The word saffron originates from the French word safran, which in turn comes from Arabic word asfar, meaning yellow, reflecting its distinctive colouring. It’s often known as ‘red gold’ because it is the world’s most expensive spice. Saffron has been used in traditional folk medicines and Ayurvedic health systems as a digestive aid, anti-inflammatory, nervine, expectorant and adaptogenic agent for centuries.
In traditional medicine, saffron has been used across India and Iran to strengthen the functioning of the stomach and support the digestive system, reducing muscular spasms and inflammation. It is also used as a strengthening agent for the heart, for support in anaemia and as a cooling agent for the brain. Saffron has also traditionally been used to support conditions affecting the female reproductive system, specifically for regulating and promoting menstrual flow. Ancient Ayurvedic texts even describe the aphrodisiac properties of the herb and its part in a wedding night ritual where it is mixed with milk. Externally, it can be used as a paste to help skin conditions such as acne and eczema. Saffron is known as a ‘yogavahi’ herb in Ayurveda as it acts as a catalyst for other herbs it is taken with.
Recent clinical trials have showed further medicinal activity of saffron within the nervous system and the brain. Two major components, safranal and crocin, have a potential anti-depressant effect in mild to moderate depression. These two components were also found to improve memory and learning skills, displaying a potential use in neurodegenerative disorders affecting the functioning of the brain.
Crocus sativus is a perennial spicy herb from the iridaceae plant family. The outstanding feature of the saffron flower is three brightly coloured stigmas that droop over the petal; it is this part of the plant which is the most medicinally active. The underground parts of the plant (corms or bulbs) divide to produce new plants, as saffron has no seed propagation which is why it is so expensive to cultivate, with each bulb producing only one to seven flowers.
Farming & Cultivation
The primary areas of cultivation for this spice are Iran, India, Spain, Greece and Turkey. Pukka source saffron from India. The cultivation of saffron requires intensive labour and time making it a highly priced spice. The collected stigmas are the medicinally active component of the plant, but it takes about 36,000 flowers to yield just 1 pound of the stigmas, which also increases the value of this plant as a medicinal herb.
A Little Bit Of Chemistry
The dried stigmas of the plant are rich in flavonoids, vitamins and carotenoids. Carotenoids such as crocetin, crocin, safranal and picrocrocin represent the main therapeutic components of saffron. The carotenoids form apocarotenoids which display a strong free radical scavenging action that can help protect against oxidative stress. Saffron is also rich in B vitamins and, along with carotenoids, these serve to support healthy levels of serotonin and other brain chemicals associated with depression. Crocin is the component responsible for the yellow colouring of the plant and safranal for the scent and taste.