Saffron (Crocus Sativus L.) in Italy

In Piano di Navelli (L’Aquila region, Central Italy), saffron is cultivated in annual cycles. There has been a great decrease in saffron production in this region over the past few years. Nevertheless, it represents a remarkable income for some farmers in this mountainous area with a poor economy. This arid area is atypical for saffron cultivation, but the unique annual cultivation results in the recognized superior quality of its saffron in the marketplace. This chapter describes the major aspects of saffron production in this region.

Cultivation: Cycle and Area

According to tradition, a certain monk from Navelli (L’Aquila, Central Italy), on his return from Spain some time during the 15th century, adapted Spanish cultivation practices to the climate and soil of his village, in particular the development of cultivation in annual cycles. It is this practice, particular to Navelli and the Aquila area, that differs from those used in other countries (Spain, Greece, India, Sardinia, etc.) where the saffron plants are left in the soil from three to eight years (pluriannual cultivation) (). In this way, saffron cultivation which was well known among the ancient Roman people, but forgotten during the medieval age, was reintroduced in Italy.

Every year in Navelli the corms are taken up at the beginning of the summer and replanted at the end of August, after they have been selected for size and checked for possible defects (rot, parasites, viruses, etc.). The continual selection for size and checks for wholesomeness mean that every year only the best plants are replanted, and as a result only the highest morphological and phytochemical characteristics are conserved. This is why L’Aquila saffron is the most sought-after and most highly prized in the world.

It is interesting to note that during the last century in the L’Aquila area, experiments in pluriannual cultivation were carried out (the saffron was kept in the soil for three consecutive years). The pluriannual saffron plants were attacked earlier and more severely by root rot every year, promoting the resumption of annual cultivation.

At present, saffron in Italy is cultivated mostly in the highlands of Navelli, near L’Aquila (Central Italy); a few cultures can be found in Sardinia, Cagliari Province () and in the Val di Taro, Parma Province (). In the past, saffron was widespread in many regions of Central and Southern Italy (Tuscany, Campania, Sicily, etc.), where it is no longer cultivated [According to Galigani and Garbati Pegna (this volume), saffron was recently reintroduced to San Giminiano (Tuscany)] for social (neglected counties), economic (low income) and biological (corm parasites) reasons.

Nowadays (1992–1995), the saffron cultivation area in Italy covers about 10 ha, much less than in the past (about 1000 ha). The total production (1994–1995) of dried saffron is about 70–80 kg, that of corms 18 tons. The price of dried stigmas reached US$4 per g. However, the saffron is packaged in small, artistic ceramic vases, and then sold at a price of about US$ 10 for 1.5 g. For the small number of saffron cultivators (about 100 people), these prices represent a remarkable income: the cultivators are located in sub-mountain areas with a poor economy.

Biological Cycle

The saffron plant is characterized by a biological cycle with a long pause in the summer and an active growth period in the autumn (also the period during which the flowers blossom). There is also short growth period in the spring and an even shorter one in the winter.

In fact the plant survives the summer season by losing its leaves and existing as a corm in a state of hibernation. After the summer, the plant again enters a period of vegetative growth with the emission of a tuft of leaves and the emergence of the floral axis wrapped in whitish sheaths.

Flowering takes place in the autumn, from the end of October to the middle of November. The flowers are made up of six mauve petals from which a scarlet stigma arises, which subdivides into three branches, each of which terminates in a tube. The stigma is connected to the ovary by a long style. The leaves, which grow up to 40 cm in length, are produced from September to May. It is in this same autumn-winter-spring period that root growth occurs, with reabsorption of the mother corm and production and growth of the daughter corms. Each newly formed corm, contained within the tunic of the corm which produced it, has one or two principal buds at its apex (from which new leaves, floral axis and one or two daughter corms are produced) and in the lower portion, four to five secondary buds, placed irregularly in a spir 1 form. The secondary buds produce a cauline axis and a tuft of leaves which draw nutrients through photosynthesis and grow. Corms derived from secondary buds are smaller (1/4–1/6) than the apical ones. Consequently, each mother corm produces two to three principal corms from apical buds and several corms from lateral buds. Saffron is a sterile species which exhibits effective vegetative reproduction.

