Have you ever stopped to ponder the origins of saffron, that exotic spice that adds a magical touch to your paella? Well, I certainly have, and let me tell you, its fascinating history is even more piquant than the spice itself – if you catch my drift! I’m about to take you on a journey to unveil the captivating story of saffron!
Saffron is likely to be native to Turkey in Asia or Greece in the Mediterranean region. Many pinpoint Crete to be the first place it was discovered and cultivated during the Bronze Age, around 3000 BC. This, however, has yet to be proven completely true. Nevertheless, many consider saffron as a plant native to the ancient Greek territory.
Continue scrolling on as I help you trace the saffron trade back to the Bronze Age. I’ll even share fascinating trivia and a simple-and-easy trick to get the most out of your expensive saffron threads!
Where Did Saffron Originate From?
Experts believe that saffron may have origins from Southwestern Asia to the Mediterranean region which includes Asian, European, and African territories. However, the exact its exact place of origin remains unknown.
Even now, the exact timeline from when wild saffron crocus plants were first discovered to the time they were finally domesticated is still pretty obscure.
Several experts have shared their own theories as to when and where saffron first came to be. Common suggestions include, but are not limited to, Greece, Turkey, and the Middles east.
In the most widely believed theory, saffron originates from the Island of Crete in the Bronze Age. Then, it was brought to Middle Eastern countries, Iran, and China. Arabs from the Middle East were then said to bring to European countries in the Mediterranean region.
Based on this, some people view saffron as a crop that is a product of more than 3000 years of selective breeding.
If we were to consider the fact that much older traces of saffron exists though, then it’s likely that we haven’t fully uncovered the scope of ancient saffron cultivation.
For instance, in modern-day Iraq, prehistoric pigments made from saffron can be found in 50,000-year-old cave art. So it’s very likely that we are missing several pieces to the puzzle that is the origin of saffron.
Considering saffron’s value—as “red gold”—it’s no surprise that different nations would like to claim that it is truly native to their country and that they were the first to cultivate it.
Honestly, however, I think that it’s more likely that it has naturally grown in a large part of the world—from the Mediterranean region to Southwestern Asia.
Saffron Over the Years: The History of the Golden Spice
Although believed to date back to the Bronze Age, the exact timeline for the cultivation and trade of saffron into the modern age is unclear. However, its historical uses and importance can be individually discussed in the countries and regions of 1) the Middle East, 2) Greece, 3) Iran, 4) Rome, 5) India, 6) China, and 7) Europe.
As I’ve said in the earlier section, the history of saffron cultivation and trade across the world is confusing and not yet set in stone. Even experts on the matter have contradicting opinions. So now, I’ll tell you a bit about saffron’s history in selected areas.
1. The Middle East
The use of saffron in the Middle East—Egypt, specifically—can be traced back to 3100 BC. Saffron was primarily used for Middle Eastern cosmetics and medicine.
Some sources say that saffron was imported into Egypt from Crete, Other say that it has been there since way before.
According to existing historical data, the earliest human civilization in the Fertile Crescent was known to use saffron for healing various ailments. This region now includes Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq.
Records show that the Egyptians started growing saffron domestically by 2100 BC. However, there is also evidence of it being used in the region as early as 3100 BC.
People from those years would commonly recite incantations while gesturing about when they prescribed saffron as a drug. Some of its medicinal uses, like treatment for menstruation and eye problems, were recorded in the Papyrus Ebers in 1550 BC.
Other notable uses of saffron in cosmetics and skin care include the world’s first known perfume, Kypi. Historians also share that Cleopatra would add saffron to her milk bath for its color and scent to further enhance her beauty.
There have also been artifacts related to saffron recovered in the area that dates back to 1600 BC.
Saffron has been grown and used for medicine, cosmetics, perfume, dye, and food in Greece since 3000 BC. Numerous ancient paintings and artifacts depict these.
Many colorful and interesting fresco paintings across Greece dating to the Bronze Age, spanning from 3300–1200 BC, show scenes of saffron production.
Depicted in one of those thousand-year-old frescoes, is the Crocus cartwrightianus which is considered the cultivated saffron’s (Crocus sativus) ancestor.
Other paintings even show the different stages of saffron harvest. The flowers are plucked before the stigmas are collected for offerings to the goddess that gave it its curative properties—who unfortunately hasn’t been identified.
Another interpretation of the painting says that the Goddess gifts it to humans for them to grow and benefit from it.
Then from about 2000–146 BC, saffron was widely used by royals for dying cloth and deodorizing public places such as courts, theaters, saloons, and bathrooms—yes, there were already public bathrooms during that time. It was also used in food.
Around 1500 BC, Greek women would place saffron flowers in their hair and use cosmetics made with it. For a time, saffron was closely associated with professional courtesans called the hetairai.
