In terms of raw ingredients, saffron is known to be one of the most expensive in the world. Yet this beautiful flower can be added to a wealth of dishes to provide a delicious flavour and intense yellow hue. But owing to its hefty price tag, many people are reluctant to splash out on it. But could there be another way? Can you grow saffron in the UK? One would therefore think that saffron needs relatively warm conditions to thrive but in reality, this is a flower that can be grown in the UK thanks to its hardiness. But there is much more to growing saffron than simply popping it in the ground and hoping for the best. In this guide, we will be looking at some handy tips to get the best crop of saffron possible on UK soil.
What Is Saffron?
Saffron is a spice with a bright orange/yellow colour and a musky, aromatic flavour and is derived from the flower of Crocus sativus. Crocus sativus is a type of purple crocus flower that produces these orange/red stigmas.
The threads can then be ground and mixed with water and salt to create a potent mixture that perfectly complements a variety of foods. Some would say that wherever vanilla might be used, saffron can be a luxurious alternative.
Can You Grow Saffron In The UK?
Yes, you can grow saffron in the UK although they flower in late Autumn and not at the end of winter like the crocuses you usually see in early spring. While saffron is traditionally grown in regions with a Mediterranean climate, the UK’s cooler temperatures can still support its growth. Crocuses need well-draining soil and a sunny location to protect the bulbs (corms) from excessive moisture, especially during winter months.
Where Should I Grow Saffron?
In terms of where in your garden you can plant the saffron crocus, your options are wide open. These plants will thrive just as well in a flower bed as they would when planted in a container on the patio, as long as the growing conditions are right, they should fare rather well.
Saffron crocuses do best in a location with the following conditions:
- Warmth: Choose a warm sunny spot, Saffron crocuses will not tolerate heavy shade.
- Well-Draining Soil: Saffron bulbs (corms) are susceptible to rot, so it’s essential to plant them in well-draining soil. Sandy loam or a mix that doesn’t retain too much water is ideal.
- Slightly Alkaline pH: The soil should have a pH level between 6.8 to 7.8. If your soil is too acidic, you can amend it with lime to raise the pH.
- Protection from Wind: While saffron plants are relatively hardy, they can benefit from a location that’s shielded from strong winds, which can damage its delicate flowers.
How to Grow Saffron UK
Growing saffron is quite easy but if you want to harvest a significant amount, it takes thousands of flowers to produce just an ounce. The rewards, both in terms of flavour and potential income, can be well worth the effort.
1 – Choose the Right Bulbs
- Start with high-quality saffron crocus bulbs (Crocus sativus). Ensure they are free from rot and disease.
2 – Select the Ideal Location
- Saffron crocuses need to be planted in August in a warm sunny spot.
- Ensure the location is protected from strong winds, which can damage the delicate flowers.
3 – Prepare the Soil
- The best soil for growing saffron is slightly alkaline with a pH of 6.8 to 7.8.
- If your soil is too acidic, amend it with lime. For heavy clay soils, consider adding sand or organic matter to improve drainage.
4 – Planting the Bulbs
- The best time to plant the bulbs is in August.
- Dig holes about 4-5 inches deep and place the bulbs with the pointed end facing upwards.
- Maintain a spacing of at least 6 inches between each bulb.
- Cover the bulbs with soil and water lightly.
Regardless of how many bulbs you intend to plant, space is one of the most crucial things to consider so always make sure that you have enough room for each bulb to grow unhindered.
5 – Watering and Care
- Water sparingly. Saffron crocuses do not require frequent watering and are susceptible to rot in waterlogged conditions.
- During the growing season, water once every few weeks or when the soil feels dry to the touch.
6 – Harvesting Saffron
- Saffron flowers will appear in the Autumn around October/ November time. Each flower will have three red stigmas, which are the saffron threads.
- Harvest the threads early in the morning by plucking them gently with tweezers or fingers.
- Lay the threads on a paper towel and allow them to dry for a few days in a warm, dark place.
In order to get just one tablespoon of the spice, you would need around 60 flowers. In the first year of growth, your crop may not be as impressive but in most cases, the second year will produce double the amount of flowers.
7 – Storing Saffron
- Once dried, store the saffron threads in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. Properly stored saffron can last for several years.
8 – Post-Harvest Care
- After harvesting, like other crocuses, let the foliage die back naturally. This allows the bulbs to gather energy for the next growing season.
- In regions with very cold winters, consider mulching the planting area to protect the bulbs.
After this, it will be ready for use in all of your favourite dishes. However, if you don’t want to use it right away, you can store it in an airtight container where it will keep for as long as six months.
