Human cultivation and use of saffron spans - History of saffron
The word “saffron” immediately stems from the Latin word safranum via the 12th-century Old French term Safran. The French were borrowed from Arabic زَعْفَرَان (za'farān), and ultimately from Persian زَرپَران (zarparān) which literally means "golden leaves". The Latin form safranum is also the source of the Catalan safrà, Italian zafferano, but Portuguese açafrão, and Spanish azafrán come from the Arabic az-zaferán. The Latin term crocus is certainly a Semitic loanword. It is adapted from the Aramaic form kurkema via the Arabic term kurkum and the Greek intermediate κρόκος krokos, which once again signifies "yellowish". The Sanskrit kunkumam might be ultimately the origin, or in some way related to the Semitic term.
Human cultivation and use of saffron spans more than 3,500 years and extends across cultures, continents, and civilizations. Saffron, a spice derived from the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), has through history remained among the world's most costly substances.
With its bitter taste, hay-like fragrance, and slight metallic notes, the apocarotenoid-rich saffron has been used as a seasoning, fragrance, dye, and medicine.
The wild precursor of domesticated saffron crocus was likely Crocus cartwrightianus, which originated in Crete or Central Asia; C. thomasii and C. pallasii are other possible sources.
Although some doubts remain on its origin, it is believed that saffron originated in Iran (Persia). However, Greece, Mesopotamia, and even Kashmir have also been suggested as the possible region of origin of this plant.
The saffron crocus is now a triploid that is "self-incompatible" and male sterile; it undergoes aberrant meiosis and is hence incapable of independent sexual reproduction—all propagation is by vegetative multiplication via manual "divide-and-set" of a starter clone or by interspecific hybridisation.
If C. sativus is a mutant form of C. cartwrightianus, then it may have emerged via plant breeding, which would have been selected for elongated stigmas, in late Bronze Age Crete.
Humans may have bred C. cartwrightianus specimens by screening for specimens with abnormally long stigmas.
The resulting saffron crocus was documented in a 7th-century BC Assyrian botanical reference compiled under Ashurbanipal, and it has since been traded and used over the course of four millennia and has been used as a treatment for some ninety disorders.
The C. sativus clone was slowly propagated throughout much of Eurasia, later reaching parts of North Africa, North America, and Oceania.