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.
Fresco of saffron gatherers from the bronze age excavations in Akrotiri on the greek island of Santorini, Greece.
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. Continue reading →
Now that I am deep into this project, I am surprised at the amount of overlap between botany, human sexuality, and American history. The founding fathers had quite a hand in the importation and exportation of plants for reasons of “health.” The story of vanilla is no different. Of course, like most history involving the formation of America, the native peoples had been aware of and utilizing vanilla for hundreds of years before Jefferson and the rest of the founding fathers showed up.
Vanilla Orchid Flower
Vanilla (V. planifolia) is a species of orchid that is native to Mesoamerica. It rarely flowers, and when it does, pollination must occur within 12 hours of the flower opening to produce the coveted “bean” in which the vanillin compound is produced. In the wild, the Vanilla orchid has co-evolved with the Mexican Stingless Bee – the bee is the only known pollinator and resulted in Mexico being the only exporter of Vanilla until a process for hand pollination was discovered in 1841. Even now, there are only a few suitable climates for growing the orchid and planting to production can take upwards of 5 years, making vanilla second only to saffron in price of spices. Continue reading →