Crocus sativus (Iridaceae)
It is a small, low-lying plant found in meadows with a flower seemingly dispropor-tionate to its stem. It flowers, in temperate European climates, in October-November. Three sepals make up the calyx and the corolla is likewise made of three petals. They mi-mic one another: except for their somewhat larger size, sepals are petal-like. They are purple-colored, which is one of the distinctive marks from the golden crocus, which flo-wers in early spring. A thin stylus follows the axis of the flower and splits at the top into three thick red branches, the stigma. Each of these vivid crimson stigmas is 25–30 mm in length. The plant originated in Central Asia, is native to Southwest Asia, and mankind has cultivated it for millennia.
The value, the spice saffron, is in the stigma. Value indeed: saffron sells for US $ 4,000-30,000/kg. Why does it thus compete with rare metals? Because it is a labor-intensive delicacy: one kilogram of the stuff, once dried, stems from 5 kg of stigma which, in turn, derive from 140,000 individual flowers. A harvester collects about 125 g of saffron per hour. 300 tons are produced yearly, worldwide.
Yesteryear, saffron was used as a yellow dye, for textiles and for illuminated manus-cripts. Nowadays, its near-exclusive use is as a spice, notably in Mediterranean seafood dishes such as bouillabaisse and paella valenciana.
The molecule giving saffron its color is a carotenoid named crocetin, accounting for up to 10 % of the dry mass. It has a hydrocarbon spine, known as crocin, with seven car-bon-carbon double bonds conjugated to one another, which accounts for the color, i.e., ab-sorption of solar light in the blue predominantly.
What is the future of saffron? Its price can only further increase, it is easily predicted from the promising pharmacological properties. Crocin is a potent antioxidant. It is an an-tidepressant. It is effective against proliferating cells, such as in breast and in colorectal cancers.