Above Color, Taste, and Aroma
Saffron (Crocus sativus L.) is an autumnal flowering geophyte whose dried stigmas, well known for their aromatic and coloring power, have been used since immemorial time as a spice in human nutrition, for medicinal purposes and as a dye. Many doubts remain on its origin; it was probably selected and domesticated in Crete during the Late Bronze Age. Saffron is an auto triploid geophyte species, self- and out-sterile and mostly male-sterile and therefore unable to produce seed, that reproduces by means of corms. Furthermore, it has a reverse biological cycle compared with the majority of cultivated and spontaneous plants: flowering first in October November, then vegetative development until May, which means that the vegetative development is not directly important for production of stigmas, but for the production of new corms. Due to its unique biological, physiological and agronomic traits, crocus sativus is able to exploit marginal land and to be included in low-input cropping systems, representing an alternative viable crop for sustainable agriculture. Notwithstanding this great potential and the considerable increase in new generation consumer demand for crocus sativus, the future of the plant is still uncertain. Indeed, the main obstacles to saffron production are: the limited areas of cultivation in countries where it is traditionally grown, the great amount of sophisticated spice, management techniques executed by hand, and the very high price of the spice.
Here we review the main biological, genetic and ecological traits associated with agronomic management techniques of crocus sativus in relation to environmental conditions. Color, taste and aroma are the essential features on which the quality of saffron stigmas is founded. In turn, these aspects are strictly connected with the biomolecular composition of the stigmas, namely, the carotenoids and their derivatives. With this in mind, the biosynthetic pathway that leads to the formation of saffron secondary metabolites and their abundance in the spice is presented, together with the biomedical properties commonly associated with crocus sativus. Furthermore, a detailed overview of the more recent instrumental methods to assess the quality of saffron, strictly from a chemical point of view, will be discussed.
Read also: The soil impact on saffron cultivation
Introducing Saffron Flower
Saffron belongs to the large family of Iridaceae and to the genus Crocus, which includes about 80 species distributed primarily in the Mediterranean and south-western Asia. Among these, saffron, recognized as the most expensive spice in the world, certainly represents the most interesting and attractive species, for the coloring, bitterness and aromatic power of its dried stigmas.
crocus sativus is a geophyte herbaceous plant, whose stigmas have been used from ancient times as a spice in food, as a dye, in perfumes and cosmetics preparation and for medicinal purposes. Nowadays, it is almost exclusively used for food coloring and flavoring, even though recent studies are boosting interest in its medical properties. Saffron is known only as a cultivated species; it propagates solely vegetative by means of corms, underground stems acting as storage and reproduction structures, and does not produce seeds or exist as a spontaneous plant.
Biological cycle of saffron
Which climate is better for cultivation?
Saffron is cultivated in a wide range of environments with mild to dry climates. For a long time, saffron has been neglected by researchers and farmers since it was considered a minor crop used only for agricultural diversification. However, in the last few years it is gaining a more interesting role
in low-input agricultural systems and as an alternative crop. Moreover, saffron is a very attractive crop for organic and low impute agriculture considering that no irrigation, chemical fertilization or chemical weed treatments are applied in some environments in which it is cultivated. The main management techniques such as corm planting, flower harvest, stigma separation and corm lifting are carried out manually and this contributes to its high price. Commercial saffron is defined as “the stigmas of C. sativus L. dried, dark red in color and trumpet shaped, serrated or indented at the distal end. The length is between 20 mm and 40 mm. The stigmas may be isolated or joined in pairs or threes at the end of the portion of the style, which is white/yellow in color”. Saffron’s color, bitter taste and aroma are its three main and particular characteristics, which are associated with three different molecular features: crocin, picrocrocin and safranal, respectively.
Read also: Krokos in Theran culture (Κροκος)
These and other characteristics make saffron one of the most interesting alternative rediscovered crops, especially for the Mediterranean environment, where the hot, dry summer climate inhibits the spread of pathogenic disease. The relaunching of saffron production requires research studies, improvement in knowledge and a synergic action between scientific and empiric information.
What you read was an excerpt from F. Gresta, G.M. Lombardo, L. Siracusa, G. Ruberto “Saffron, an alternative crop for sustainable agricultural systems. A review”
Was this article interesting to you? We will talk more about saffron’s flower yield, pests, storage, and weed control in Saffron Express’s future articles.