After the rose, crocus sativus has to be Iran’s most emblematic flower. This bulbous plant’s cousins are the iris and the gladiolus flowers, and its pistils are what the saffron spice - popular worldwide - is made of.
By Anne-Salomé Daure
Crocus sativus is a moody flower requiring both a tough climate and altitude. It loves dry, cold and sunny planes, and blooms early in the fall at heights above 1000 meters. Iran is one of the rare countries able to satisfy its demands.
Cultivated on Iranian plateaus since the 5th century B.C., saffron was famous then for its therapeutic benefits and eaten in abundance by Achaemenid sovereigns. It was also a component of cosmetic products - according to Pline, the Greek historian, Persian aristocrats used to cover their body with an ointment made of lion fat, palm wine and saffron, which gave the body a golden hue. For centuries as well, saffron was used as tincture for fabrics and carpets, or as pigment for Persian miniature illustrations.
To obtain a kilo of « za’ferân » pistils, 150 000 to 300 000 flowers are collected, representing 75 to 200 hours harvesting time. Saffron harvesting is a delicate process and requires a large workforce. The red pistils of crocus sativus have to be hand picked, flower by flower, with a soft and vertical gesture, in order not to damage their white filaments. In Iran, saffron pistils are generally sold separately or with their white filaments, which guarantee their authenticity.
There are a lot of imitations and saffron powders cut with miscellaneous substances sold on international markets, but Iranian saffron is considered to be the best in the world, and the price of the kilo can reach $3000.
Strong production, weak notoriety
90 % of saffron production globally comes from Iran. Despite this quasi-monopoly, Iran has not yet succeeded in making a name for itself on the market and in letting its excellence be known. Iranian saffron is little known in the West and mainly exported to countries such as UAE, Turkey and Spain. Spain produces 1.5 tons of saffron a year yet exports about 70 tons. Few consumers know the saffron they buy as a Spanish product is most often quality Iranian saffron, imported and packaged in the Iberian peninsula before being distributed throughout the European market.
In order to bring recognition to this millenary know-how, the Iranian government has been attempting for years to create and register an Iranian brand of saffron at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). The lifting of economic sanctions against Iran could allow the country to get its spot back onto the market of saffron producers.
Cover photo: © aryapajoo.com