The saffron flower is sometimes described as the spice worth more than its weight in gold. While this may seem an expensive luxury, the bulbs and blooms it derives from can be grown at home, by anyone. If you have the space to grow enough bulbs you can even harvest your own supply of fresh, saffron spice.
Blooming in the fall, these attractive plants, properly known as Crocus sativus, are easily identified by their attractive purple blooms with a bright, red stigma. Typically grown from bulbs, each bulb produces one bloom. When fully open, in the center of the flower you will see 3 red stigmas. This is the spice of the saffron flower.
An ancient spice, the stigma of the saffron flower has long been used to color or flavor food. A key ingredient in many African, middle eastern and mediterranean cuisines, saffron was introduced to Spain by the Moors. Today it is used in many Spanish dishes such as paella.
An attractive addition to the garden. The plant’s long, red stems, or stigmas, can be harvested to make spice.
Whether you are growing the plants for their spice or ornamental value, growing Crocus sativus from a bulb is both a straightforward and rewarding process.
Where to Source Saffron Flower Bulbs
Bulbs, or corms, can be sourced online from specialist nurseries or garden stores. If you are selecting the bulbs in person, try to pick only the healthiest looking bulbs. Avoid any that are soft or damaged.
Crocus sativus corms do not store well. Plant the bulbs as soon after acquiring them as possible. If you purchase the corms online they will be shipped to you when they are ready for planting.
Make sure the bulbs are saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) and not autumn meadow crocus (colchicum autumnale). The latter, also known as meadow saffron, resembles the saffron flower in appearance but are highly toxic.
If you are growing the Crocus sativus plant for its spice, work out how many corms you will need before purchasing. Each bloom produces 3 threads. Multiply this by the number of people in your family and the number of dishes you want to use saffron in throughout the year for a rough guide. In general you will need to plant 50 to 60 corms for 1 tablespoon or 15 mL of spice.
When choosing how many corms to plant, remember that these plants multiply rapidly. If you aren’t prepared to control the spread they can easily take over an area.
Where to Plant
Plant your saffron flower corms in well draining soil. If your soil is poorly draining, work in lots of amendments to lighten the soil before planting. If the soil is particularly boggy try planting in raised beds filled with fresh potting soil. Planting in wet or boggy soil can cause the corms to rot.
Working in organic matter, such as compost or well-rotted manure not only helps to lighten the soil, it also enriches it. This helps the corms to settle more quickly.
A full sun position is ideal. Too little light may mean that the corms struggle to flower.
Crocus sativus is hardy in USDA zones 5 to 8. In cooler temperatures plant in pots and move undercover during the winter months.
Soon after planting, grass like foliage may emerge. However, the corms won’t blossom until the fall.
How and When to Plant the Corms
Crocus sativus is a fall flowering plant. The corms are best planted in the fall but don’t expect them to blossom immediately. Instead foliage appears the following spring. This then dies away during the heat of summer before new foliage and blooms emerge in the fall. You can also plant the bulbs in late spring or early summer.
To plant, make a hole large enough to hold the corm. The hole should be roughly 3 to 5 inches deep and at least 6 inches wide. Position the corm in the hole, the pointy end should face upwards.
Saffron flower corms are small and slightly round. It can be difficult to tell which way up the corms should go. If you are uncertain, place the corm in the hole on its side. As the roots develop and dig down, they pull the bulb the right way up.
It can be difficult to know which way up to plant the small, round corms.
After planting the corm, cover the bulb and water well. Space corms 3 to 4 inches apart.
Planting in Pots
You can also grow saffron flower corms in pots filled with well draining potting soil. Plant as you would in the ground, roughly 2 to 4 inches deep and 3 inches apart.
When selecting the pots, remember that these plants like lots of room to grow into. A 6 inch wide, 8 inch deep pot comfortably holds one corm. A pot that is 12 inches wide and 8 inches deep can hold up to 5.
Like the crocus, these plants do well in pots.
You can also grow a saffron flower corm in a pot as a houseplant. Interestingly, the plant is considered one of the best bedroom plants for a good night’s sleep. If you are growing indoors add a layer of fine gravel or coarse sand to the bottom of the pot or a 6 inch planter. Fill with rich, well draining potting soil and plant the bulbs as described above.
Place houseplants in a light position. Ideally they should receive 4 to 6 hours of light every day. The surrounding temperatures should average between 35 and 48 ℉.
Soon after planting foliage emerges. If you are growing the specimen as a houseplant, lightly water the pot regularly until the grass-like foliage begins to die back. This is usually in April, if you planted the corms the previous fall. When the foliage dies back, move the pot to a warmer position or room. The temperature surrounding the corms should average between 50 and 70 ℉.
