Saffron is one of the world’s most expensive spices yet it can be easily grown in the home garden. Follow these tips for growing and harvesting this uniquely flavoured spice.
What is Saffron
Also known as zafaran, safran and zafferano, saffron (Crocus sativus) is a spice in the Iris family commonly used a key ingredient in paella and one of the botanicals in Chartreuse. The perennial bulb favours a cool, temperate climate with dry Mediterranean conditions and produces dainty purple flowers with three stigmas which are harvested and used as spice.
How to Grow Saffron
Saffron is grown from corms which are planted in late summer for flowering in late autumn. Knowing that we’re in for a long, wet winter, I decided to plant my saffron crocus in terracotta pots. Growing saffron in containers means you can move them around easily and terracotta is a porous material which allows air and water to flow through.
- Clean and scrub your terracotta pots and leave them to dry in the sun.
- Line the bottom of the terracotta pots with scoria, a light volcanic rock which helps with drainage.
- Use fresh, premium potting mix that is rich in nutrients and add a small amount of blood and bone, some perlite for drainage and moisten the soil.
- Fill the pots part way, add the corms with the pointed end up, spaced 15cm apart.
- Cover with more potting mix so that the corms are 10-15cm deep.
- Moisten the soil and cover with a 5-7cm layer of straw mulch.
- Place the pots in a north facing position that gets full sun.
- Keep the soil moist but not overly wet to prevent them from rotting.
Saffron needs very little maintenance and by planting it in nutrient rich potting mix, there is no need to fertilise any further. While it’s growing, keep the soil moist but not soaking wet. If it hasn’t rained for a week, give the pots a drink ensuring the soil is moist but not too wet. After flowering and during the warmer months, when the plants are dormant, allow the soil to dry out.
Saffron Growth Timeline
I planted my saffron corms in late summer and the first flower bloomed at the end of autumn. Sydney had a cool and wet autumn with the odd days of sunshine so these time frames may vary in your climate.
- 28 February 2022 – saffron corms planted in terracotta pots
- 12 April 2022 – first sprout
- 22 May 2022 – first saffron flower bloomed, opened and stigmas harvested.
How to Harvest Saffron
Saffron stigmas must be harvested as soon as you see the flowers open. The photo above was taken in the morning and by mid afternoon of the same day, the flower was fully open (lead photo).
Each crocus will produce one flower and each flower produces 3 stigmas. To harvest the stigmas, gently pluck them using tweezers and leave them to dry indoors in a dry, sheltered spot for 3-5 days before storing in an airtight container out of direct sunlight.
The flowers last up to two weeks depending on the weather and in my experience, a period of heavy rain meant the end of the flower after 2 days. After flowering, corms can remain in the ground when they can naturalise in the garden. Dig them up and divide every three years.
Saffron is very easy to grow and falls into what I call the ‘plant and forget’ group. Order your corms early in the year, plant them and keep an eye out on the flowers as you have a very small window in which to harvest the stigmas.