe and China, it was added to wine to produce additional inebriation. It is reported to have been used as an important ingredient in the soporific medicine laudanum. It can be used in Oriental Joy Pills and other aphrodisiac blends (www.entheology.com/plants/crocus-sativus-saffron-crocus/). A Greek papyrus from the third century BC contains a recipe including saffron in an aphrodisiac preparation for its application as an ointment. No risks have been documented from consuming saffron at a maximum daily dosage of 1.5 g, 20 g at once are accepted as a lethal dose, and 10 g may induce an abortion (www.entheology.com/plants/crocus-sativus-saffron-crocus/).

Very useful results on the effects of active ingredients of saffron, especially against malignancies, and cardiovascular and Alzheimer’s disease, have been reported recently. The administration of saffron extract or crocin solution is said to have significantly improved memory skills in rats compared with controls. The extract and its components have also been tested in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, but the use of saffron for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease needs more and larger studies with well-defined patient inclusion criteria. The pathological analyses of human brains have revealed the crocetin-induced inhibition of aggregation and deposition of Aβ. In the case of Parkinson’s disease, the neuromodulatory effect of crocetin is reported in the rat model of Parkinson’s disease, induced by 6-hydroxydopamine. More intensive studies are needed to elucidate safety and efficacy of saffron extract use as alternative in preventing and treating Parkinsonism. The saffron is said to have a potent antioxidant activity, which is mostly due to the presence of unique carotenoids.

The effects of saffron on glucose levels and diabetes are also interesting. A cotreatment of the C2C12 skeletal muscle cells line with saffron and insulin has further improved their insulin sensitivity via both insulin-independent and insulin-dependent pathways. However, an antidiabetic impact of saffron and crocin is still elusive. There is need for detailed clinical studies to investigate the potential glucose lowering of saffron and to quantify the contribution of each of the active components.

Safranal has also shown interesting pharmacological properties concerning cardiac ischemia. Crocetin (the major metabolite of crocin) has been found to inhibit the AGE-induced growth suppression of bovine endothelial cells (BEC) and significantly reduce the adhesion rate of leucocyte to BEC, in parallel to the downregulation of ICAM-1 expression during the study of effect of saffron on atherosclerosis, plasma lipids, and cardiac ischemia.

An extremely promising strategy for cancer prevention today is chemoprevention, which is defined as the use of synthetic or natural agents (alone or in combination) to block the development of cancer in humans. The chemical composition of saffron has attracted the interest of several research groups during the last decades due to its three main active constituents (crocins, picrocrocin, and safranal) (Melnyk et al. 2010). According to a growing number of studies, strong evidence indicates that saffron and its components exert anticarcinogenic mutation-preventing, immunomodulating, and antitumor effects in vitro and in vivo. C. sativus stigma and petal extracts have been widely studied for their antitumor properties; all studies and experiments concern only in vitro cell lines and in vivo animal models, as mentioned above. There is a lot of clinical investigation to be done regarding the impact of saffron extracts and their components on human carcinomas in conjunction with conventional therapy used nowadays (Abdullaev and Espinosa-Aguirre 2004).

Recent studies have shown the beneficial effects of saffron in depression, premenstrual syndrome, and Alzheimer’s disease. The basic composition of saffron is 14–16, 11–13, 12–15, 41–44, 0.6–0.9, 4–5, and 4–6% of water, nitrogenous matters, sugars, extract soluble, volatile oil, fibers, and total ashes, respectively, as well as riboflavin (56–138 μg/g) and thiamine (0.7–4 μg/g), the important vitamins together with small quantities of β-carotene. Riboflavin content is the highest to be found in any food and thiamine shows average values found in vegetables. The petroleum ether extract from the bulbs has revealed the presence of essential fatty acids, linoleic and linolenic; the sterols are like campesterol, stigmasterol, and β-sitosterol as well as ursolic, oleanolic, palmitic, palmitoleic, and oleic acids.

Three main metabolites are; picrocrocins—main substances responsible for saffron’s bitter taste, safranal—the volatile oil responsible for the characteristic saffron aroma, and crocins—saffron colored compounds (unusual water-soluble carotenoids due to their high glycosyl contents). Crocetin is mainly referred for its antioxidant properties (because of its chemical structure) and is the most up-to-date saffron constituent under continuous study, as the metabolite of crocin. Animal studies have shown that some saffron extracts and its constituents crocin and safranal considerably suppress the so-called “withdrawal syndrome” in morphine-treated mice.

