Saffron: Treasured Ancient Spice May Soon Be Gone for Good


Considered the world’s most expensive spice, saffron has been highly valued by many ancient civilizations, but it may soon be wiped out. It has primarily been a spice for cooking, but also used in medicines, dyes, and perfumes. Although saffron continues to be popular today, it now faces a threat that may spell an end for this ancient spice.

Saffron is obtained from the flower (specifically the stigma and style) of the Crocus sativa (commonly known as the saffron crocus).  Although its origins are unclear, it has been variously suggested that it was first discovered in Iran, Mesopotamia, or Greece. From these areas, its cultivation was spread to other parts of the world.

Fresco of saffron gatherers from the Bronze Age excavations in Akrotiri on the island of Santorini, Greece

Fresco of saffron gatherers from the Bronze Age excavations in Akrotiri on the island of Santorini, Greece. ( Public Domain )

As an example, there are several stories of how saffron arrived in Kashmir. One of these tales claims that saffron was introduced into the region by the Persians in 500 BC as a means to expand the market. Other sources date the arrival of saffron to the 12th century, when two traveling Sufi saints , Khawaja Masood Wali and Sheikh Sharif-u-din Wali, presented a crocus bulb to a local chieftain after he cured them of an illness.

Saffron in Savojbolagh County, Tehran, Iran.

Saffron in Savojbolagh County, Tehran, Iran. (Serpico/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

A Touch of Gold for Food, the Body, and Books

The uses of saffron are as varied as its origin stories. Saffron is best-known for its culinary use as a spice, and it is used in the many cuisines around the world. Some popular dishes that make use of saffron in their preparation include Spanish paella, Iranian jeweled rice and khoresh, and Indian biryani. Saffron has also been used as a fabric dye , for instance, in China and India, and was used as a freshener in public spaces by the Romans. Additionally, saffron was used in the illumination of Medieval manuscripts . The monks of that period discovered that a mixture of egg whites and saffron would produce a yellow glaze that could serve as a substitute for gold.

Original paella from Valencia, Spain

Original paella from Valencia, Spain. (Jan Harenburg/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

Moreover, saffron was prized in the past for its medicinal value and was used to treat all sorts of ailments. For instance, Alexander the Great would bathe his battle wounds in saffron infused warm water, believing in its healing properties. The reputation of saffron as a potent medicine was so strong that it was even prescribed as a cure for the bubonic plague during the Middle Ages. Even today, saffron continues to be employed by practitioners of traditional medicine , and is used to treat such afflictions as asthma, depression, and sexual dysfunction.

Threats to the Saffron Trade

Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice. In Kashmir, for instance, saffron may be sold by farmers for “as much as 250,000 INR or $3,400 USD a kilogram, or $1,550 a pound”. An Afghan-based company, Rumi Spice, sells its saffron for “$18 (£14) per gram”. The high price of saffron is due to the fact that stigmas have to be painstakingly removed from the rest of the flower by hand. As saffron is such a lucrative crop, it has led to the problem of adulteration, in which the real thing is replaced by substandard or even fake saffron.

Pure Kashmiri saffron

Pure Kashmiri saffron. (Sohail Akil/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

The adulteration of saffron, however, may not be the biggest problem faced by this spice. The saffron crocus flourishes in a relatively dry and sunny climate, and changes in these conditions have a negative effect on its growth. It has been reported that in Kashmir in recent years, saffron crops have been damaged either by droughts or by untimely excessive rainfall, resulting in a drop in the harvest. One Kashmiri saffron farmer, for instance, reports that during the 1990s, the harvest was as much as 400 kg (881.85 lb.). This amount was reduced by half during the 2000s, and went down further to 15 kg (33.07 lb.) and 7 kg (15.43 lb.) in 2016 and 2018 respectively.

It is due to the changing environment , specifically the lack of rain, that saffron cultivation in Kashmir has suffered such a negative impact. Efforts and funds have been spent to ensure the saffron fields are irrigated, though these seem to be of no use. Some have placed the blame on land mafia, others on the ineffectiveness of the government department involved in the project, and still others on the farmers themselves, who rely on traditional methods of cultivating saffron, and are not well-aware of the changing conditions, and the methods to counter them.

Collecting saffron at a farm in Torbat heydariyeh, Razavi Khorasan province, Iran

Collecting saffron at a farm in Torbat heydariyeh, Razavi Khorasan province, Iran. (Safa.daneshvar/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

While the problem faced by saffron farmers in Kashmir is dire, it may not spell the end of saffron just yet. Although the quality of the saffron produced in this region is considered to be the highest in the world, the majority of saffron (up to 85%) is produced in Iran, according to a 2012 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Nevertheless, should that country be affected by changes in climate similar to those suffered by Kashmir, saffron may one day disappear.

Top image: Saffron. Source: dream79 / Adobe Stock

By Ḏḥwty


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