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Worth its weight in gold

20 February 2023
carpet of purple crocuses on mountain meadow
The saffron crocus favours hot summers and chill winters, as here in Bulgaria. Photo: GettyImages

Native to far-flung lands where it has been used as a spice for 4000 years, and highly prized (and priced!), saffron is now being cultivated in Aotearoa – and one Southland grower is exceeding expectations. Words Diana Noonan

It pays to ‘know your crocuses’, as I found out when talking to Southland saffron grower Steve Daley of Kiwi Saffron. Steve (who doubles as a beekeeper), and his wife and business partner, Jo, farm 3ha of saffron crocus on a plot of leased land at Garston, a small inland settlement between Kingston and Lumsden, in northern Southland.

At first, I imagined Steve’s crocus were the bright purple, white and yellow springflowering Crocus vernus that I enjoy in my garden in spring – but I was wrong. Then, when he mentioned that saffron crocus flower in autumn, I immediately thought: “Ah, I have those in my garden, too!” But I was wrong again – seriously wrong. It turns out that my autumn flowering ‘crocus’ are none other than the highly poisonous Colchicum autumnale!

To cut a long story short, the saffron crocus that Steve and Jo grow are Crocus sativus. Unknown in the wild, this corm’s ancestors are thought to have originated in the Mediterranean area, Asia Minor and Iran. The commercial corms are now cultivated extensively in Iran (which grows 90 per cent of the world’s saffron), and also in Spain, Afghanistan and Kashmir.

Pretty but poisonous lookalike

Colchicum autumnale is a pretty but highly poisonous crocus lookalike to Crocus sativus that pushes, leafless, through the ground in time to provide colour to the autumn garden. A member of the plant family Colchicaceae, it takes its name from ‘Colchis’, a Black Sea region of Georgia, where it grows in profusion. Despite one of its common names being ‘meadow crocus’, Colchicum autumnale is actually a member of the lily family and is poisonous to humans and animals alike. Plant it well away from your edible beds.

Note: Crocus sativus can be toxic to some animals too.

Saffron growing in New Zealand

Saffron appears to have been grown commercially in New Zealand for around 20 years, with Central Otago being a prime spot due to its hot, dry climate and biting winter chill. New Zealand’s strong ultraviolet light is also conducive to saffron growing, helping to concentrate its desired properties of aroma, flavour and colour. The Daleys began growing in Garston, on the edge of Central Otago, in 2013 when Jo, attracted to the health benefits attributed to saffron, wanted to plant 500 corms. Steve, who has “an interest in horticulture”, became interested in growing saffron in a commercial capacity, and upped the corm order to 40,000. And, for some unknown reason(!), he omitted to let Jo know until they were on their way! As it turned out, the trial was worth it as the business they now have stems from it, and Steve and Jo went on to win ‘Outstanding New Zealand Food Producer, Silver Award’ in 2019...

Read the full story in our March issue – on shelves now.
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