As winter comes to an end, and the Northern hemisphere begins to shake off its cold till the next year, crocuses are one of the earliest to emerge from under the snow. A genus comprising about 90 species, it prefers cold climates and is native to central and southern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, central Asia and Western China.
Although each species of crocus differs slightly, all crocuses have leaves that are grass-like, with a central cup-shaped flower, usually with six petals surrounding the pistils and three prominent stamens. Crocus corms are normally planted in the autumn, about 10cm deep (4 inches) in well-drained soil with plenty of sun. As with most corms, it is capable of producing new corms each year to replace the original one. This ensures that in a well-tended garden, provided that the mice and squirrels don’t get to them first, crocuses are capable of sustaining themselves, and probably a number of hungry critter families, year after year.
Although spring crocuses are the most popular in gardening, it’s an autumn-blooming crocus, Crocus sativus, that’s most useful. The female parts of the flower, specifically the styles and stigmas, are harvested by hand early in the morning, dried, and sold as saffron. It’s one of the most expensive spices in the world due to the large amount of work and sheer number of flowers required to harvest just a few grams of the spice. Humans have been cultivating and using saffron for more than 3500 years, in cooking, perfumes, dyes, and medicine. Today, Iran produces more than 80% of the world’s saffron, during a precious window of several weeks in the autumn when the flower blooms.
Of course, something so precious has been extensively analysed. Saffron contains more than 150 compounds, which contribute to its colour and taste. Picrocrocin and safranal, for example, are responsible for its unique taste, whilst crocin gives it its golden yellow colour. Saffron also contains a large number of vitamins and minerals, making it more than mere flavouring. In traditional medicine, it’s thought to be useful in the treatment of depression, Alzheimer’s, cancer, and eye degeneration. Interestingly, a quick search on Pubmed revealed that many groups have been working on the scientific basis and reliability of claims that the spice is useful against Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cell damage, cognition, heart function, and others, aided by arguably the most well-fed lab mice and rats in the world.
There wasn’t any Crocus sativus to be found in New Haven throughout graduate school, or home-made saffron to delight in, but Cedar Street was, and hopefully still is, home to a large number of white spring crocuses, with the occasional purple or yellow mixed in. I preferred the spring crocuses in Princeton, New Jersey though. Here, nature did the gardening, and tufts of crocuses lined the streets like little lamps for fairies and leprechauns, catching the light in the most beautiful way.