The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Saffron

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SAFFRON, a bulbous autumnal plant (Crocus sativus) and a commercial dye-stuff obtained from it. The cultivated saffron originated probably in the Levant, and was grown in early times about the town of Corycus, Cilicia (from which the Crocus genus may have taken its name). The Arabs cultivated it in Spain about the 10th century, and it was an important crop in England, especially about Saffron Walden, Essex, in the 15th century, bringing the highest market price. It is now raised about the Mediterranean and in Asia. The saffron is low, with the grass-like leaves and long-tubed, funnel-shaped flowers, springing directly from the ground, which are characteristic of the crocuses. Its flower is purple, with a style tipped with three orange-colored stigmas, each more than an inch long, depending from one side of the perianth. These stigmas are picked off in the early morning and dried on a kiln, either loosely or between layers of paper, and under the pressure of a thick board which forms the mass into cakes, about 4,000 of these stigmas being necessary to give an ounce of saffron. In either case the commercial saffron is liable to suffer from adulteration. This adulteration was so prevalent at one time that those guilty of it (when caught) were killed

Saffron stigmas, when genuine, have a characteristic orange red color and an aromatic, bitter odor and taste. The substance has faint carminative and narcotic properties, but is seldom used medicinally, except for coloring tinctures and occasionally as a diaphoretic in the eruptive diseases of children. In the ‘Song of Solomon’ the saffron is mentioned among the sweet-smelling herbs, and it was much in demand among the Greeks and Latins for its perfume. A fragrant essence was made from it with water and wine for sprinkling in theatres and other places, even in the streets, for anointing the hair and for the bath. Saffron was also much employed in culinary operations, chiefly for its aromatic taste and for coloring, as the clown in the ‘Winter's Tale’ says he “must have saffron to color the warden pies.”

Saffron, however, is most commonly used as a dye, giving a yellow hue to cloth, but it is being displaced by cheaper colors. This tint was in very early times the royal color in Greece, and was that of some of the women's court robes, but afterward appropriated by the hetairæ. In Ireland and the Hebrides it was also the color of the king's mantle and of the shirts of persons of rank. Saffron enters largely into the composition of the sacred spot on the forehead of a Hindu Pundit. An extract made from saffron used as a glaze on tinfoil, imitated gold in mediæval illuminations, and was also employed by painters.

Helen Ingersoll.