Discover other gorgeous blossoms in our article on flowers for hydroponics!
From there, the common people started using it as well, mostly for herbal remedies for ailments such as eye infections and ulcers. Saffron was believed to soothe and stop bleeding.
The first saffron fields of Iran go back to 708 BC during the Kingdom of Media. However, early uses of saffron in the country are poorly documented.
Unfortunately, the earlier role of saffron in Persia is not well documented so much about its ancient history is lost. Most records of ancient Iranian saffron can only be traced from 1000 BC onward.
Rather than gathering wild saffron, ancient Persians are commonly recognized as one of the first cultures to actively cultivate saffron plants between 708 BC and 550 BC.
During parades and wedding celebrations, people would scatter saffron along with flowers, sweets, and gold. Saffron was also commonly mixed with aloeswood and ambergris to make incense, perfumes, and body oils.
During the Achaemenid dynasty, up to 1 kg of saffron was used every day in one of the palaces for making bread, scented oils, and dyed shoes and clothing for the King and the Immortal Troop—an elite unit in the Persian army.
The golden spice also plays a role in paying respect to their dearly departed, using it to scent their bodies. It was also turned into pigment for coloring or scenting paper, writing, and painting.
By 256–641 AD, Iranian saffron had already been exported to China, Greece, India, and Rome. However, between 1794 AD and 1925 AD, cinnamon was favored over saffron.
Nonetheless, saffron was typically used in Traditional Iranian Medicine for hangovers, headaches, insomnia, conjunctivitis, and wounds, among others.
Ancient Roman royalty first used saffron as dyes, perfumes, offerings, and medicine around 753 BC before it became widely used among ordinary citizens.
Like with previous cultures, saffron was viewed as a luxurious crop. Hence, it was predominantly used by those with royal and elite backgrounds. But as time went on, the golden spice became more available to the common folk.
Romans would use saffron in religious ceremonies by burning it as offerings to their many gods and goddesses. It was often also used to create prized gifts such as decors.
As with the ancient Greeks, saffron perfume was often found in Roman courts, theaters, halls, and baths.
In ancient Roman dyes, saffron was also ever-present. But it wasn’t used to only color textiles. Saffron was also used for dyeing and scenting their hair.
Saffron was also spread around for parades and similar celebrations in ancient Rome. It’s even added to wine as they believed that doing so would prevent hangovers. They would also sleep on saffron-stuffed pillows in hopes of curing hangovers.
Besides that, Romans believed that saffron can refresh the skin, relieve liver issues, treat coughs, and alleviate eye irritation.
Buddhist legends tell of Indian saffron plantations dating back to around 500 BC. It was typically used in perfumes, air fresheners, dyes, decor, food, and medicine.
According to legends, India started cultivating saffron back in 500–401 BC, primarily in Kashmir—which remains one of the top producers of Indian saffron to this day.
It was thought to have been introduced to the country by Ancient Persians. However, much of the information regarding the trade between the two nations is unknown—including the exact date.
Regardless, saffron has long had an important part in Indian culture. In Hinduism, for instance, saffron is essential for anointing deities and dotting the foreheads of worshipers.
The official golden color of the robes of Buddhist priests is achieved by dying cloth with saffron after Buddha’s death. Crocin, a natural compound in saffron, is what allows it to color fabric, paper, and even skin!
Learn more about this in our article on saffron types and grades!
For the most part, though, saffron was more commonly used by nobility and rich people for creating perfumes and dyes. Some scholars think they might have learned about such practices from the Greeks and Romans.
Indians traditionally used saffron for important occasions like weddings too. Saffron paste was used by the bride and guests. It’s also mixed into the food and drinks. More recently, Indian saffron is a popular wedding favor.
Aside from that, saffron is a common ingredient in Indian herbal medicine. It’s thought to help with insect bites, acne, sore throat, asthma, alcoholism, diabetes, dysmennhorea, vomiting, and even impotency.
The saffron grown in China is may be imported from Iran as early as 256 AD or it may have been brought into the nation due to the Mongol invasion, starting in the 1200s.
By 1200 AD, Northern China was referred to as Cathay in medieval Europe. In some accounts, it is said that Iranian and Indian saffron was introduced by Mongol invaders.
Long before the invasion, however, there are records of Iran exporting Persian saffron to China. This happened from about 250 AD to 640 AD. Other reports also note that the Chinese mentioned Kashmiri saffron during 201–300 AD.
The earliest medical use of saffron in China can be found in the Food Meteria Medica during the Tang dynasty, which dates back to 741 AD. From then on, it became part of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
According to the Chinese, herbal drugs made with or containing saffron can effectively improve blood circulation, prevent blood coagulation, and induce uterine contractions. It’s also believed to have great anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-inflammatory properties.
