Crocus: a spicy secret

Posted by mjs76 at Mar 04, 2010 04:49 PM |
Why would an international conference on crocuses (attended by one of our Biology Professors) discuss the production of saffron? Because they’re the same thing, apparently.

Saffron: useful in cooking Asian food; yellow rice; also used as a dye; there is an area of Leicester called Saffron Lane. Crocus: pretty, early-flowering blub available in a wide range of hues. But who knew that saffron is actually harvested from crocuses?

Professor Pat Heslop-Harrison from our Department of Biology was recently in Albacete, Spain for a meeting of the European Commission’s Crocusbank Project. But it’s not the flowerbeds of Europe’s parks which interests the EU Agricultural Directorate, it’s the commercial aspects of saffron growing. Saffron is harvested in some of the poorest areas of Europe but it is a valuable crop and it is sustainable.

Here’s Professor Pat Heslop-Harrison to explain. (Note that when he says ‘clones’ he’s talking about strains of the plant. In commercial agriculture, plants are usually sterile, genetically identical cuttings of a single source. That’s how they make seedless grapes!) Anyway, back to crocuses and over to Pat:

Saffron is all hand-harvested, hand processed and dried in different ways, which is why saffron from the major growing areas of Spain, Italy, Greece, Iran or Kashmir all have different qualities and characteristics.

What we‘ve been looking at is the genetic diversity within the different types of saffron that are grown and we have found that many of the clones grown worldwide are genetically identical. It’s only the processing that makes the product different.

However, it looks as though there are a few varieties that have different genetic makeup from the others and we’re now focusing on finding out what they are, their special characteristics, and why they’ve dropped out of production in many of the world’s saffron producing areas.

The Crocusbank project is using molecular biology techniques to investigate the DNA of crocuses and establish where the domesticated varieties originated and is also setting up a gene bank for the plant.

To find out more about crocuses, why not visit the University’s Botanic Garden which hosts the second of its Crocus Days on Sunday 7 March? The garden is open from 11.00am to 4.00pm and admission is by donation to LOROS and Rainbows.

But don’t go pinching our crocuses for your kitchen. Saffron is made from Crocus sativus while the carpets of flowers in Oadby are C tomasinianus.