saffron, name for a fall-flowering plant ( Crocus sativus ) of the family Iridaceae (iris family) and also for a dye obtained therefrom. The plant is native to Asia Minor, where for centuries it has been cultivated for its aromatic orange-yellow stigmas (see pistil). The stigmas, handpicked and dried, yield saffron powder, the source of the principal yellow dye of the ancient world. It was used for numerous purposes by many ancient cultures, including the Sumerians, Phoenicians, Minoans, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Persians. The plant is still grown in limited quantities for the powder, which is used in medicinals and perfumes and for flavoring, especially in Mediterranean cooking. It has been estimated that the stigmas of about 4,000 flowers are required for one ounce of saffron powder. Saffron is mentioned in classical writings and in the Bible (Song 4.14). It is one of the crocuses sometimes cultivated for ornament; its blossoms are white or lilac in color. The safflower, sometimes used as a substitute for saffron and called false, or American, saffron, and the meadow saffron, or autumn crocus ( Colchicum autumnale ) are unrelated plants. True saffron is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Liliopsida, order Liliales, and family Iridaceae.
See P. Willard, Secrets of Saffron: The Vagabond Life of the World's Most Seductive Spice (2001).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.