Crocus is a gender of the family of Iridaceae. It shows the typical botanical features of the Liliatae. More than 400 species, subspecies, varieties and forms have been described, flowering in many different colours and at different times of the year, but only one is used as a source of saffron: Crocus sativus L.

Botany and Cultivation

As the name “sativus” indicates, saffron is exclusively obtained from cultivated Crocus sativus. It is a sterile, perennial plant vegetatively propagated through its corms. Cultivations of saffron have been found in all regions surrounding the Mediterranean basin, and especially in the Eastern regions. The most important area of origin has always been and still is Persia. With the spread of Islam in the Medieval saffron spread in parallel, and reached locations such as Spain and Austria. Today, more than 200 tons of saffron are processed every year. The bulk of this material comes from Greater Khorasan. There is a small production in India, Greece, Morocco and Spain. The quantities produced by other countries are still very low. Other countries where saffron was originally grown now reconsider saffron cultivation.

However, a major drawback is labour costs. Although saffron is the most expensive spice, the tremendous differences in labour costs have led to a quick decline of saffron cultivation in Western countries. With the current all-time high in saffron market prices the cultivation becomes again feasible in certain European and Asian countries – but the quality must necessarily closely match that produced since thousands of years in the Khorasan region.


Crocus sativus is a very ancient medicinal plant, and since several Centuries has become a high quality spice plant. It is the source of saffron, which consists of the dried red stigmates of Crocus sativus. The use of saffron against various physiologic states and ailments has been thorougly documented by all ancient Mediterranean, Persian and Arabian cultures throughout several millennia. The interest has never stopped: Even today much research is dedicated to saffron, using modern analytical, pharmacological and clinical methods to confirm the traditional uses of saffron.

Saffron has been attributed many effects. Reported traditional uses were, among others:

  • Emotional balance: Even today, saffron preparations are traditionally used to improve well-being and mood. In Persia people say that a cup of saffron tea will bring back your good humour.
  • Septic inflammations and infections of the eye: This was one of the major indications in ancient Egypt and Greece.
  • Stimulation of circulation
  • Stimulant and aphrodisiac, prevention of premature ejaculation
  • Supportive treatment of various forms of cancer

Modern pharmacological and clinical research has confirmed all these effects, e.g.:

  • Antidepressive effects: A saffron extract has been demonstrated to possess antidepressive effects in clinical trials against placebo and the synthetic antidepressants fluoxetine and imipramine, without having the adverse effects of the latter.
  • Antiinflammatory effects in vivo
  • Blood lipid lowering effects in vivo
  • Stimulating and potentially aphrodisiac effects have been examined in vivo with various saffron constituents.
  • Chemopreventive effects in vivo and anti-tumour effects in vitro have been demonstrated in various models. Saffron extracts are not simply cytotoxic, they have been shown to selectively affect the cancer cells while being non-toxic to healthy cells.

Saffron is presented in many forms. In Persia and the Mediterranean, many kinds of food are flavoured with saffron, including rice, butter, cheese, convenience food, diverse types of bread, pastries, sweets and many beverages.


Saffron is considered very safe even in extremely high doses of more than 1.5 g/day. Occasional reports of toxicity seem to be related to the ingestion of “meadow saffron” = Colchicum autumnale, which is in fact a poisonous plant.

The usual dose range for the improvement of mood is approximately 30 mg per day. No adverse effects are known with this quantity.


Saffron stigmasWith saffron being an extremely expensive herbal raw material, adulterations have always been a major problem. Typical adulterants include flowers of other species cut to stripes, such as Calendula officinalis L., Carthamus tinctorius L., Onopordon acanthium L., Cynara cardunculus L., Zea mays (the stigmates), Crocosmia aurea POPPE ex HOOK (Cape saffron), Arnica montana L., Scolymus hispanicus L., Papaver rhoeas L., Punica granatum L., Sutera atropurpurea, Crocosmia crocosmiflora LEMOINE, rootlets of various Allium species (Allium schoenoprasum, Allium porrum L.), the outer leafs of onions, Capsicum powder, cut and dyed grassy plants, powdered sandal- and campech wood, or Curcuma powder.

These adulterants are partly produced using industrial methods. Adulterants of animal or synthetic origin include dyed gelatine fibres, meat fibres from salt meat or dried meat, and synthetic dyes, even paper strips.

Typical additions to increase the weight of the commercial material are water, syrup, glycerol, honey or fatty oils. Lycopodium powder is added to avoid the sticking together of the stigmates.

Alternatively the addition of inorganic salts such as calcium carbonate, barium sulphate, magnesium sulphate, potassium nitrate, potassium carbonate or borax was observed. Sometimes pre-extracted saffron is sold.

These adulterations only occur when the material is not traceable to its origins. They can be avoided, and good qualities may be expected whenever full traceability is established starting from cultivation down to extract manufacturing.

Our Saffron Activities

Despite the long tradition of saffron use and much field work having been invested in Crocus cultivation techniques, little is known about the differences in quality of saffron chemotypes, whereas such differences are in fact reported from traditional use.

Our screening and cultivation project was triggered by the frequency of adulterants and the intransparency of trading channels. Our initial and still ongoing work consisted in the screening of local qualities of various traceable origins. In parallel, we evaluated the impact of cultivation, harvesting and processing techniques on the overall quality of saffron, assessed by its phytochemical composition. The developed techniques allow us to optimize the cultivation conditions for elevated contents in safranal and/or crocins.