The investigation of saffron’s toxicity is of main importance. According to studies reported in the literature, stigma extract does not affect any organ deleteriously. However, petal extract induces necrosis in liver and lung cells (Hosseinzadeh and Nassiri-Asl 2013). Latter studies mention about the significant pharmacological properties, including hypolipidemic, anticancer, and antioxidant, applicable to a wide spectrum of diseases, such as atheromatosis, diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases, and various types of cancer. In the limited number of clinical trials carried out up to now, the administration of saffron extract, at doses ranging from 20 to 200 mg/day for 10 days to several weeks, was found effective and safe with no major adverse effect, mainly in patients with CNS diseases and psychological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and depression, respectively (Abdullaev 2002; Abdullaev and Espinosa-Aguirre 2004; Bathaie and Mousavi 2010; Bakshi et al. 2010; Rezaee and Hosseinzadeh 2013; Bhandari 2015; Pitsikas 2015). Recently, numerous studies have reported that the underlying mechanisms of saffron may be mediated by antioxidant, inflammatory, and immunomodulatory effects. C. sativus enhances the antioxidant capacity and acts as a free radical scavenger. C. sativus and its constituents could be considered as an effective treatment for neurodegenerative disorders, coronary artery diseases, asthma, bronchitis, colds, fever, and diabetes (Boskabady and Farkhondeh 2016). According to Razavi and Hosseinzadeh (2017) saffron is as a promising natural medicine in the treatment of metabolic syndrome. Similarly Lopresti and Drummond (2014) report that saffron is used for depression. They have presented a systematic review of clinical studies and examination of underlying antidepressant mechanisms of action. Farokhnia et al. (2014) have compared the efficacy and safety of C. sativus with memantine in patients with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease using a double-blind randomized clinical trial. Hosseinzadeh and Nassiri-Asl (2013) have published a review on Avicenna’s (Ibn Sina) the Canon of Medicine and Saffron. Christodoulou et al. (2015) too have published a review on the Saffron: a natural product with potential pharmaceutical applications. Bukhari et al. (2015) and Baba et al. (2015) have evaluated antioxidant potential of C. sativus and its main constituents, safranal and crocin, in bronchial epithelial cells. They have also studied anti-inflammatory potential of the active constituent safranal, in a murine model of asthma. Razavi and Hosseinzadeh (2017) have reviewed saffron as a promising natural medicine in the treatment of metabolic syndrome, while Botsoglou et al. (2010) discuss the scientific data on the biological properties of saffron, and investigate its possible use as a feed additive in poultry industry.

The most important economic part of the plant is the three-branch stigma. Its odor is related to a colorless terpene essential oil as well as an oxygenous compound cineole. The bitter taste of saffron is due to picrocrocin and picrocrozioide which are soluble in water and alcohol, and hardly in chloroform. The origin of saffron color is crocin and produces glucose and crocetin (C20H24O4) after hydrolysis. It fetches the highest price as a spice in the world, depending upon the country of its production. Production is typically favored in the countries like Iran and Azerbaijan where labor is cheap. With its production in other countries like Greece, Spain, Turkey, Argentina, and USA, the global production is currently exceeding 200 ton and newer areas are brought under cultivation in countries like China and Japan (Pant and Semwal 2013; Husaini 2014). In contrast there are some countries where its cultivation has almost disappeared (Germany, Austria and England), especially due to increasing labor costs (Husaini 2010).

15 Conclusion

Since the middle ages, the Persian, Mesopotamian, and Arabian cultures have been well known for their exotic food preparations (Fig. 6).
Fig. 6

Saffron dishes with meet and raisin (a), with raisin and pine nuts (b), with raisin and dried fruits (c), with saffron sprinkled (d), kebabs and mixed with white rice (e), and saffron Turkish Delight from Kastamonu (f)

The saffron was an integral ingredient in all these foods. Saffron has been used as a fabric dye, particularly in China and India, and in perfumery. Later on its trade was subjected to very drastic rules because of its rarity and difficult way of cultivating and collecting. It is reported to be the cause of so-called “Saffron War” of 1374. A report published in 1895 in Genoa mentions that saffron is commonly used to dye foods yellow; once, it was used in medicine too; nowadays it is only used in pharmacy to produce laudanum.

Many adulterants are used today, in particular Carthamus tinctorius . Dezani, in his treatise regarding pharmacognosy, explains that in Nuremberg, between 1449 and 1495, three persons were condemned to the pyre for the crime of adulterating saffron. A woman, who was their accomplice, was spared from the pyre out of compassion. Another record by the Savary brothers mentions that “saffron is a foodstuff used in the kitchen; also used by painters to make miniatures; gives a wonderful color to dyes, and is used in perfume preparations.” Currently, saffron is known as the most expensive spice in the world and is known as “Red Gold” in Iran (Sabzevari 1996; Ghoddusi et al. 2004).

The data on individual species are not available, there are growing demands of the five Crocus species among spice-loving consumers in the Middle East and in South East Asia.

In terms of crocin content, dried stigma storage under dark condition is better compared to other storage conditions. Since crocin dissolves easily in water (ISO/TS 3632 2003), dried stigma under humid conditions is also affected by other factors such as light, oxygen, and temperature (Hemmati Khakhki 2001).

Therefore, it is recommended that the manufacturers, merchants, and consumers must store dried stigma under dark, dry condition at room temperature (24–26 °C). One hectare of saffron produces about 1.5 ton of leaf dry matter. In Iran considerable amount of leaf dry matter is produced from saffron fields annually, which could be used as dried forage. Possibility of using this as forage source for native animals (sheep and goats) in Khorasan province was studied by Valizadeh (1988). Their results show that saffron forage generally had an intermediate quality and digestibility compared to conventional animal feeds such as alfalfa. The main deficiencies of saffron leaf dry matter are low digestibility due to high fibrous tissues and low protein and mineral content. However, low quality of this forage could be overcome by adding protein and energetic complements such as urea fertilizer (about 2% of leaf dry matter) or sugar beet molasses (Valizadeh 1988).

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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Muhammad Kafi
    • 1
  • Azra N. Kamili
    • 2
  • Amjad M. Husaini
    • 3
  • Munir Ozturk
    • 4
  • Volkan Altay
    • 5
  1. 1.Faculty of Agriculture, Center of Excellence for Special CropsFerdowsi UniversityMashhadIran
  2. 2.Centre of Research for DevelopmentUniversity of KashmirSrinagarIndia
  3. 3.Genome Engineering Lab, Division of Plant BiotechnologySher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology of KashmirSrinagarIndia
  4. 4.Botany Department and Centre for Environmental SciencesEge UniversityIzmirTurkey
  5. 5.Biology Department, Science & Arts FacultyMustafa Kemal UniversityAntakyaTurkey

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