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The Saffron Crocus (Crocus sativus), one of around 80 species in the genus Crocus, is the source of saffron, a flavoring and coloring agent that has been derived from dried stigmas (the female flower parts) of the flowers since ancient times. The color of saffron is mainly due to the pigment crocin. Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world by weight and may also provide health benefits in some applications. Because it is so expensive, saffron is sometimes adulterated with other substances such as turmeric.

The Saffron Crocus is native to Asia Minor and is now cultivated from the western Mediterranean (Spain) to India (Kashmir). Iran and Spain have been the largest producers in recent decades, together accounting for more than 80% of the world’s production. Recently, Iran has ranked first in world production, producing more than 90% of the world's saffron. Annually, around 300 metric tons of saffron are produced worldwide. In Europe, saffron production is mainly limited to the Mediterranean.

Once harvested, saffron flowers are brought indoors and placed on a table for manual stripping of the stigmas from the flowers. The procedure takes about 4 seconds per flower and this labor-intensive step is largely responsible for the high cost of saffron. Once extracted, stigmas are quickly dried and toasted. One kg of pure saffron requires around 110,000 to 165,000 flowers (around 80 kg of flowers). Nearly all saffron processing is carried out manually, although efforts are being made to automate parts of the process (e.g. Perez-Vidal et al. 2011).

The Saffron Crocus has an underground corm and produces leaves and lilac-purple flowers with protruding red stigmas in autumn. The plant is triploid (2n = 3x = 24) and fails to produce seed upon selfing or crossing, so its corms are used for propagation (Kumar et al. 2009). The Saffron Crocus should not be confused with the toxic Autumn Crocus (Colchicum autumnale).

(Vaughan and Geissler 1997; Kumar et al. 2009; Perez-Vidal et al. 2011 and references therein)


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