It is so exciting to grow the rare and vivid crimson-colored spice called saffron right here at my Bedford, New York farm.
Saffron comes from a flower called crocus sativus, also known as ‘saffron crocus’. It is a beautiful, purple flower with bright red threads, or stigmas, which make the luxurious spice. Over the last couple of years, my friend Hannah Milman has planted more than 10-thousand saffron corms in various areas around the property, including a large patch beneath the quince trees just outside my flower cutting garden. Saffron is planted in late summer and then harvested by hand from late October to early November. It’s so much fun to see these flowers develop.
Enjoy these photos and please follow Hannah on Instagram @hannahcmilman to learn more about saffron.
Hannah first started planting saffron at my farm in 2020. She brought boxes filled with beautiful saffron corms. Saffron is a highly prized spice used for both sweet and savory dishes, most notably Italian risotto, Spanish paella, and many Iranian and Asian recipes.
Saffron is planted in late summer. The main tool for planting saffron corms or any small bulbs is a dibber, which is a pointed wooden stick for making holes in the ground.
Here is a closer look at one of the corms. The compact corms are small, brown globules that can measure as large as two-inches in diameter, have a flat base, and are shrouded in a dense mat of parallel fibers referred to as the “corm tunic”. Do you know the difference between a corm and a bulb? Both corms and bulbs are parts of the plant that store food to help it grow and bloom. A bulb is a plant stem and leaf that grows underground in layers. A tiny version of the flower is at the center of the bulb. Tulips, lilies, iris, daffodils and onions are examples of bulbs. A corm is an underground stem that serves as the base for the flower stem and is solid, not layered.
The largest bed of saffron is here beneath the quince trees adjacent to my blueberry patch. It is the perfect area for planting saffron which does best in hardiness zones 5 to 8 in full to partial sun. This garden gets at least five or six hours of direct sunlight per day. Here, Hannah begins making all the holes for the corms.
Using the dibber, Hannah creates a hole at least four to six inches deep.
In general, holes should be three times deeper than the length of the corm or bulb. For planting smaller corms like these, the dibber is the prefect tool – fast and efficient.
And then one by one, each corm is carefully placed in a hole, with the pointed end faced up, or root end faced down. This is very important, so the plant grows properly. When purchasing bulbs and corms, always look for those that are plump and firm, and avoid those that are soft.
Here is the saffron corm just at the top of the hole before it is pushed in more deeply – see how it is faced up.
With so many corms to get into the ground, Hannah plants them in a production line process – making rows of holes first, and then placing the corms into the holes.
Hannah also waits until all the holes are filled before covering with soil, so she can keep track of what has been planted where.
Here are all the rows of holes filled with wonderful saffron corms.
And here is the same field after it has been backfilled and covered with a topdressing of nutrient-rich compost made right here at the farm.
By early October, the saffron sprouts are visible. They emerge with thin, straight, and blade-like green foliage leaves, which expand after the flowers have opened. Here, one can also see the small flower emerging from the center.
The lilac-colored flower appears next. The blooms last about three weeks.
By the middle of October, most of the saffron blooms are open all over the field.
It is the bright red-orange threads of saffron, the stigmas, or female portion, of the saffron crocus flowers that make up the spice. Three stigmas are borne in the center of each cup-shaped bloom. The best time to harvest the stigmas is mid-morning on a sunny day when the flowers have fully opened and are still fresh. The stigmas on this flower are ready to harvest.
On harvesting day, Hannah plucks the blooms and places them gently in a basket. And they smell so wonderful – a sweet, honey-like fragrance. The leaves of the saffron will persist for eight to 12 weeks, then wither and vanish, leaving no trace of the corms below until the flowers appear again next fall.
Such a bounty of beautiful saffron flowers. The saffron flowers can also be used in a variety of ways.
Hannah brings them all to my Winter House kitchen and shows the red stigmas that make up the spice. It takes hundreds of flowers to produce a commercially useful amount, and lots of labor, which explains why saffron has long been the world’s most costly spice by weight.
Hannah carefully pulls off the saffron stigmas, separating them from the flowers and setting all of them on a paper lined baking sheet to dry.
Once dried, they can be stored in a jar. I can’t wait to use them in cooking. Please go to Hannah’s Instagram page @hannahcmilman to see more wonderful photos, Reels, and Stories about saffron. Hannah shows you other places she’s planted saffron and all the different uses for the flower and the spice. Thanks Hannah – for teaching us so much about saffron.