Cultivated Area

L’Aquila saffron is cultivated in an atypical area considering the bio-ecological characteristics of the plant, almost at its ecological limits. In fact cultivation in Navelli takes place in a sub-mountainous area (plantations are between 650 and 1100 m above sea level), the highest area in the Mediterranean where saffron is cultivated, with an annual rainfall of about 700 mm, of which 40 mm falls in the summer.

In other saffron growing areas in the Mediterranean precipitation is lower; for example, in Greece at Kozani (Macedonia), annual rainfall is 560 mm, of which 25 to 40 mm fall in the summer; Spain (La Mancha and Castile) 250 to 500 mm, 20 to 30 mm in the summer; Sardinia (S.Gavino, Monreale) 300 to 600 mm, 20 to 40 mm in the summer.

Average annual temperatures in Navelli are also lower at 11.3°C, winter 2– 5°C, summer 20–22°C; Kozani, about 12.5°C, winter 2–5°C, summer 23°C; La Mancha and Castile, 16–20°C, winter 5–7°C, summer 25°C; Sardinia, 16–20°C, winter 10°C, summer 25°C. The average summer temperature in Navelli never rises above 20–22°C, as compared to 25–30°C in the saffron growing areas in Spain and other parts of the Mediterranean. The xeric period in Navelli is limited to August; no xeric periods are recorded for other seasons. From December to January the average minimum temperature shows a negative value. Snow cover can last up to 30 days. Navelli saffron survives low winter temperatures without damage. However, heavy snowfall can damage the plants, especially if they are in flower: the flower freezes and decomposes and the corm splits and rots.

The environmental summer conditions (temperate-humid) in Navelli are largely responsible for cryptogamic attacks. In fact, the moisture and temperature values, especially those of the summer, create ideal conditions for the rapid development and spread of parasitic fungi (rot, decay, Fusarium). Massive attacks of parasitic fungi are recorded in the saffron plantations in Navelli when the spring is hot and rainy.

From observations, we have established that the critical temperature is the average March-April temperature of around 10–12°C (normal seasonal temperature being 6–9°C) accompanied by precipitation or dew. Under these climatic conditions, it is expedient to treat the soil or foliage with anti-fungal agents in order to save at least the daughter corms.

In Mediterranean areas characterized by a hot, dry summer climate, pluriannual cultivation of saffron is possible, particularly because the corms are not subject to devastating parasite attacks (hot, dry climates inhibit the reproduction and spread of parasitic fungi, mostly due to lack of water). Annual cultivation in the Navelli area consequently represents a strategy developed over the centuries so that the cultivation of saffron can continue in a sub-mountainous rainy environment at the ecological limits for this Mediterranean sub-desert plant.

The soil in the area under cultivation is a medium humus-clay, which guarantees good water storage, whereas the high sand content allows drainage and aeration. The active limestone content is good, organic substances high, phosphates low and potassium optimal.

Saffron: Principal Agricultural Practices

Saffron (Crocus Sativus L.) in Italy: Uses

At present saffron is used mainly in the liqueur industry (aperitifs, bitter, vermouth) and in the confectionery industry, for the colouring and flavouring qualities of its active components. In the food industry and in cooking it is used as a colouring for pasta and cheese, and in the preparation of regional specialities (risotto alla milanese, paella valencians, etc.). In the Navelli area it is used in cooking, sold by herbalists and grocers, and used in the preparation of local liqueur.

