Saffron Grows in Maine
Local farmers are learning how to grow this expensive, exotic spice
After a long Maine winter, the first spring crocus poking its head through the last of the melting snow is undoubtedly a treasure to behold. But the serious monetary value of this botanical family lies in the spring crocus’s fall-blooming cousin: the saffron crocus.
Saffron is a spice of mythic proportion because it’s beautiful, mysterious, exotic, sexy, and very, very expensive. It can be literally worth more than its weight in gold. At presstime, the price of gold was $55 per gram. The same weight in saffron—enough to give a seafood stew or a pot of rice those sweet but earthy undertones, plus the spice’s telltale golden tint—would cost between $10 and $70, depending on the quality. Saffron grown for medicinal purposes, meanwhile, can fetch prices upwards of $150 per gram.
Hellenic legend traces saffron back to a handsome young mortal called Crocus who was in hot pursuit of Smilax, a nymph living in the woods outside Athens. After an idyllic romp, the story goes that Smilax tired of the man’s continued advances and morphed him into a saffron crocus (botanically referred to as Crocus sativus), with his three radiant stigmas signaling his continuing passion. (Given that this is a myth, we’ll allow the Greeks a little poetic license and not call them out on the fact that the stigma is one of the lady parts of a flower.)
Roman poet Ovid first alluded to that saffron story in his work Metamorphoses, published circa 8 AD, but the method for plucking the crimson threads from a crocus’s purple blooms remains largely unchanged even today. It’s all done by hand, whether the harvest occurs in traditional saffron-producing hotspots like Afghanistan, Greece, Iran, or Spain, or in up-and-coming saffron-producing locales like Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
Spurred on by the enthusiastic scientists at the University of Vermont’s North American Center for Saffron Research and Development, more growers in the Northeast are trying to figure out how the world’s most valuable spice might fit into their cash crop rotation. Crocus sativus varies from the springtime crocus in that it lies dormant during Maine’s busy summer growing season, not blooming until late October. The stigmas are harvested from the flowers and dried into threads that are a mere 20% of their original size. It takes an acre of land and hundreds of thousands of flower stigmas to produce just one pound of saffron threads.
“That alternate growing season potentially makes saffron a shoulder crop for farmers in this part of the world. It’s a product they can grow and sell in the off-season to help maintain a steady cash flow until their spring crops are ready for market,” says Margaret Skinner, a plant and soil scientist who established the saffron center five years ago. Skinner and her colleagues hold annual workshops in March designed to teach North American farmers how to cultivate Holland-imported Crocus sativus corms (a corm is an underground storage organ similar to a bulb), either in greenhouse containers or in the ground, where they’re protected late in the season by a high- or low-tunnel apparatus.
The process of successfully producing saffron in this climate, though, has required much trial and error on the part of early-adopting growers.
Cozy Acres Greenhouse owner Jeff Marstaller has been growing saffron crocuses in large tubs at his North Yarmouth greenhouse for three years because growing them outside at his woodsy location would leave the plants prey to deer (who like to eat the leaves, which stay green all winter long) and voles (who like to snack on the underground corms). In 2017 he planted 3,000 corms, collectively yielding 17 grams of dried saffron threads. Attempting to boost his yield, Marstaller has moved his containers to various parts of his greenhouse operation to get them each different levels of sunlight. So far the efforts have been mixed: His 2018 yield was 13 grams, and in 2019 it was just one gram. Marstaller hasn’t yet sold any of his saffron, but he generously gave us some to test for this article. When compared with Spanish saffron bought on the internet and Egyptian saffron purchased in a Cairo tourist trap, the superior quality of his local saffron is evident in both its bright color and whole threads.
This year, Marstaller plans to methodically divide his bins and track how each grows and produces blooms under different conditions. “I’m not counting on saffron being the goose that lays my golden egg, but I’m determined to figure out how to get the biggest saffron yield I can for my investment,” he says.
Barbara Boardman has sold the saffron she’s been growing for three seasons at White Duck Farm in Waldoboro. Last October’s exceptionally wet weather dampened her harvest significantly, so she plans to use a low tunnel this year to keep the soil drier—akin to the more arid climates where saffron is traditionally grown. She’s sold her small but annual saffron crop to local chefs and distillers interested in sourcing wholly local food for their plates and libations for their glasses.
Boardman is not surprised by the high level of interest in Maine saffron: It’s cool to have something so exotic be sourced this close to home. But she also says resident culinary professionals need to be patient while she and her fellow farmers navigate the learning curve of saffron growing.
Christine has lived in many places, including Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, England and France. But her professional world has consistently been grounded in just two: in journalism and in the kitchen. Throughout her 30-year writing career, she’s covered sports, politics, business and technology. But for the past 10 years after completing culinary school, she’s focused on food. Her words and recipes about eating locally and sustainably have appeared in publications from The Portland Press Herald to Fine Cooking. Her award-winning cookbook Green Plate Special (link is: https://www.amazon.com/Green-Plate-Special-Sustainable-Delicious/dp/1944762140) was published in 2017. When she’s not laboring over a cutting board or a keyboard, she’s learning from her two semi-adult children, a community of food-minded friends, hundreds of productive Maine farmers, thousands of innovative chefs near and far, and her 30,000 honeybees.