We are currently consulting saffron growers in various countries in projects aimed on establishing saffron cultivations with over-average quality, following the rules defined in the WHO guideline on Good Agricultural and Collection Practise (GACP), and the principles of organic cultivation.

In parallel we developed extraction techniques and galenical formulations such as liquid and dry extracts for specific types of applications.

Download Saffron - a review of the literature

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The majority of R&D programs with Crocus sativus are organized in cooperation between Georges Betti (Medicinal & Aromatic Plants R&D) and Dr. Mathias Schmidt (Herbresearch Germany).

Studies of cultivation conditions and quality parameters

  • Studies on many cultivars in relation with the properties described by Avicenna.
  • Analysis of stigmates colltected in Tibet, India (Cashmere & Ladakh), Pakistan, Afghanistan Turkmenistan, Azerbaidjan, Iran (many regions), Iraq, Armenia, Turkey, Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Greece, Italy, Spain, Morrocco, France.
  • Agricultural studies for the determination of factors having an impact on quality and biomass.
  • Cultivations organised according to the WHO's GACP guideline.
  • Experimental bio-cultivation established in Armenia (2010) and planned in Jordan (2011). Follow-up on quality.
  • Scale-up cultivations in the Iranian part of Kurdistan. Follow-up on quality for a high-quality bio-product.
  • Establishment of a gene bank in planning.
  • Studies on the variability of the phytochemical composition in relation with the drying of the stigmates.
  • Development of an analytical technique allowing the detection of adulterations of extracts by synthetical dyes.
  • R&D on secondary metabolites for the confirmation of traceability and the origin of the herbal material.
  • Education programs for saffron farmers in Europe within the UESS (Université Européenne des Saveurs & Senteurs).
  • Follow-up on quality of the producers (France, Morrocco, Armenia, Iran, Afghanistan, Cashmere)

Studies on extraction

  • Development of diverse extraction techniques (R&D aqueous and dry extract).
  • Research on the concentration of diverse active constituents.
  • Finalisation of an extraction method allowing for a variability of water-ethanol ratios.
  • Extraction tests with supercritical carbon dioxide and different plant parts.
  • Research on added value subproducts (styles, petals, pollen).
  • Tests on the improvement of quality and yields by different pilot processes by ultrasound.
  • Development of a method for the enzymatic transformation of picrocrocin into safranal.
  • Registration of the brand Saffron’Extr®.
  • Work in progress on diverse crocusatins and the techniques for their isolation for a potential use in cosmetics.
  • Research programs on stigmates, styles, pollen and fresh petals.
  • Extractions of fresh plant material from diverse plant parts.
  • Correlations between the norm ISO 3632 (spectrophotometry) and HPLC analysis for the quantification of the constituents. Program under development in 2011.
  • Stability tests and ageing of diverse extracts in correlation with temperature.
  • Possibility of creating isotope markers as a tamper-proof and easyly controlled quality parameter of the delivered extract.
  • Multiple galenical formulations adapted to pharmaceuticals, agro-alimentary products, food supplements and cosmetics.

Pharmacological studies and clinical effects

  • Bibliographic compilations for diverse studies in antidepressant and stimulant effects.
  • Studies on properties and pharmacologic activities of Saffron’Extr®.
  • Studies on the depressive symptoms of the premenstrual syndrome. Study currently running in Lebanon (2011).
  • Toxicity studies in cancer cell lines. Program started in 2008 and updated in 2011 with the university of Ouagadougou.
  • Current registration in RSA and for the markets of the SADC (South African Development Community) (2011).
  • Development of a CTD (Common Technical Document) planned.


  • G. Betti, M. Schmidt: Valorisation of Saffron. In: A. Koocheki, M. Nassiri, R. Ghorbanim (Hrsg.): Proceedings of the Second International Symposium on Saffron Biology and Technology. Acta Horticulturae No. 739. International Society for Horticultural Science, Gent (Belgium) (2007).
  • M. Schmidt, G. Betti, A. Hensel: Saffron in phytotherapy: Pharmacology and clinical uses. Wiener Med. Wschr. 157(13): 315-319 (2007).

Oral presentations

  • M. Schmidt: Valorisation of saffron (Crocus sativus). 2nd International Symposium on Saffron Biology and Technology, Mashhad (Iran), 28.-30. Oktober 2006.
  • M. Schmidt: Préparations à base de safran dans l’application clinique: Effets antidépresseurs et stimulants. 9ème Symposium International d’Aromathérapie et Plantes Médicinales, Grasse (France), 17. March 2007.
  • M. Schmidt: Le safran: Effet antidépressif et autres. 26èmes Journées Internationales des Huiles Essentielles et Extraits, Digne les Bains (France),14. September 2007.
  • M. Schmidt: Major constraints for trading herbs in the EU: Saffron as a cash crop with potential on the EU markets. International Buyer/Seller Meet on Herbal and Medicinal Plants. New Delhi (India), 28. Oktober 2007.
  • G. Betti: Development of saffron preparations adapted to their medical uses. International symposium on saffron: A herbal medicine of the 3rd Millenium. Mashhad (Iran), 13.-14. May 2009.

Quality saffron extract is available from Eusano