Quantity, Acreage and Prices

Over the centuries and until 40 years ago, Navelli saffron was cultivated over a remarkably large surface area. At the beginning of the 20th century more than 450 ha were under cultivation, producing 4.6 tons, and in some years the cultivation area exceeded 1000 ha, extending into other Abruzzo valleys (Sulmona, Marsica). For inland Abruzzo, saffron was an authentic and economic source of wealth; for example, the prices quoted for saffron in the 15th and 16th centuries were higher than per equal weight of silver, and saffron fields were therefore considered to be more remunerative than silver mines. Even in the 20th century, up to the 1960s, the area under cultivation was on the order of 180–200 ha, producing 2 tons.

In the past 30 years, however, the area under cultivation at Navelli has been heavily reduced, due to socioeconomic factors (population shift from the countryside, an increase in service industries, etc.) reaching an all-time low in 1976 of 3.5 ha, and producing only 20 kg of saffron. In the past few years there has been a revival in cultivation, with production reaching 40 kg of dry saffron from 1985–1987 (cultivation area 6 ha), and in 1988–1995, production exceeded 80 kg from an area of around 8–9 ha.

Both the surface cultivated and the production of dry stigmas are modest as compared to Spain (2864 ha; 12.9 tons in 1983) and Greece (860 ha; 3.7 tons in 1988). However, even though the quantity of saffron produced in Navelli is small, it merits the highest consideration, because of the bioagronomic characteristics of its germplasm, its outstanding organoleptic qualities for cooking and food preparation, and the fact that it represents a source of income for the few remaining saffron growers at Piano di Navelli. Throughout history, Navelli saffron has overcome crises in production of a far more serious nature than any known today (in 1646, during the Spanish domination, production almost ceased and only three pounds were produced vs. 12 thousand, 200 years earlier. This was because a decree issued by the viceroy gave foreign buyers the exclusive right to set prices).

Techniques of in vitro culture and other innovative methods presently under study (elimination of sterility, hybridization) offer a realistic possibility of the revitalization of saffron cultivation in Navelli. The main purpose of these studies is to make sufficient material available for planting, in particular in view of the interest shown in saffron cultivation by the young, who find it impossible at present to cultivate the plant due to lack of corms.

L’aquila Saffron: A Typical Italian Product

Measurements and statistical biometric comparisons have been made between L’Aquila saffron and that of Krokos (Greece), Pozo Hondo (Spain) and S.Gavino (Cagliari, Sardinia), and an F test (variance analysis) was carried out. Taking into account the significant differences derived from the statistical analysis of the principal characteristics, the high annual yield of stigmas per hectare, their strong colouring power and high safranin content, saffron plants from Navelli (L’Aquila) differ from those cultivated in Spain and Greece. They represent a typical Abruzzo and Italian cultivar which is characterized by the weight of the corm (22.9 g), its diameter (3.23 cm), the annual spice yield (10–12 to 16 kg dry stigmas/ha), and their high safranal content (4%).

This is why we have classified Navelli saffron as Crocus sativus L.cultivar Piano di Navelli — L’Aquila, in honour of the city and district which for five centuries has been the home of saffron cultivation in Italy. This classification guarantees a market for Navelli saffron. Recently (Tammaro 1994), the saffron from Navelli (L’Aquila) was recognized as a typical regional product of the European Community (EC) and a logo for the product’s preservation is being designed.

The above cultivation, in fact, fits the criteria of the European Economic Community (EEC) n. 2081 and 2082 (July 14 1992) rules, i.e.:

(a) strong presence in local historic culture (tradition, local uses and holidays);

(b) a typical geographical localization of production;

(c) high organoleptic quality of the product;

(d) production techniques belonging to an exclusive typology.

At present, saffron in Italy shows little economic value due to the scarce harvest. On the other hand, it is of great scientific importance since it represents a typical Italian cultivar, which has been selected for over the past 500 years. Moreover, saffron is remarkable for the rural tradition of Southern Italy, especially the Abruzzo Region, which has based a certain amount of its economy on this plant for the past few centuries.

 

Selections from the book: “Saffron. Crocus sativus L.”. Edited by Moshe Negbi. Series: “Medicinal and Aromatic Plants — Industrial Profiles”. 1999