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Saffron: Not As Exotic As You Think

Posted by Naomi Schoenfeld on

Saffron: Not As Exotic As You Think

One of the things I love about growing my own food is the way the lessons I learn reach far beyond the boundaries of my own garden.

Thanks to that garden, all sorts of once-exotic foodstuffs have become commonplace in our home. Cilantro, something I once barely recognized as as that stuff in the supermarket shelved next to the parsley, now freely self-seeds in the herb garden -- giving us a steady three-season supply of ingredients usually associated with tiny Thai ethnic grocery stores. (Read more about our cilantro adventures here.) Comfrey, calendula, and lemon balm, key ingredients in the infused oil we use in our hand butter, all grow happily on the sunny side of the house, along with the more usual culinary herbs. Dried hot peppers from the side yard hang in loops above the porch door, to be used throughout the year. But even with all this, there are things it's just never occurred to me that I could grow.

I'm talking about saffron, that most exotic of spices. Historically, the spice trade brought things from far, far away. The very word 'saffron' still conjures up our sense of the colonial 'other', distant robed women hunched over baskets in fields of purple blooms, hand-harvesting those rare and expensive stamens. 

It was, therefore, a surprise to learn that not only do saffron crocuses grow perfectly well in much of the United States, but they're actually part of the local cuisine in a number of regions, most notably Pennsylvania Dutch country and surrounds, where it has been happily growing in farmhouse gardens since the 1700's and used to flavor breads and chicken dishes. (Want to know more? The Historic Foodie's Blog has a great entry on the history of saffron cultivation in Pennsylvania.) Saffron crocuses are hardy in Zones 5-9, naturalize easily, like a dryish spot in sun to partial shade, and play well with other garden bulbs -- in other words, perfect for my Zone 5, dryish, sun-to-shade, survival-of-the-fittest style garden. They are best planted in early autumn, as you would any other crocus bulb.

Clearly, it was time to change my saffron-related internal imagery from this...

... to this:

Yep, that's saffron. Growing as a weed, in the eastern United States

And so, two years ago, we added saffron crocuses to the flower borders in our garden. We settled on Fedco (one of my go-to companies for seeds adapted to the climate in the U.S. northeast) for my starting supply, and ordered a boxful. 

The result? They've settled in happily in our Zone 5 garden, giving us a few delicate red strands the first year, and a small palmful the next. This year the patch has started to really spread and prosper, and I'm thinking it won't be more than another season or two before we have enough home-grown saffron to use it casually in our cooking.

What unusual plants are in your kitchen garden?

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