What’s Growing: Saffron in Salt Lake City

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An open blossom of the saffron crocus showing the red stigmas which must be harvested carefully by hand.
Saffron (C. Sativus) is a fall-blooming crocus that is both beautiful and useful. It shares a long and storied history that spans more than 3,500 years, multiple religions, trade routes and a value often as high gold or even more. In fact, a small tin of saffron sells on Amazon.com for $12.50 for 2 grams. That is roughly $181.25 an oz! So what can one do if one has a love for fine food flavored with fine spice? Well, you can grow it! Anyone can grow it and it grows quite well in Utah. Seriously. Like many things of Mediterranean decent, saffron is quite happy here. So read on and learn just exactly what you can do to get your very own patch of saffron growing.

 

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After the fall rains begin you can start looking for your saffron crocus to rise up from the dry, cracked earth of summer.
To begin the process of growing your own saffron you will need to purchase the bulbs. Surprisingly, they are quite cheap when you consider the cost of the spice itself and usually run around $40-$50 for 50 bulbs and they can be found online and sometimes in local nurseries. Your bulbs will also multiply over the years and 50 bulbs will become 150, then 150 will become 450, and so on. My bulbs came from a man who grows saffron here in Salt Lake City. He used to sell them at the farmer’s market about 10 years ago. I haven’t seen him in years, so your best bet is to go online.

Once you have your bulbs in hand you can begin the process of planting. Saffron likes full sun to part shade and grows best in that dry corner of your yard where the only water to ever reach them will be rain water. In fact, too much water and you can kiss it all goodbye. Saffron does not like to get wet. So head out to the garden and look for that sunny dry corner that we all have.  That forsaken corner where weeds don’t even like to grow. Then get out your pick ax; you are going to need it to dig up that earth. (Note: July or August is a good time to plant for your first fall harvest.)

 

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This bed was divided in 2013. 30 bulbs had turned into over 400 and it was time to spread them out.
The results of your digging should give you enough space to place your bulbs about one inch below the surface and give about two to three inches between bulbs. Lay out your bulbs and cover them. I like to cover with soil and then about an inch of mulch. You’re done now. Sit back, relax, drink a lot of wine over the summer and wait. You should see your plants start to peek through when the rains come in September and then by early October the blooms will open and share their beautiful stigmas with you. Harvest time has begun.

 

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A handful of just harvested saffron stigmas. Ready to be dried.

Perhaps harvesting is the best part of the growing process, though it is a bit tedious. Each day that your saffron is blooming you will need to step out and admire it’s beauty and pluck those stigmas. In true fields they just remove the whole flour and then the stigmas are removed later. I like to just take the stigmas and leave the flowers to enjoy. Either way, check them each day and remove any red strands that you see. Lay them gently on a paper towel to dry for two to three days and then you can store them away in an airtight container.

The airtight container is important. Let your dried saffron gain it’s full flavor profile in this airtight container for at least two weeks before you use it, otherwise it will provide color, but none of it’s trademark earthiness to the dishes you use it in. Once those two weeks have passed, use as your recipes dictate. Toast or steep for best flavor and color. Your saffron will store up to three years, if it lasts that long.

 

 

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