Saturday, October 26, 2013

A Desirable Stigma

Funny how the English language has words that have more than one meaning. Normally a stigma is not something to be desired, it is a mark of disgrace, synonyms include shame, dishonor, ignominy, opprobrium, humiliation. But in botany the term is used to describe the part of the flower that receives the pollen during pollination. The stigma of Crocus sativus is very desirable and very expensive. So I was thrilled yesterday when I noticed that my pots that are home to a number of Crocus sativus bulbs, aka Saffron Crocus, were sporting a few flower buds that were about to pop. I had my camera in hand because I was on my way to the vegetable garden to do a photo shoot to document the garden in late October (a post in process) so I snapped a few shots..

Here's what caught my eye, a spot of lavender in the middle of the pot. You might be able to see the remains of the first flower that bloomed a number of days ago. I didn't even notice that blossom until it was well past its prime. Nothing happened for days after that and I was thinking that perhaps I had managed to kill off the rest of the bulbs in the pot because that plant was the only sign of life in the three pots that are planted exclusively to saffron bulbs.

Yippee, they aren't dead after all!

I continued on to the vegetable garden and took a bunch of photos there and then stopped by to check out the saffron on my way back to the house. The buds were starting to open up a bit and as I was looking I saw them start to unfurl a bit more.

The movement of the petals as the flower opened up was slow but certain. The red stigmas were becoming visible.

I went back into the house to upload the photos from the camera to the computer and when that was finished I went back out to check on the saffron. The blossoms had opened up even more.

Not much later the sun had broken out of the grip of the dreary fog and the blossoms had opened up even more.

It took a little more than 3 hours to go from the closed up bud in the first photos to this one. And do you see who had found the flowers already?

She may be doing her job of carrying pollen from anthers to stigmas but it will be in vain, saffron flowers are sterile.

Two more flowers opened up today so that makes a total of 7 flowers, or 21 threads of saffron harvested to date. My saffron harvests are not likely to make it into the harvest weight tally, I doubt that it will ever weigh enough to show up on my scale. It's going to take a while to harvest enough to make a batch of paella!

So, a bit more about saffron, it is thought to be originally from the eastern Mediterranean, but there are no longer any wild forms of the plants. Like corn, saffron was long ago domesticated by humans and now is dependent on humans for its reproduction. It is sterile and does not make viable seeds, each bulb produces numerous bulblets which must be dug up and replanted about every 4 years. Saffron requires a period of dry dormancy in the summer which makes it well suited to growing in Mediterranean dry summer climates such as the climate here in coastal California. It will tolerate winter temperatures as low as 14ºF.

Growing in Containers:

From what I've read you can plant one bulb per one gallon of soil. I measured the amount of soil it takes to fill my No. 40 terra cotta pots which came out to about 9 to 9 1/2 gallons. I recycled some potting soil, amending it with 1/4 cup each of Azomite, dolomite lime, fish bone meal, and Sustane fertilizer (4-6-4), along with about 1 teaspoon of beneficial mycorrhizae. To be a bit conservative I put only 8 bulbs into each pot, each one on the same level in the pot, about 6 inches deep. There are some trade-offs to planting at different depths, a more shallow planting depth yields more flowers but a deeper depth (about 6 inches) produces higher quality stigmas.

I planted the bulbs last year on September 6. The plants produced leaves last year but no flowers.  In the spring of this year the greenery died back and I let the pots dry out. We have a truly dry summer climate here, barely a trace of rain falls throughout the entire summer and well into fall. I started to water the pots in early September and noticed the first signs of returning life in the pots just a week or 10 days ago. As I mentioned earlier, I entirely missed the first blossom that appeared, I think it may have bloomed before the tips of the first green leaves appeared, like this blossom in one of the other pots...

The stigmas from that first flower were still good so they are included in that impressive (!) harvest shown above. If I can get one flower from each bulb this year I should get enough of a harvest to prepare a couple of dishes. Two from each bulb would be a bonus (the first bulb to bloom has produced two blossoms - fingers crossed for the rest of the bulbs). I will never be the saffron maven of Carmel Valley, but it sure is fun to get a bit of harvest and I'll be able to brag about my homegrown saffron when I present that panful of Paella.


  1. I've just typed a long comment then blogger lost it!
    I've had a great harvesting saffron this year - corms originally from our local town Saffron Walden tourist office - this area of England was famed for saffron in medieval times.

  2. I've always wanted to grow saffron. I do think it is hardy here (I've read zone 5 or 6) but we don't get dry summers. It is sometimes very wet here. Not the ideal conditions.

  3. Thank you for sharing this. I always wondered about which crocus gave us saffron and never took the trouble to look it up so it was great seeing the photos, finished product and the 'how to' as well.

  4. That's lovely. I can't believe they were so fast; I'm glad you were on the scene to record and harvest. Paella. . . yum.

  5. I planted some saffron crocus last year but it never came up. I assumed it was dead, but if it didn't flower then I probably wouldn't have noticed it. Perhaps there is still hope.

  6. Definitely adding this to next year's grow list!

  7. We are running parallel saffron growing tests. I too planted last year in pots. I used a much more shallow depth than you - perhaps 2"- evidently not having done my research as well. My experience was the same, however: no flowers last year. I haven't yet seen a flower this year (I'm growing in the coastal Los Angeles area), but now I know to keep my eyes peeled.


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