Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, so expensive some refer to it as ‘red gold’. The price of saffron reflects the relatively large amounts of plants required to grow significant volumes, and in particular the need for hand harvesting labor. A ‘pinch’ of saffron is usually considered twenty threads; enough saffron to infuse it’s unique flavor and color into a typical recipe. It takes several thousand flowers to produce an ounce of saffron.
To grow a small amount of saffron for home use, plant bulbs late August to early October. Plant in good potting soil in containers, or in very well amended soils, in full sun. In our native clay, add lots of compost, and a little lime too, and mound up for drainage. Fertilize with bulb food or bone meal. A few bulbs may produce a single flower right away; the others will produce the next year. Flowers appear in October or November; after they die down, foliage will grow late winter to spring. It is important that the bulbs stay relatively dry during the summer dormant period, so do not plant where you plan on irrigating.
Older bulbs will often produce two flowers; keep them productive by fertilizing after flowering every year. Saffron is a favorite of rodents and rabbits, so protect them with fences and or wire mesh. To reduce disease risks, lift and divide saffron bulbs while dormant in the summer every 3 to 4 years, and replant into a new location or fresh soil.
To harvest saffron, use tweezers to gently remove the three red filaments from the center of the flower. The rest of the flower – purple petals and yellow stamens – is not usable. Dry the filaments in a food dryer, or a barely warm oven with the door open, just until filaments are very light and quite brittle. This dried saffron is still not quite ready to use; store it dry and dark for at least a month before using.