Saffron for Health, Wealth & Wisdom
The use of saffron (Crocus sativus) dates back roughly 3,600 years ago and is thus not new to the world of agriculture. While the majority of it’s origins trace back to ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman civilizations, contemporary societies have now placed a high value on the red-gold novelty. Spanning the world from countries as diverse as Greece, Iran, and Canada, the cash-crop has built a global reputation and is sought-after now more than ever. Along with simply being a tasty delight, an increasing focus of Saffron’s popularity is the medicinal value the plant holds. While the medicinal effects are widely debated, it is known that ancient societies successfully experimented with its effects thousands of years ago. Fast forward to today and the therapeutic uses are diverse and implemented across cultures around the world. In order to understand any function of saffron, scientists have zeroed in on three predominate, volatile compounds that make up the plant. The first is crocin, known for its red-maroon coloring which can be found in dyes across the globe. Secondly, picrocrocin is what gives Saffron it’s signature earthy-sweet flavor loved by foodies all over. Finally, safranal is responsible for the unique aroma that the plant gives off. While these three chemicals have been explored for centuries, only recently have scientists been able to explore the relevant and precise mechanisms of action in-vivo, or within living organisms.
Saffron is an autumn-blooming Crocus, and thus implicates a unique harvesting cycle for the plant regardless of location. Tomatoes, as well as other botanical fruits, tend to be harvested prior to October, whereas hysteranthous saffron flowers typically bloom in a 2-3 week period in October-November. Hysteranthy is the process by which flowers appear prior to leaf-production within a plant, and makes it easier for harvesters to pick the saffron flowers, since the leaves do not surround the flowers. Partial-hysteranthy is also possible, whereby flower and leaf appearance occur simultaneously. Fresh C. sativus flowers contain three parts, all of which can be utilized independently: The stigma filaments (the red-maroon threads), the stamens (yellow-threads), and lastly, the classy purple petals. Generally, all of these parts are dried before being put to use. While The International Organization of Standardization (ISO) provides a standardized procedure for harvesting, preparing, and testing saffron, various peer-reviewed studies have demonstrated the inefficacy of the standardized protocol for specifically testing the concentrations of crocin, picrocrocin and safranal. While the agricultural space is evolving each year, various researchers provide revised protocols for the standardization of saffron testing, simply adding to the international debate surrounding saffron.
While both a blessing and a curse to the industry, the subjectivity of saffron practices relates to the region it is being grown in. It should be noted that cultural and scientific methodologies support varies greatly from region to region. For example, high temperature dehydration, in an oven or over hot coals, and for a short period of time, has been found to increase picricrocin and safranal, but not crocin in certain studies, while low-temperature dehydration has been reported to result in greater concentrations of crocin, but lower picricrocin and safranal in others. As such, the former method may lead to a more aromatic saffron, while the latter could yield an increased-color affect within the dried stigma filaments. This is just an example of the precision required to produce an exquisite saffron-product.
Crocus sativus is a cash-crop that has multifaceted uses, and as such, has demanded international attention. Traditional therapeutic uses of saffron have a long history dating back to the Greco-Romans and ancient Egyptian cultures, but they have been debated for over a century. The three predominate volatile compounds that have warranted medicinal-research are crocin (the red- maroon color), picrocrocin (the earthy-sweet flavor) and safranal (the well-recognized aroma). Hysteranthous saffron flowers typically bloom in a 2-3 week period in October-November, and then are immediately separated by hand — to finally be dehydrated, and then stored.
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