Horticulturist experiments with growing exotic spice in Charlotte greenhouses

Photo by Chea Waters Evans
Saffron is made of dried pollen that is harvested from crocus blooms. It is used as a cooking spice, a dye, or various medicinal purposes.

Saffron lends a richness of color to fabric, imparts a deep flavor to paella and other dishes, and is hailed as a panacea for wintertime ills, depression and high cholesterol. Most of the world’s saffron is produced in Middle Eastern countries such as Iran and Afghanistan, and now some of it is being grown in Vermont.

Inside its greenhouses tucked along Route 7 in Charlotte, Horsford Gardens and Nursery is spearheading an effort to make saffron a viable agricultural option for local nurseries and home growers alike.

Leading the research effort is Steve Davidson, who studied Horticulture and Plant and Soil Science at the University of Vermont and has worked at Horsford’s for five years.

He explained that the spice is harvested from crocus flowers, the bulbs of which are called corms; he hopes to prove that using fertilized soil, rather than untouched soil, boosts corm reproduction, improves flower growth rate, and improves the quality of harvested saffron. Once growers understand the best growing method, he believes saffron will become another product to bear a Vermont label.

“Saffron’s really taking off,” he said, “and the average homeowner-slash-producer wants to grow it.”

In summer, the greenhouses at Horsford’s are packed with lush, overflowing crates of perennials. This time of year, however, is quiet. The long, mostly empty rows of wooden tables in the gray fall light that comes through the greenhouse glass doesn’t show much promise of life, but Davidson said fall is perfect for crocuses.

He imagines that some day soon the tables will be full in the off season. “The greenhouse industry, especially in this state, shuts down at this time,” he said. “Nobody grows anything but micro-greens and tomatoes, so this is a great option for people…nothing [else] is really producing pollen this time of year.”

Saffron is a “big cash crop,” Davidson said, with an added bonus that it fills the void between seasons. It’s possible to grow it in a hobby green house, and since this fall-blooming flower has been bred for cold hardiness, it can stand chillier fall temperatures if it’s planted outside and grown in a high tunnel, which is an unheated greenhouse. “It goes dormant throughout the summer, so I can grow annuals and bring these back out in the fall,” Davidson explained.

So, why isn’t everyone growing crocuses and harvesting saffron? The process is painstaking and labor-intensive, which means high prices for the orange saffron spice from the stigma and the yellow pollen from the stamen that’s used for dye. Davidson said he can typically get up to $18 a gram for dye and up to $22 a gram for the spice, which adds up to around $40 per gram per flower. That comes out to $4,979.20 a pound.

It takes around 150 flowers to make a gram of dried saffron. Davidson is growing 850 corms for his trial, with varying degrees of fertilized soil; a control group is base level soil with no additives, and four additional groups of crates, each with additional elements that could potentially increase fertility.

Pollen is harvested from the flower’s pistil by hand, before blooms open, in order to preserve as much of it as possible. When a bloom has already opened, the pollen can fly away easily. It’s then dried for a minimum of two months.

Though Vermont and the Mediterranean have very different climates, soil composition is a more important factor than temperature when it comes to having a successful crocus crop.

The soil in Iran is comprised of sand and clay. Davidson said the organic soil percentage there is 1 percent, while Vermont’s is 5 percent, giving Vermont soil an advantage. Davidson’s work is already showing visual proof that the more elements added to soil, the higher the corms grow and the more abundantly they reproduce.

“I kind of knew what would happen, but had to show it using data,” Davidson said. The next step of his two-year project is counting flower production at the end of the growing season. Next year, he will dig up the corms, count them, and weigh them.

Beyond Davidson and the Charlotte greenhouse, saffron is an agricultural hot topic lately in Vermont. The University of Vermont Entomology Research Laboratory just received a $30,000 grant from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets to develop techniques for field production of saffron in Vermont. Other previous research done at the laboratory focused on health and medicinal benefits of the spice, as well as cold- hardiness.

Cara Chigazola-Tobin is the chef at Honey Road restaurant in Burlington, an Eastern Mediterranean eatery that features saffron regularly on the menu. Hearing about the Vermont-saffron experiment, she said a local option for the spice is exciting, She uses local products whenever she can, and estimates that currently, 80 percent of her ingredients are from the area, including dairy, lamb, vegetables, and even za’atar, a spice blend that she buys from Half Pint Farm in Burlington.

“I use a Spanish saffron right now, and was looking into some stuff from Afghanistan,” she said, “so I’m definitely interested in local saffron.” Chigazola-Tobin buys about an ounce of the spice at a time, which lasts for about a month.

With local restaurants hungry to use locally produced spices in their kitchens and UVM exploring ways to grow crocuses outside and at home, saffron could be poised to join other new, booming crops to Vermont, like hops and grapes. As people are increasingly aware of their food sources and eager to support local, sustainable agriculture, Horsford’s is ready to add a spicy new option to the landscape.

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