Saffron Cultivation in Greece

Crocus sativus L. is a perennial plant that propagates by corms. Today, systematic saffron cultivation in Greece is confined to Kozani county, western Macedonia, and is controlled by the Saffron Growers’ Cooperative. The crop may be kept economically profitable until the seventh year. Sample analysis from many fields, over a number of years, has proved the excellent quality of Greek saffron.

The ancient Greek word krokos (saffron) refers, in its broadest sense, to the plant, the flower, the dyeing substance, the aromatic oil and the pharmaceutical herb. Etymologically the word krokos comes from the Greek word kroke, used to designate the yarn woven with a shuttle in the warp of a loom. A famous fresco in the Minoan palace of Knossos, Crete, dated from 1600 BC and known as the “saffron gatherer” depicts a blue monkey picking saffron flowers. Hippocrates (470–377 BC), Aesculapius (525–456 BC), Theophrastus (372–287 BC), Dioscorides (first century AD) and Galen (129–201 AD) quote the word krokos with reference to the pharmaceutical herb. Sophocles (496–406 BC), the classic Greek poet and dramatist, quotes the word krokos “golden dawn krokos” in his drama “Oedipus on Kolonos” to denote the plant. In the hymn to Demeter in his Iliad, Homer (10th — 9th century BC) speaks of the flowers of krokos. Aeschylus (529–456 BC), in his drama “Agamemnon”, reports that Darius’ sandals were dyed with krokos (saffron). Aristophanes (445–385 BC), in Thesmiotes, reports that the tunics worn by Dionysus and his followers during the Dionysian mysteries were dyed with krokos (saffron). The word krokos also appears once in the Greek translation of the Old Testament in Songs of Solomon 4.13–14[And saffron in the King James translation: “Thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits; camphire, with spikenard. Spikenard and saffron [karkom in Hebrew]; calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spice.”].

There are a number of theories concerning the origin and spread of the species. Some scientists support the view that the saffron plant is native to the Orient. Others believe that the species originated in Greece, where it was domesticated and cultivated for the first time during the Minoan period. This theory is strengthened by “The saffron gatherer” fresco of that period found in the palace of Knossos on Crete. Subsequently Crocus cultivation spread in the Near and Middle East, probably at the time of Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia, in the 4th century BC.

Today, systematic saffron cultivation in Greece is confined to only two villages (Krokos and Karyditsa) in Kozani county, in western Macedonia. In the past it was also grown on the islands of Crete, Thera, Anafi, Delos, Syros, Tenos, Aegina, Mykonos, Andros and Corfu.

Eighteen Crocus species grow in the different geographical regions of the Greek islands and mainland:

  1. Crocus chrysanthus Herb., indigenous to hilly areas throughout Greece.
  2. Crocus olivierii Day, indigenous to mountainous areas all over Greece.
  3. Crocus biflorus Mill., indigenous to northern Greece and the Ionian Islands.
  4. Crocus crewii Hook., indigenous to mountainous areas all over Greece.
  5. Crocus veluchensis Herb., indigenous to mountainous areas of continental Greece.
  6. Crocus sieberi Day, endemic plant in the mountainous areas of Crete.
  7. Crocus nivalis Bory & Chaub., indigenous to the alpine areas of continental Greece.
  8. Crocus atticus Orph., indigenous to sub-alpine areas all over Greece.
  9. Crocus pulchellus Herb., indigenous to the area from northwestern Greece down to Thessaly.
  10. Crocus tournefortii Gay, or Crocus boryi var. tournefortii Baker, Crocus orphanidis Hook., indigenous to the Cyclades, predominantiy on Syros, Tenos, Mykonos and Delos.
  11. Crocus veneris Tappein., indigenous as an endemic plant in the island of Crete.
  12. Crocus boryi Cay., indigenous to Thessaly, Peloponnese and Crete.
  13. Crocus levigatus Ch. & Bory, indigenous to Thessaly, continental Greece (Sterea Hellas), Peloponnese and Crete.
  14. Crocus sativus L., exists only as a cultivated plant in Greece.
  15. Crocus cartwrightianus Herb., indigenous to the low-fertility areas of Attica, the Aegean islands and Crete.
  16. Crocus hadriaticus Herb., indigenous to mountainous areas all over Greece.
  17. Crocus peloponnesiacus Orph., indigenous endemic plant on Malevon Mt, Laconia county.
  18. Crocus cancellatus Herb., indigenous all over Greece. The corms of said species are edible after cooking or seasoning.

Of these eighteen species, the fertile Crocus cartwrightianus is considered to be the progenitor of the sterile Crocus sativus ().

Cultivation of Saffron

Technological Features of Greek Saffron

Main Chemical Ingredients

The main chemical ingredient contained in Greek saffron’s drug is protocrocine. After oxidation, this substance produces: (a) two molecules of picrocrocine — C16H26O7 and (b) one molecule of crocine — C44H64O24.

