In the 4th century BC, fresh from the heat of battle, his wounds and abrasions stinging and sore, Alexander, Prince of Macedon soaked in a warm tub dyed golden orange by the blood-red filaments of the saffron crocus. The tinted water, he knew, would clean his wounds and encourage healing while the heady aroma swirling around him soothed his weary mind. A devout believer in the healing power of saffron, the prince—soon to be dubbed Alexander The Great—adopted the practice from the Persians whose empire he had conquered. Among their many customs he borrowed, this one was paramount: the prodigious use of saffron to treat all ills.
A valuable bloom
Saffron is the thin red stigma of the Crocus Sativus, a small purple flower similar in appearance to the common spring crocus—but that’s where any similarity ends. An autumn bloom, saffron’s precursor was a wild plant native to Greece where it was used for a variety of medical, religious, and cosmetic purposes. Now, as in ancient times, saffron maintains a high price point because of how labor-intensive it is to harvest—ounce for ounce saffron has almost always equaled the price of gold.
The value of the spice is well deserved. As it traveled from Greece with Phoenician traders to the world beyond, its use as an herbal medicine became quickly clear but nowhere more so than in the ancient kingdom of Iran (Persia), as Alexander learned. There, growers quickly domesticated saffron, developing a method to produce vast quantities. Iran remains the world’s largest producer of the stuff and ancient traditions using saffron for health and wellness remain strong and is increasingly backed by medical science. Today, the majority of scientific research into saffron’s healing properties is being done in Iran.
Sarde or garme
Based in ancient Zoroastrianism, Traditional Iranian Medicine (TIM) is based upon the concept of food as medicine in a principle called sarde or garme (cold and hot) which attributes proper-ties to food for health as well as to prevent and treat disease. Considered “alternative” medicine in the west, the medicinal qualities of food remains an unshakeable aspect of daily Iranian life.
In this deeply rooted tradition, saffron—a ubiquitous flavoring in Iranian cuisine—is key. Considered hot and dry which promotes circulation, saffron is believed to warm the body and producing a feeling of “lightness”. Even today, Iranian will self-prescribe a pure tea of saffron steeped in hot water for everything from stomach upset to skin conditions to head-ache and the blues. For maximum overall health, based on achieving overall internal balance, “hot” natured saffron is be mixed with “cold”-natured foods like rice.
By the middle ages, the Persian physician Avicenna, the most influential of the philosopher-scientists of the medieval Islamic world, wrote extensively on the medical uses of saffron, and his list of treatments for which the wonder spice could be used is almost comically long. However, modern scientists are rapidly proving the folklore to be true.
What's special about saffron
Mineral-rich saffron has various micro-nutrients like potassium and iron which aid the circulatory system and iron uptake in the blood respectively. Saffron is high in immune-boosting minerals zinc and copper as well as thyroid-regulating selenium and manganese a powerful antioxidant. While these characteristics are extremely valuable, saffron’s most powerful medicinal qualities seem to be attributed to safranal, a volatile oil that gives the spice its unique aroma and crocin, the source for the alluring golden hue released by the dried stigmas.
Recent Iranian studies indicate that both safranal and crocin show promise as powerful anti-carcinogenic agents as well as antidepressants. Additional studies have proven safranal to be useful in central nervous system disorders including preventing convulsion and treating Alzheimer’s related dementia.
In the Middle Ages, Catholic nuns in Germany sniffed saffron to keep their spirits up and ease the discomfort of long hours of prayer during Lent. Multiple Iranian studies have shown that the red-hued spice is, indeed, a promising treatment for depression and anxiety.
And, as Alexander learned, saffron is an anti-fungal that can also reduce inflammation and promote wound healing—recently proven out by both a 2008 Iranian study that showed skin regeneration was improved by the application of saffron cream and by 2017 findings by Turkish researchers.
Happily, saffron’s unique aroma and light, pleasant flavor make it easy medicine to swallow. Traditional dishes from Persian culture—and others including Spain, Turkey, Italy and India—provide many options to enjoy this healthful spice. Even a simple tea of saffron stepped in hot water will offer saffron’s health benefits with minimal fuss.
It can be hard to determine real saffron from fake. Watch this video to know the difference: