Saffron (Arab. zafran, from asfar, yellow), a drug consisting of the dried stigmas of crocus sativus. The genus crocus is familiar through the spring-flowering garden sorts; the saffron crocus resembles these, bat blooms in autumn; the flowers are pale violet, veined with purple, and very fragrant; the leaves appear soon after the flowers; the corm or bulb is rather larger than in the spring crocuses. The important part of the plant is the stigma, which is orange-red, with three drooping divisions, each about an inch long, and usually with a crest at the end; these are protruded beyond the flower. Saffron is mentioned by Solomon (Canticles iv. 14), and has been known and cultivated from very early times, so that its home is very doubtful; it grows spontaneously in Greece, but may have been introduced by the early cultivators. The stigmas are collected and dried in sieves over a gentle fire, the operation being completed in half an hour. It requires the stigmas of 4,320 flowers to make an ounce of the dried saffron. In the genuine article the stigmas are loose and distinct; this is called hay saffron, to distinguish it from a factitious preparation of various substances pressed together on paper, called cake saffron.
The principal production of the drug is in lower Aragon and other parts of Spain; a considerable amount of excellent quality is gathered in the department of Loiret, France; some is produced in Austria; and a small quantity is cultivated by the Germans in Lancaster co., Pa. It was formerly cultivated in England at Saffron Walden, but the supplies from that source have ceased. The cultivation sometimes fails entirely, on account of a fungus which destroys the bulbs. The drug has always borne a high price, on account of the labor required to collect the small stigmas which compose it, and has been subject to various adulterations; one of the most common is the admixture of safflower; another is the petals of the garden marigold; even shreds of beef have been used. All such adulterations are easily detected by soaking a small quantity of the drug in warm water; the peculiar form of the stigmas, with three long lobes, allows the true to be distinguished from the false at once. Saffron was formerly regarded as of so much importance that various countries had most stringent laws against its adulteration. In Germany in 1444 a man was burnt with his adulterated saffron, and in 1456 two men and a woman were buried alive in the same country for falsifying the drug.
Saffron is of no value for any medicinal effect; it is now used but little in pharmacy, and then solely for its color. Its taste is of a warm, bitterish character, its odor sweet and penetrating, and its color a rich deep orange. A single grain of saffron rubbed to a fine powder with a little sugar will impart a distinct tint of yellow to 700,000 grains (10 gallons) of water. The coloring matter, termed polycroite, in allusion to the diversity of tints it is capable of assuming, is soluble in water and alcohol, but varies by the action of different acids. It is a peculiar glucoside, which by the action of acids splits into sugar, volatile oil, and a new coloring matter called crocine.
Saffron Crocus (Crocus sativus).