Human cultivation and use of saffron spans more than 3,500 years and extends across cultures, continents, and civilizations. Saffron, a spice derived from the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), has through history remained among the world's most costly substances.
Human cultivation and use of saffron spans more than 3,500 years and extends across cultures, continents, and civilizations. Saffron, a spice derived from the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), has through history remained among the world's most costly substances. With its bitter taste, hay-like fragrance, and slight metallic notes, the apocarotenoid-rich saffron has been used as a seasoning, fragrance, dye, and medicine.
The wild precursor of domesticated saffron crocus was likely Crocus cartwrightianus, which originated in Crete or Central Asia;C. thomasii and C. pallasii are other possible sources.Although some doubts remain on its origin, it is believed that saffron originated in Iran. However, Greece and Mesopotamia have also been suggested as the possible region of origin of this plant. The saffron crocus is now a triploid that is "self-incompatible" and male sterile; it undergoes aberrant meiosis and is hence incapable of independent sexual reproduction—all propagation is by vegetative multiplication via manual "divide-and-set" of a starter clone or by interspecific hybridisation. If C. sativus is a mutant form of C. cartwrightianus, then it may have emerged via plant breeding, which would have selected for elongated stigmas, in late Bronze Age Crete.
Humans may have bred C. cartwrightianus specimens by screening for specimens with abnormally long stigmas. The resulting saffron crocus was documented in a 7th-century BC Assyrian botanical reference compiled under Ashurbanipal, and it has since been traded and used over the course of four millennia and has been used as treatment for some ninety disorders.The C. sativus clone was slowly propagated throughout much of Eurasia, later reaching parts of North Africa, North America, and Oceania. Global production on a by-mass basis is now dominated by Iran, which accounts for some 90% of the annual harvest.
It immediately stems from the Latin word safranum via the 12th-century Old French term safran. The French was borrowed from Arabic زَعْفَرَان (za'farān), and ultimately from Persian word "zarparan" which literally means "yellow stigmas".
The Latin form safranum is also the source of the Catalan safrà, Italian zafferano,but Portuguese açafrão, and Spanish azafrán come from the Arabic az-zaferán.
The Latin term crocus is certainly a Semitic loanword. It is adapted from the Aramaic form kurkema via the Arabic term kurkum and the Greek intermediate κρόκος krokos, which once again signifies "yellowish". The Sanskrit kunkumam might be ultimately the origin, or in some way related to the Semitic term.
Minoan and Greco-Roman
This inaccurate reconstruction of a Minoan fresco from Knossos in Crete depicts a man, which should be a monkey, gathering the crocus harvest.
Crocus cartwrightianus is a species of flowering plant in the family Iridaceae, native to Greece and Crete. C. cartwrightianus is the presumed wild progenitor of the domesticated triploid Crocus sativus – the saffron crocus. Saffron is the triploid form of a species found in Eastern Greece, Crocus cartwrightianus; it probably appeared first in Crete. An origin in Western or Central Asia, although often suspected, has been disproved by botanical research.
Saffron played a significant role in the Greco-Roman pre-classical period bracketed by the 8th century BC and the 3rd century AD. The first known image of saffron in pre-Greek culture is much older and stems from the Bronze Age. A saffron harvest is shown in the Knossos palace frescoes of Minoan Crete,which depict the flowers being picked by young girls and monkeys. One of these fresco sites is located in the "Xeste 3" building at Akrotiri, on the Aegean island of Santorini—the ancient Greeks knew it as "Thera". These frescoes likely date from the 16th or 17th century BC but may have been produced anywhere between 3000 and 1100 BC. They portray a Minoan goddess supervising the plucking of flowers and the gleaning of stigmas for use in the manufacture of what is possibly a therapeutic drug.A fresco from the same site also depicts a woman using saffron to treat her bleeding foot. These "Theran" frescoes are the first botanically accurate visual representations of saffron's use as an herbal remedy. This saffron-growing Minoan settlement was ultimately destroyed by a powerful earthquake and subsequent volcanic eruption sometime between 1645 and 1500 BC. The volcanic ash from the destruction entombed and helped preserve these key herbal frescoes.