If you think that, beyond their very welcome arrival in our gardens every spring, there can’t be much that’s interesting about the good old crocus, think again. The history of the crocus can be traced back to the very beginnings of human civilization. The reason is simple: saffron.
Saffron comes from the stamens of the crocus sativus, a fall blooming variety and close cousin to our spring flowers. It must be carefully hand picked and it takes over sixty thousand flowers to produce a single pound of saffron. This has kept its value, prestige and mystique up there with gold and precious gems through 4000 years of human history. For millennia it has produced a dye, a perfume, a medicine and a flavour—to those who could afford it. The exclusive property of priests, kings and the very wealthiest elite, even today an ounce of saffron costs upwards of $400.
Almost no other flower has a longer documented medicinal history than c. sativus. Its ability to induce sweating was used to bring out a rash and combat the fever of measles, plague and a raft of other illnesses. It was also used in floral crowns worn to dispel drunkenness, and was believed by some to be an early anti-depressant. Francis Bacon wrote that "it maketh the English sprightly". According to the great French botanist, Joseph de Tournefort, over consumption of saffron could be dangerous; in 1698 he witnessed "a lady of Trent… almost shaken to pieces with laughing immoderately for a space of three hours, which was occasioned by taking too much saffron".
Like other extremely precious commodities, the story of saffron has its dramas. In the 15th century Richard Haklyut recorded how it came to England: "At Algiers a pilgrim stole beads [bulbs] of saffron and hid them in his Palmer’s staff which he had made hollow before of purpose, and so he brought this root to this realm, with venture of his life; for if he had been taken, by law of the country from whence it came, he had died for the fact…" Half a century later in Nuremberg three men were buried alive for diluting the saffron they were selling. It was such a valuable commodity that a few dozen crocus bulbs could be used as security for a loan in lieu of gold or jewels. Long before this, in the final days of the Roman empire, some of Nero’s worst excesses also involved saffron: he would drench the walls of his palace with it’s perfume and sprinkle a mixture of saffron, vermillion and mica to add scent, colour and sparkle to his floors.
The history of the crocus is steeped in mystery, romance, and money. Not surprising really that this flower is entwined so deeply with the history of human civilization. Fifty years ago, the famous gardener, Buckner Hollingsworth, wrote this about the crocus: "A pleasant smell and a pretty colour must have been among the earliest amenities that mankind knew. Such amenities played their part in leading man out of savagery into civilization. The role the crocus played in that great drama must have been a tiny one, but who can deny that the flower was on the stage?"