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Dyeing for Color

Carly Still
January 22, 2015

C. sativus provided a small burst of color this fall in the Bonnefont herb garden while other perennials were fading away. Saffron crocus requires full sun and dry soil while dormant. For more information on planting requirements, please visit White Flower Farm. Phot from Garden Archive
C. sativus provided a small burst of color last fall in the Bonnefont Herb Garden while other perennials were fading away. Photograph from The Cloisters garden archive. 

«In the midst of ice and wind, I retreat to the warmth of the indoors at The Cloisters museum and gardens. I long for growth, and daydream about the upcoming spring. And I write about color now to invigorate myself against a possible winter slump.»

This fall I planted saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) corms in the bed devoted to the medieval plants used by artists and craftsmen. I was pleasantly surprised that within a handful of weeks, the infamous saffron crocus was in bloom. The C. sativus is a type of autumn-blooming crocus (yes, that's right: it blooms in the autumn, not the spring) with origins in southern Europe and southwestern Asia, and probably stems from the wild crocus (Crocus cartwrightianus) native to the Greek island of Crete and mainland Greece (Cardon 302).

C. sativus is attractive, with its fragrant, lilac-purple flowers and characteristic three red stigmas and yellow anthers. Crocus comes from the Greek krokos, meaning thread, and refers to the plants' slender stigmas. The stigmas are hand-picked, ideally on a sunny morning when the flowers have fully opened, and then dried, giving us the world's most expensive spice: saffron. The quality and aroma of the saffron depends greatly on the drying process, and is graded based on length, color, aroma, and purity. Three-centimeter-long Spanish saffron is supposedly the cream of the crop (Cardon 302).

Other major suppliers of saffron currently include Iran, India, Greece, Pakistan, and Morocco, and on smaller scales, France and Turkey. Areas of major cultivation once included Valencia, Spain; Nuremberg, Germany; and Saffron Walden, UK (Bown 183). One can only imagine the patience and steady hands needed to harvest saffron, let alone the time it would take to collect a small handful. It is said that 150,000 flowers are required to produce just one kilogram of dry spice (Van Wyck 155).

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Left: A small sample (0.01 oz.) of saffron. Right: I couldn't resist making a small cup of saffron tea, done by simply sprinkling the slender threads into hot water. Photographs by Carly Still

C. sativus has had multiple uses throughout history. In the Middle Ages it was used to show wealth by coloring and flavoring food, and creating intoxicating scents. It was also an expensive reddish-yellow dye for precious silk, hair, and nails, and an important substitute for gold leaf in medieval manuscripts. Because of the exorbitant price of saffron, safflower, often called "false saffron" (Carthamus tinctorius), was sometimes sold as or mixed into ground saffron. The stakes were high if you were caught selling false goods, though. One fifteenth-century trader from Nuremberg, Germany, was buried alive with his "adulterated product" (Bown 183).

Saffron was also used medicinally as an ingredient in pills, a cleaning and antispasmodic agent for the stomach, a nerve tonic and opiate against hysteria, and as a relief for nosebleeds and menstruation (Lehner 120). Saffron should only be consumed in small doses (a maximum of one gram per day) and should not be confused with the poisonous meadow saffron or autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale).

I look forward to the upcoming growing season, when large swaths of spring-blooming crocuses, including my personal favorite, Crocus chrysanthus "Cream Beauty," will provide the first burst of color in the Cuxa Cloister garden.


Bown, Deni. Encyclopedia of Herbs: The Definitive guide to the identification, cultivation, and uses of herbs. New York: DK Publishing Inc., 2001.

Cardon, Dominique. Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science. London: Archetype Publications, 2007.

Lehner, Ernst & Johanna. Folklore & Odysseys of Food & Medicinal Plants. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1962.

Van Wyk, Ben-Erik. Food Plants of the World: An Illustrated Guide. Portland: Timber Press, 2005.

Carly Still

Carly Still is the assistant horticulturist at The Met Cloisters.