Notes from the Apothecary: Crocus
As we move further into spring in the Northern Hemisphere, a wealth of flowers is bursting from the warming soil. Some of this treasure appears in royal gold and imperial purple, and occasionally even snow white, like a throwback to winter. These are the crocuses, a tiny, beautiful flower named for the Sanskrit word for saffron, the expensive spice made from its stigmas and styles.
The first crocuses of the year always fill me with excitement. They show that winter is truly ending, and that the wheel is turning towards warmer days, woodland walks and those magic mornings of wind and sunshine. Crocuses aren’t as early as snowdrops, which can burst right through the frost, and they aren’t as widespread as daffodils, cultivated as a kind of badge of spring. They come before tulips, and are the first splash of really rich colour; the first hint of the promise of far-off summer.
The Kitchen Garden
The main reason humans cultivate crocuses is for saffron, which is a reddish-orange looking spice that appears to be made of tiny threads. These threads are, of course, the stigmas of the crocus flower, usually a sexual organ used for reproduction, however the saffron crocus is unable to reproduce in this way and must rely on its corms, or bulbs (the tuberous part underground) splitting and multiplying in order to make more of itself. As only this tiny, thread like part of the plant is used in saffron production, it takes up to 75000 individual flowers to produce 1lb of the spice. So, if you are thinking that you could cultivate your own saffron, it’s only worth a go if you have a few acres of land to spare!
The spice is used in a variety of cuisines, including Indian, Arab and Turkish food to name but a few. Saffron is used for its unusual, slightly sweet flavour, and its strong colour which is reminiscent of turmeric yellow. Spanish paella often incorporates saffron, and this can be what gives the rice its glorious golden colour.
A 2014 study showed that saffron improved symptoms in patients who suffered from major depressive disorders, and could be seen as a useful supplement for those suffering with mild to moderate depression.
Saffron has been used throughout the ages as a cure for gastrointestinal problems. An ancient Egyptian recipe actually called for crocus seeds, rather than the stigmas, to be mixed with beef fat and other spices as a cure for stomach pain.
Mrs Grieve’s Modern herbal is a fascinating resource for anecdotal accounts of the use of traditional medicine. She notes that in 1921, a medical witness gave evidence of saffron being used in a tea made with brandy to cure measles. She also notes that the spice is useful in the relief of flatulence, to induce sweating, and to stimulate menstrual flow.
In 1347, the Black Death, an horrific plague which swept across Europe, caused a sudden and incredibly high demand for saffron. It was believed that it held medicinal properties key in combatting the plague, yet many of the farmers had succumbed to the ravages of the disease, so supply was not meeting demand. This led to theft and piracy, including a fourteen-week ‘Saffron War’ over a stolen load of 800lb of the spice.
Some Therav?da Buddhist monks wear robes dyed with vegetables and spices, including saffron, which gives the cloth an orange-yellow tone. The robes were originally made from ‘pure’ cloth; fabric that was unwanted or had been discarded. The rags were boiled, dyed and stitched together into a suitable robe for the holy person.
Saffron has also been found in paints and pigments dating back thousands of years. Medieval manuscripts were often illuminated using the pigment provided by saffron, to give tones of yellow and orange.
The Witch’s Kitchen
The use of saffron by humans can be traced back 50000 years, although the mass cultivation of the crocus is much more recent. Saffron was used as a magical spice by the Sumerians, the ancient Egyptians, Indians, Romans and many more.
One of the primary uses of saffron is as an aphrodisiac. In India, a potion of milk and saffron is brought to the bedchamber of newlyweds on their wedding night. In ancient Egypt, Cleopatra is said to have dropped saffron into her baths prior to making love, to heighten the pleasure. Greek courtesans known as hetaerae used the spice as a perfume.
For those following a Minoan path of spirituality, it is interesting to note that the first image depicting saffron was found in a Minoan fresco. Although it is not clear what the Minoans used the plant for, it is clear it had some special significance for them.
The ancient Greeks have two legends about Crocus, a young man. In one, he is accidentally fatally injured by the god Mercury, during a game of discus. As he dies, three drops of his blood fall into a flower, thus creating the red stigma of the crocus. The alternative and more commonly accepted legend is that Crocus is chasing the nymph, Smilax. She grows tired of his advances and when he won’t take ‘no’ for an answer, turns him into a flower. Take note: No means No!
From these legends, we can make some assumptions about the associations of the plant itself, including the links to the God Mercury and therefore money, luck, communication and because of the nature of the legend, friendship, regret and transformation. We can also see the crocus flower as a symbol to not cross boundaries that are made by others without permissions; to be courteous and listen to others. If someone is not listening to you, or is harassing you, the crocus could be your point of focus in a spell to get them to back off.
Cunningham tells us that the plant is associated with Venus and water, and has a feminine aspect. This is interesting, as biologically the male part of the plant is sterile, so in reproductive terms the plant truly is feminine.
Home and Hearth
Plant crocuses in borders or pots in your garden to delineate the boundaries of your home. If you don’t have an outdoor space, a potted crocus on a windowsill is just as good.
Don’t pick wild crocuses; always grow your own, as there is a European superstition that picking the plant will sap your strength. Anyway, it’s simple courtesy to leave beautiful flowers where everyone can enjoy them!
I Never Knew…
If you have been robbed, burning a little bit of crocus or saffron may allow you to have a vision of the thief.
Image credits: Crocus autranii by rainbirder via Wikimedia; Iran saffron from Khorasan by Alphaomega1010 via Wikimedia.
Mabh Savage is a Pagan author and musician, as well as a freelance journalist. See is the author of A Modern Celt: Seeking the Ancestors and Pagan Portals: Celtic Witchcraft. Follow Mabh on Twitter, Facebook and her blog.