Problems With Growing Saffron UK
Growing saffron crocus can be a rewarding, but like all plants, it has its challenges. Here are some common problems associated with growing saffron crocus:
1 – Bulb Rot
Excessive moisture or poorly draining soil can lead to fungal diseases that cause the bulbs to rot. Ensure the soil is well-draining and overwatering should be avoided. If drainage is a concern, consider planting in raised beds.
2 – Rodent and Pest Damage
Mice, voles, and other rodents might dig up and eat the bulbs. Using rodent deterrents or protective mesh can prevent them from accessing the bulbs, ensuring the safety of your crop.
3 – Inadequate Flowering
There are instances where bulbs might not flower. This can be due to them being planted too shallow, the soil not being fertile, or the plants not receiving enough sunlight.
To ensure optimal flowering, bulbs should be planted at the correct depth, the soil should be enriched with compost, and a sunny location should be chosen for planting.
4 – Frost Damage
Unexpected early frosts can damage new shoots. It’s beneficial to monitor weather forecasts and consider using frost cloths or mulch to protect plants from sudden temperature drops.
5 – Diseases
Fungal diseases, such as saffron rust, can affect the leaves. To prevent this, good air circulation is crucial. Overhead watering should be avoided, and affected leaves should be removed promptly. Fungicides can also be used as a preventive measure.
6 – Sparse Saffron Production
Each flower produces only three saffron threads, so a large number of flowers are needed for a significant harvest. To increase production, more bulbs should be planted, and optimal growing conditions should be maintained to ensure maximum flowering.
7 – Grassy Weeds
Weeds can compete with saffron crocus for nutrients and space. Regular weeding of the saffron bed is essential, and mulching can help suppress weed growth, ensuring the health of the saffron plants.
8 – Bulb Depletion
Saffron crocus can only be propagated by dividing corms. After a time, they will outcompete each other and produce fewer flowers.
To rejuvenate the planting, it’s beneficial to dig up, divide, and replant bulbs every few years.
9 – Birds
Birds, especially pheasants, can be attracted to the flowers and may damage them. Using bird netting or scare tactics can deter them, protecting the delicate saffron flowers.
10 – Inconsistent Watering
Saffron crocus doesn’t like to sit in wet soil, but it also doesn’t want to dry out completely. Consistent watering is crucial, but it’s also essential to ensure the soil drains well between waterings.
While saffron originally comes from Greece, the Middle East and India, this hardy plant can be easily grown in the UK. However, before getting started, you must make sure that you provide your saffron crocuses with the right conditions which include rich soil, a good amount of sunlight and enough space to thrive.
Garden Doctor Tips
“Plant your saffron bulbs in a place where they will be in full sun!”
“For best results, plant your saffron bulbs in the late spring/ early summer!”
“Use tweezers to remove the filaments as they are so small!”
“Do not overwater your saffron, they do not need as much water as other flowers!”
Frequently Asked Questions
Does saffron grow back every year?
Saffron are flowers that will reappear every year due to the bulbs that are grown underground out of sight. Ensure that your saffron foliage isn’t cut back and allowed to with and die on its own to enable the bulb as much time to grow as possible.
How long does it take to grow saffron?
On average, saffron takes around 7 weeks to grow although in some cases, this has been known to be as little as 4 and as much as 10 depending on the conditions.
Can you eat saffron from any crocus?
No, only the stigmas from Crocus sativus are edible as saffron. Consuming parts of other crocus varieties can be harmful or toxic, so it’s essential to ensure you have the correct species.
When should I plant saffron crocus bulbs?
You should plant saffron crocus bulbs around August. Flowering year 1 may be reduced but year 2 they will flourish.
Can you grow your own saffron crocus?
Yes, you can grow your own saffron crocus if you have the right conditions. Providing well-draining soil, adequate sunlight, and proper care will ensure a successful harvest of saffron threads.
Trevor Wright is not just a seasoned horticulturist; he’s the esteemed Garden Doctor. With a BSc in Horticulture and years of hands-on experience in the soil, Trevor has become a trusted mentor for all things gardening. As the founder of Garden Doctor, he’s committed to clarifying the intricacies of gardening, offering straightforward advice that’s rooted in years of practice. His writing is a garden of how-tos, savvy insights, and comprehensive guides that enable individuals to nurture and grow their garden dreams. When he’s not knee-deep in garden beds, Trevor is at his keyboard passing on his green-thumbed wisdom to budding gardeners, ensuring that the legacy of sustainable and joyful gardening blossoms far and wide.