In this part of Asia—China included—saffron was also greatly valued for its vibrant yellow dye and its strong but pleasant fragrance.
Additionally, because of its color, flavor, and aroma, the Chinese people also took a liking to use saffron in cooking.
Saffron was brought back to Europe around 700–1000 AD, during the Muslim campaigns in the continent. Europeans then started cultivating it again for their cuisine and medicine.
Remember, Iran was already exporting Persian saffron to southeastern countries in Europe before 700 AD. Moreover, it was already grown locally in Europe by 700 BC. Thus, saffron likely spread from Greece and Rome to nearby nations during that time as well.
However, the fall of the Western Roman Empire resulted in the substantial decline of saffron cultivation in Europe for several centuries.
It only came back by 901–1000 AD because of Muslims and the crusaders. Particularly in Spain, saffron was believed to have first been cultivated by the Arabs in 961 AD. At the time, its cultivation was relatively rare but the demand for it was high, resulting in its high price.
I would even say that the Saffron War around 1301–1400 AD could be linked to this. During that time, a shipment of saffron—approx. 800 lbs or 362.8 kgs—bound for Switzerland was hijacked but eventually returned. Rules against adulteration were also enforced in Germany.
Around this period, saffron was also brought to England. Its cultivation was mainly done in Chepyng Walden, later renamed Saffron Walden. There it was mostly used to dye clothes for nobility. They imported their saffron to Netherlands and Scandinavia by 1501–1600 AD.
Similar to other places, saffron also greatly impacted European cuisine and medicine. It’s essential for different types of bread, cakes, rice dishes, and seafood dishes, to name a few.
Furthermore, it was taken to strengthen one’s heart, improve one’s brain, and relieve one’s breathing troubles.
9 Fun Facts About Saffron! (And How to Make the Most of It!)
Below are some familiar and lesser-known facts about saffron:
- Along with cinnamon and myrrh, saffron was among the aromatic plants mentioned in the Bible in the Song of Solomon 4:14. Many other references to it can also be found in other books of the Old Testament.
- In olden times, a few pounds of saffron corms could serve as collateral for loans just like jewels and gold throughout Europe.
- The saffron crocus plant does not produce fruits as its flowers are sterile. So the only valuable parts of the plant are the stigmas, for the spice, and corms, for propagation.
- More or less 205 tons of saffron is produced all over the world each year.
- For over 3 millennia, saffron has been used to treat about 90 different conditions and illnesses, making it the most versatile medicinal plant.
- Besides Iran, India, Greece, Morocco, Spain, and Italy, saffron is also grown in Pakistan, China, Japan, Russia, France, and Germany.
- Other than pepper, cumin, turmeric, and cardamon, saffron is one of the quintessential spices that characterize Afghan cuisine.
- One pinch of saffron—or even less—is generally enough to color and flavor a whole dish. Adding too much may give a meal a bitter aftertaste.
- Saffron threads can be stretched by turning them into saffron water which can be kept in the fridge for 4–5 days. The threads are ground into a fine powder before being steeped in water that has been boiled and left to cool for a few minutes.
Can you grow saffron in cold climates?
Saffron can be grown in cold climates as their corms can handle winter temperatures of -15°F (-26°C) after they are planted 2 in (5 cm) deep in dry soil without much damage. However, prolonged cold temperatures can reduce their productivity as snow can result in frozen and decomposing flowers. It prefers warm summers, rainy autumns, and mild winters.
What flower does saffron come from?
The “red gold” spice, saffron, comes from the 6-petaled, cup-shaped, pale purple flower of the perennial Crocus sativus plant. Each flower will have only 3 short stigmas which are then dried to produce saffron threads. The saffron flower has a short bloom period of 1–2 weeks.
Summary of Where Saffron Comes From
The spice called saffron could have origins within Southwestern Asia and the Mediterranean region. Its discovery, cultivation, and trade across the world are not well documented. As such its specific origin remains largely unclear. Still, many nations claim to be the first to grow and use the plant.
Evidence of growing and using saffron in texts, paintings, and artifacts can be dated back to 3300 BC, the Bronze Age. Places including the Middle East, Greece, Iran, Rome, India, China, and Europe have also documented the role of the expensive spice in their own cultures. It has been extensively used for medicine, cooking, dyes, and fragrances.
- “Saffron” by n/a in Britannica
- “Historical uses of saffron: Identifying potential new avenues for modern research” by Seyedeh Zeinab Mousavi and Seyedeh Zahra Bathaie in ResearchGate
- “The Culture of Saffron” by Agrin Davari in The University of Vermont
- “Saffron, an alternative crop for sustainable agricultural systems. A review” by F. Gresta1, G.M. Lombardo, L. Siracusa, and G. Ruberto in Springer Link
- “Crocus” by Kathie Carter in the University of California Cooperative Extension