BOXBOROUGH, MA — Crocus sativus, better know as the saffron crocus, produces the well known spice saffron, which is used in culinary and medicinal applications around the world. This unique spice is known by many but grown by few. Researchers at the University of Vermont are hoping to change this. The world-renowned spice comes from the three tiny stigmas found in each flower of the saffron crocus. New research done by Margaret Skinner, Research Professor at the University of Vermont, shows that this cash crop could be viable in the northeast. The idea came about when Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani, a post-doctoral associate, asked Skinner, “Why don’t you grow saffron in Vermont”, a very simple question that not many people had even considered. While it didn’t seem realistic with the harsh Vermont winters, Skinner began looking for ways to research the possibilities of Vermont grown saffron anyway.
Crocus sativus has been cultivated for over 3,500 years and is used worldwide. Saffron is a high dollar crop that is grown in only a few countries such as Spain, India and Iran. Iran accounts for over 90 percent of the 250 ton yearly supply of saffron worldwide. The United States imports nearly 25 tons each year, showing that there is indeed a market for this highly sought after spice. Saffron sells for between $4,000-$10,000 dollars a pound depending on quality and quantity purchased, making it the most expensive spice in the world.
Saffron begins growing in early autumn and flowers in mid-late October, growing through the winter and reaching dormancy by March. Skinner recommends not watering the corms before dormancy and to keep in mind that rodents will constantly be trying to find their way down to the corms even in dormancy. Wood mice and voles find saffron crocus corms to be a delicious food source in winter as well as in summer. Saffron grows best in sunny areas and well-drained soil that allows the corms to avoid mold and mildew. The plants grow from 5 – 20 inches tall and each corm will produce only one flower, but the corms will multiply rapidly in the following years, allowing for higher production.
When Skinner began her research she tried two methods for growing the crocus corms. One way was in raised garden beds and the other in milk crates. “Milk crates allow for easy movement and storage in the offseason,” says Skinner, who understands that extra space is not something that most growers have. Milk crates are also the right depth, lightweight and sturdy. The crates were planted with 11 corms per crate, which is about 100 corms/sq ft. The yield was found to be better in the milk crates which Skinner attributes to less rodent interference with the corms. Both the corm and stigma yield were found to be better in the milk crates than in the beds. Keeping the plants inside a high tunnel or hoop house prevented the corms from freezing during the harsh winters, which was the biggest concern of growing this cash crop in colder zones. High tunnels were used because they are an inexpensive and easy way to keep away from the frigid winters. While the number of corms derived from the milk crates were higher, the average weight of corms was found to be 10.3 grams in the beds as opposed to 7.7 grams on average in the crates. This study has shown that growing saffron is indeed viable even in colder climates such as Vermont.
Skinner’s yields of saffron were found to be higher than their counterparts in Spain and Iran which is possibly due to better soil used as well as more protection from the rain and wind which can damage the flower, and more importantly, the stigma.
While most growers already have their space occupied by tomatoes and vegetables, setting some space aside to grow saffron might become the new trend. “There is economic value in sacrificing space for saffron than other winter greens,” Skinner says after finding a yield of approximately $4/sq ft. which outranks both tomatoes and leafy greens. Saffron production can earn up to $100,000 per acre.
Saffron is a relatively low input crop to grow, the high price comes from harvesting and processing which is extremely labor intensive. It takes roughly 70,000 flowers to make one pound of dried saffron, and because of the delicacy of the flower and stigma, hand harvesting is the only way to ensure maximum high quality yield. This high labor task comes for four weeks in mid-late October when the crocus is flowering.
Saffron growth in the United States is very limited with a few relatively small operation scattered across the country. Bringing to light these new findings on saffron production in cold climates can have a drastic effect on farms and economies across the country