Saffron has been known for centuries. As a dye it yields a deeply hued yellow color, prized by the fashionable Minoan women of Ancient Crete (2700 – 1450 BCE) (Willetts 1976) and later Egypt (Willard 2001). A fresco depicting saffron was found at the site of Akrotiri, a Greek city destroyed (and preserved) by volcanic ash in 1627 BCE. In the work, two finely dressed women are in a field of flowers, gathering the valuable parts that constitute saffron.
To some, the robes and jewelry the women are wearing show that this painting was representative of a harvest festival. Others hypothesize that the saffron was an offering to the goddess Eileithyia, whom Homer referred to as “Mogostokos” – the goddess of the birth pains. Regardless, by the time of ancient Greece, saffron was well known and, judging by the fields depicted in the fresco, cultivated. But saffron isn’t celebrated for its longevity, nor for its ties to pregnancy (even though I think that’s worth exploring and will do so later on in this post). No, to most, saffron is known as a potent aphrodisiac.
An aphrodisiac is defined as any substance with stimulates or enhances sexual desire. Generally, we utilize foods for this task although really any substance could do. Most purported aphrodisiacs have very little in the way of evidence to back them up, but it doesn’t prevent many people from believing in them. And we, as humans, have been believing in saffron for quite some time. Early writings from both India and Greece list it as an aphrodisiac (Telesco 1998). Even Cleopatra believed in the amorous powers of saffron:
in one brief and fragmented tract she was observed to rely on a saffron bath to prepare her body to receive a man – believing that the power of the dissolving threads sensitized her loins, thus heightening her pleasure, as well as her partner’s (Willard 2001)
Certainly a bath fit for a queen, as the recipe called for a quarter cup of saffron dissolved in water and saffron wasn’t cheap (Willard 2001)!
The reason for the great expense comes from the botany behind the spice. Unlike most herbs, where most if not all of the plant can be utilized for the intended purpose, saffron comes from a very specific part of a very specific flower. The Saffron Crocus (Crocus sativus) blooms in the fall for a short amount of time (much like its spring flowering cousins). However, the spice does not come from harvesting the flower. Instead, the red stigmas (the part of the flower that receives the pollen when pollination occurs) or threads are hand gathered and laid out to dry for many days. Once dry, the threads are considered saffron. Think about that for a minute. Those tiny red stigmas… how many would be required to gather a quarter cup? Some more mental math: 4, 320 flowers are required to yield 1 ounce of saffron (Grieve 1931). Over four thousand flowers an ounce!
Yet, regardless of the great labor in its harvest and the high price it yielded, saffron was known for its sexual potency. Even in the bible saffron’s lusty ways make an appearance. In the Song of Solomon the male lover laments that:
a garden locked is my sister, my bride
a garden locked, a fountain sealed
your channel is an orchard of pomegranates
with all the choicest fruits
henna with nard,
nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon
with all the trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes…” (Song of Solomon 4.12-4.14)
to which the female lover replies “let my beloved come to his garden/and eat it’s choicest fruits” (Song of Solomon 4.16).
Now, I didn’t major in poetry but, to me, it seems fairly obvious that we’re not talking about a literal garden and eating literal fruit. Perhaps most interesting is the reference not only to saffron but the other plants as well: pomegranates and frankincense I’ve written about before. Calamus and myrrh are forthcoming. All have histories associated with sexuality, fertility, and family planning so I’d guess readers of the time would get the meaning very clearly: that garden isn’t locked anymore.
So with all this belief, does it work? Turns out, yes. A 2008 study released in Phytomedicine showed that crocin (a natural chemical coumpound found in saffron) increased sexual behaviors in male rats. When crocin was injected into the rats at varying doses (100, 200, or 400 mg/kg body weight) all the rats showed an increase in mounting frequencies, erection frequencies and a lower frequency of premature ejaculation (Hossenzadeh et. al. 2008). This proves that there might be some truth behind the folklore.
Of course saffron was used medicinally in other ways as well. Many of the herbal texts of antiquity listed it as an emmenagogue and included it in many of the recipes to produce abortions. Hippocrates used it in a recipe “to expel the fetus, if it has died inside” and required ground saffron to be mixed with goose oil and “after filtering, pour[ed] into the womb, so that it stays as long as possible” which is, frankly, a little terrifying.
By the first century CE, Dioscorides writes that saffron is “effective mixed with drinks that are taken internally, and with suppositories, and poultices for the uterus and the perineum” and that “it works against venereal diseases…” although he never claims how. It is also a listed ingredient in two different aromatic wines; one concocted to ease “painful urination, chills, and the retained menstrual flow” while the other is a raisin wine in which saffron is mixed with gypsum, black hellebore, calamus, juniper berries, and myrrh and “purges women after childbirth and abortions, is an abortifacient, and is available for womb strangulation” (ie, if the baby is being strangled by the umbilical cord) (Dioscorides). Another text from this era, written by Scribonius Largus suggests that saffron is utalized to stimulate menses that are “difficult to purge” (Riddle 1992).
By the 17th century it was recommended for use in ” disorders of the breast in female obstructins [sic], and hysteric depressions” (Culpepper 1653) and in the late 19th century:
a tincture is made from the saffron of commerce, which is of essential use for controlling female haemorrhages. Four or five drops of the tincture made be given with a spoonful of water every three or four hours for this purpose (Fernie, 1897)
In the more modern era it was used “as a diaphoretic (sweat-inducing) for children and for chronic hemorrhage of the uterus in adults” (Grieve, 1931) and a French guide to natural remedies published in 1939 listed saffron as an effective emmenagogue (Riddle 1992). Currently, modern herbalists recommend it for an “appetite aid, mild sexual stimulant, menstruation stimulant, and treatment for colds and insomnia” (Telesco 1998).
Perhaps those saffron gatherers in the Greek fresco had it right: if saffron has such an effect on the uterus who better to offer it up to than the goddess of childbirth. Consider this: like many other herbs of the class abortifacients, saffron is toxic in relatively small does. How small? Some suggest it takes just 1/3 of an ounce to feel the detrimental effects. This toxicity, while detrimental to the mother, is may be potent enough to induce an abortion. This is currently being researched in Iran where women are the primary workers in the saffron industry. Official Iranian data shows an increase in miscarriages reported during the saffron harvesting season (October – December). A study published in June of 2014 shows that there is a significant increase in miscarriages in women exposed to saffron (Mahmoud et. al. 2014).
But don’t worry next time you have some saffron rice or chicken pot pie from Lancaster, Pennsylvania – the price of saffron makes it all but impossible to overdose on (a quick look online shows that one ounce sells for about $200 USD). So unless you are growing it yourself (which is very easy to do) you are unlikely to encounter enough saffron to encounter any toxic effects yourself.