Should we grow saffron crocus in Illinois?

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Just yesterday, I began thinking about the fall bulb-planting season. I already have designs to plant early flowering spring bulbs for the bees like crocus, snow drops, siberian squill, winter aconite, hyacinths and grape hyacinth. However, I keep coming back to fall crocus. Wouldn't it be nice to have a fall blooming bulb in my garden and harvest saffron?

Saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) (Colchicum autumnale) blooms in the fall. It is planted the same time as spring bloomers so that it may receive a cold treatment before flowering. Sometime in September and October, it will bloom for 15 days and the stigmas are harvested and dried to become the coveted spice saffron.

The stigmas (the female part of the flower) protrude out like bright red party streamers against the muted purple palette of the petals. Each stigma is removed from the flower using tweezers. These harvested stigmas are then placed in an airtight container for a month before the flavor develops.

As they dry, they lose about 80 percent of their weight. Therefore, a gardener would have to plant 150 corms and gently pull 450 stigmas for one gram of dried saffron. Despite the laborious nature of harvesting saffron, gardeners may want to just have these around for extra color in the fall.

Saffron is primarily grown in Iran, Spain and Italy. However, researcher Margaret Skinner from the University of Vermont wants to bring the crops here to our farmers, saying we have better soil. Margaret and her team experimented with saffron in high tunnels (plastic-covered, unheated greenhouse structures) and found "We got higher yields of saffron, in terms of weight, than what's reported in field production in Spain and Iran."

These crocuses are zone-hardy to 6, which is most likely why they were grown under cover in Vermont. However, Central Illinois is Zone 5b, and most of our gardens live in microclimates.

Up against our house or in our backyard garden, the microclimate is determined by sun exposure, heat, water, light and wind, which is why some gardeners can get away with growing plants not hardy to our area.

Plant bulbs in September two to four inches deep and four inches apart. The first year, maybe 60 percent of the bulbs produce a flower and the second year, two flowers may be produced. As the corms multiply, they can handle light shade and may be disturbed by the neighborhood squirrels.

Photo by University of Missouri