History of saffron
Human cultivation and use of saffron spans more than 3,500 years and extends across cultures, continents, and civilizations. Saffron, a spice derived from the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), has through history remained among the world’s most costly substances. With its bitter taste, hay-like fragrance, and slight metallic notes, the apocarotenoid-rich saffron has been used as a seasoning, fragrance, dye, and medicine.
The saffron crocus is a genetically monomorphic clone native to Southwest Asia; it was probably first cultivated in or near Persia. The wild precursor of domesticated saffron crocus was likely Crocus cartwrightianus, which originated in Crete and Greece; C. thomasii and C. pallasii are other possible sources. The saffron crocus is now a triploid that is “self-incompatible” and male sterile; it undergoes aberrant meiosis and is hence incapable of independent sexual reproduction—all propagation is by vegetative multiplication via manual “divide-and-set” of a starter clone or by interspecific hybridisation. If C. sativus is a mutant form of C. cartwrightianus, then it may have emerged via plant breeding, which would have selected for elongated stigmas, in late Bronze Age Crete.
Humans may have bred C. cartwrightianus specimens by screening for specimens with abnormally long stigmas. The resulting saffron crocus was documented in a 7th-century BC Assyrian botanical reference compiled under Ashurbanipal, and it has since been traded and used over the course of four millennia and has been used as treatment for some ninety disorders. The C. sativus clone was slowly propagated throughout much of Eurasia, later reaching parts of North Africa, North America, and Oceania. Global production on a by-mass basis is now dominated by Iran, which accounts for some 90% of the annual harvest.
Historical documentation and evidence suggests that Achaemenid (the government of 331 – 536 BC) were the consumer of saffron and were familiar with its food and medical properties. According to Alexander’s resources about warfare techniques, dietary program and 63 kinds of kings and Achaemenid court consumed foodstuffs, with its amount carved on bronze column. In this contents, daily consumed saffron of Achaemenid court was 498 grams. Ferdinand Justi has provided a list of Darius all kinds of consumed foods including Taftouns and saffron soft pollen which provided by 3 kinds of Egypt wheat and 3 kinds of barely and black wheat.
Saffron-based pigments have been found in the prehistoric paints used to illustrate beasts in 50,000-year-old cave art found in modern-day Iraq, which was even then northwest of the Persian Empire. The Sumerians used saffron as an ingredient in their remedies and magical potions. Sumerians did not cultivate saffron. They gathered their stores from wild flowers, believing that divine intervention alone enables saffron’s medicinal properties.
In ancient Persia, saffron (Crocus sativus ‘Hausknechtii’) was cultivated at Derbena and Isfahan in the 10th century BC. There, Persian saffron threads have been found interwoven into ancient Persian royal carpets and funeral shrouds. Saffron was used by ancient Persian worshippers as a ritual offering to their deities, and as a brilliant yellow dye, perfume, and a medicine. Thus, saffron threads would be scattered across beds and mixed into hot teas as a curative for bouts of melancholy. Indeed, Persian saffron threads, used to spice foods and teas, were widely suspected by foreigners of being a drugging agent and an aphrodisiac. These fears grew to forewarn travelers to abstain from eating saffron-laced Persian cuisine. In addition, Persian saffron was dissolved in water with sandalwood to use as a body wash after heavy work and perspiration under the hot Persian sun. Later, Persian saffron was heavily used by Alexander the Great and his forces during their Asian campaigns. They mixed saffron into teas and dined on saffron rice. Alexander personally used saffron sprinkled in warm bath water, taking after Cyrus the Great. Much like Cyrus, he believed it would heal his many wounds, and his faith in saffron grew with each treatment. He even recommended saffron baths for the ordinary men under him. The Greek soldiers, taken with saffron’s perceived curative properties, continued the practice after they returned to Macedonia.