Apart from moving the corms to a warmer room, caring for an indoor saffron flower is largely the same as caring for an outdoor specimen.
Caring for a Saffron Flower
Once planted, Crocus sativus is an attractive but low maintenance plant. Surprisingly resilient with a little care these plants are hardy down to -15 ℉.
In colder temperatures a layer of mulch in the winter protects the corms from damage caused by the soil continually freezing and thawing.
Plants growing in containers can simply be moved inside. A Metal Plant Caddy enables you to easily move even the largest pot.
Regularly weed to keep the area around the plants clear and weed free.
Regularly weed the soil above the corms to prevent fast growing weeds from smothering new growth.
Once established, water the corms only if you have less than 1.5 inches of rain a week. Plants growing indoors require more regular watering than those in the ground.
During the summer, when the bulbs are dormant, they rarely require any water. Here, only water lightly if your garden experiences a particularly dry spell.
Knowing when to water houseplants can be difficult. If you are growing indoors, once the plants are dormant and are moved to a warmer room they should be watered lightly every other day.
Low maintenance bulbs the saffron flower, if planted in good soil, rarely requires any extra nutrition. To promote healthy growth and flowering a bulb specific fertilizer can be applied once a year. Specimens growing indoors can be given a dose of an appropriate indoor plant food.
Post Bloom Care
After flowering has finished for the year, allow the foliage to remain in place. The leaves continue to photosynthesize, enabling the bulbs to store energy to drive next year’s growth.
When the foliage starts to yellow it can be cut back. In warm climates the foliage may remain green until the early summer when the bulbs enter their dormant period.
Dividing Mature Corms
Each year as corms grow and develop they produce new corms. Regularly lifting and dividing the corms helps to keep the plants fresh and active. Divisions are best made in the fall or early winter, after flowering has finished. Corms have a typical lifespan of 15 years. Most corms require division once every 4 or 5 years.
Withhold water for 10 to 14 days before dividing. This gives the corms time to dry out, making them easier to sort and handle. It also deters fungal and bacterial growth from developing.
Cut back the dry foliage to around 3 inches above the ground. Trimming down the foliage makes both digging up and handling the corms easier.
Begin digging roughly 3 inches around the outset edge of the flower clump. Dig down 8 inches with a garden shovel. Once you reach the required depth, use the blade to dig under the corms, lifting them out of the soil. Shake away any loose soil before inspecting your corm.
The central corm is the oldest part of the bulb. Separate this from the small cormlets. Check each corm for any sign of disease or damage. Healthy corms are roughly 4 inches wide. Diseased or damaged corms should be discarded. Healthy corms can be transplanted back into the garden.
How to Harvest the Spice
The best time to harvest the long red stigmas is on the first day that the flower fully opens. While the bloom is cut away, the foliage can be left in place until it naturally dies back.
Carefully cut the bloom away from the stem. Use tweezers to remove the saffron threads from the center of the bloom. Try not to damage or snap the threads as you do this.
Place the threads on a paper towel, in a light, draft free place. Allow the threads, or stigmas, to dry out. Once dry the stigmas can be stored in an airtight moisture-free container until you are ready to use them.
Harvested strands can be toasted in a frying pan or ground into a powder. They can also be infused in a liquid.
Common Saffron Flower Problems
If planted in a favorable position these are easy to grow plants.
Young foliage requires some protection from slugs.
Planting in wet soil, or watering too frequently can cause the bulbs to rot. A SONKIR Soil Meter measures the moisture level of the soil around your corms, as well as the soil pH and light levels. This enables you to know exactly when to water your plants.
A failure to blossom may not always be a sign of disease or damage. Dig up the corms and examine them for signs of disease or infestation. Replant only the corms that are blemish free and plump or smooth.
The soil should be well draining and sun soaked. If otherwise healthy corms continually fail to bloom, add a bit of potassium rich fertilizer to the soil or cover with a layer of wood ash. Avoid applying nitrogen rich fertilizers. These promote foliage production at the expense of flowering.
A final cause of corms failing to bloom is planting in too cold a climate. The corms are only hardy in USDA Zones 5 to 8. If planted in conditions outside of this range they may struggle to grow and flourish.
Rodents and birds can also target the plants. While birds simply pluck off the blooms, rodents dig up and eat the corms. Covering plants with a Bird Netting helps to protect if either pest is a particular problem.
This is a colorful addition to the fall garden.
A colorful fall plant, saffron flower does particularly well when planted alongside columbine or phlox. The plants are also a good underplanting choice. Combine with roses or peonies to create an elegant floral display.
In addition to providing lots of late season color and ornamental interest the saffron flower can also be grown for its spice. A versatile, low maintenance bulb that thrives in a range of conditions, both inside and outside the home, why not try growing your own saffron flower?
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.