Pictocrocine is a glucoside, which upon enzymatic hydrolysis liberates its nonsugary part, which in turn, after oxidation, produces safranal and D-glucosine. These substances are the main constituents of saffron’s essential oil, to which saffron owes its characteristic smell. The non-sugary part of crocine, crocetine, is the main dyeing substance to which saffron owes its special red colour. Other substances that exist in saffron are glucomicine, carotene ß, p, c, etc.

The final commercial product reaching the market has the following composition (chemical analysis by the Koying method: water; starch; oils; fat; N-substances; nonN-substances; fibres and ash).

Saffron Analysis

The composition of Greek saffron is revealed by several analyses:

Moisture (at 103°C)8.4-9.6%
Colouring power (440 nm)120-150
Total ash5.1%
Essential oil content1.01-1.12%
Foreign coloursAbsent
Quality differenceAbsent

This analysis reflects the excellent quality of Greek saffron.

Characteristics and Uses

Commercial saffron is a natural colouring and aromatic substance derived from fresh stigmas after appropriate drying. Some of saffron’s main uses are to improve the colour, smell and taste of many dishes. In small quantities, it stimulates appetite, facilitates digestion and generally strengthens the human organism. Due to its important properties, it is the subject of advanced scientific research to explore its pharmaceutical potential and properties, as these have been reported from the ancient and recent past. Today in the European kitchen, saffron is widely used as a condiment in a variety of food preparations such as rice dishes, pastas, soups (like French bouilla-baisse), cakes, saffron bread and numerous sweets. Saffron is also used in the food industry to dye and perfume rice, pastas, candies, dairy products and alcoholic beverages, as well as pharmaceutical products. Other uses of saffron are related to religious ceremonies (India) or to dyeing expensive textiles.

Profitability of the Crop and Agricultural Income

Saffron cultivation is important for both the growers of Kozani county, in terms of their farm income, and for the Greek agricultural economy — since all annual domestic production is exported [Greek restaurants do not offer saffron dishes].

The annual production cost of 1 ha of saffron within the span of a 6-year, economically productive life is $4800 of which $3600 represents human labour. The gross annual income derived from the cultivation of 1 ha of saffron is $5316. The net annual income derived from the cultivation of 1 ha of saffron is therefore $516. This income was calculated on the basis of the actual cultural expenses and the market price of saffron, which was $600 per kg in 1995. A farmer’s annual income from the cultivation of 1 ha of saffron is $3701. This income includes the rent for the land ($480 per ha), the net income ($516 per ha) and 75% of the calculated labour cost ($2705 per ha).

A comparison of the annual revenue of the saffron crop in 1995 with the annual agricultural income produced by 1 ha of land covered by other crops in Kozani county leads to the conclusion that saffron is much more profitable. Consequently, saffron could be used as an alternative crop in this region, providing an effective solution to the problem of substituting less profitable crops with more profitable ones to raise the limited agricultural income of the farmers in this county.

The annual saffron growing data for the period 1985–95, including average production, total production and market prices per kg, appear in Table “Data on saffron cultivation in Greece. Mean annual values for the period 1985–95”.

Product Marketing and Distribution

Saffron is marketed and distributed by the Saffron Growers’ Cooperative of Kozani county. According to the Foundation Law 818/1981 establishing the cooperative, growers are obliged to deliver all of their product to the cooperative every year to secure its joint marketing.

The product is collected from January to late March. After drying and cleaning, it is brought to the cooperative’s storage room where, after careful inspection, it is accepted and subsequently stored. Quality is strictly controlled by a panel of specialists, then the product is weighed and packaged by the cooperative in and small 1-g, 2-g, 4-g and 28-g packages or in large-capacity (3 kg) metal cans.

The commercial saffron product is available either as threads or as finely ground powder, which is placed in clean, hermetic packaging consisting of material which excludes the infiltration of foreign substances and loss of the substances it contains.

The package label provides information on: (a) the botanical and commercial name of the product, (b) its net weight and quality category, (c) the country and area of its production, and (d) the recommended expiry, date for its use. The cooperative makes efforts to find customers in foreign markets and to increase saffron consumption in the internal market.

The product is sold internationally and is delivered by an air-transport agency to the destination airport (CIF) from where it is claimed by the recipient following presentation of a Bill of Loading and payment of its value against documents. The transaction is mediated by a Greek bank and a foreign bank designated by the buyer.

Because it has managed to concentrate total production every year, and to promote and sell the product abroad at international prices, (a) the cooperative reestablished the trust of serious foreign commercial firms in Greek saffron, (b) the state authorities have begun to show some interest in supporting the crop, (c) the trust of the saffron growers in their cooperative is firmly founded and (d) cultivation has expanded to other areas and villages of Kozani county.


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