Harvest time in Tasmania's Huon Valley

THE HISTORY OF SAFFRON

Sometime ago – thousands of years ago but no-one knows exactly when – a fault occurred in the reproduction of a lily. The fault occurred in a single plant – somewhere in Asia Minor, but no-one knows exactly where.

The fault was considerable; the plant was, like most plants, the progeny of two parents. But it had too many chromosomes. Instead of two sets of chromosomes forming from a mix of one set from one parent, one set from another, this plant had three sets. It was, in modern terminology, a ‘triploid mutant’. This fault – triploidy – occurs in both plants and animals. In animals, triploid individuals – if they survive gestation – are sterile and the mutation dies out. This plant was also sterile; it could not reproduce sexually. But the lily’s bulbs could – and still can – reproduce by cloning, the bulbs budding new bulbs, each capable of growing the full plant.

The mutant plant should still have died out; it is not robust or invasive and its reproduction was possible only by cloning. But it had properties that humans came to value. The flower contains three red strands called stigmata. And humans learned that these strands can yield a deep red-brown pigment; that as a spice the stigmata add flavor, aroma and colour to food. And they came to believe that the stigamata have medicinal properties.

So the lily was cultivated, first in or near Persia at least 5,000 years – and possibly 50,000 – ago, then in Greece and India and Spain and England and Italy and, in very recent years, in Australia and New Zealand.

The stigmata are known as saffron and saffron has come to be valued. It is still the most expensive of spices, more costly than gold. It has been traded, spread to new lands, sought by pirates as it was shipped west to Europe, and quarreled over to the point of war (the Saffron War of the 14th Century, fought over a hijacked shipment). There are stories of corruption in its trading, of adulteration with cheaper look-alike plants, and of punishment, indeed execution, of corrupt traders.

And, critical to this company, it has come to be tested scientifically as a medicine. This testing has included measurement of its anti-oxidant properties (it is weight-for-weight the powerful anti-oxidant plant known), of its ability to mitigate cancer, slow degenerative diseases of the nervous system; and analysis of its bioactive molecules. The International Standards Organisation in Geneva has published tests and standards, to allow the grading of saffron by quality.

Two developments in the story of saffron have taken place in the last two decades. First, rigorous scientific analysis of the tissue-protective properties of saffron has begun, and is expanding rapidly. Second, clinical trials of saffron and its components have begun to be reported, seeking to bring saffron into modern medicine.

At some point, the tissue-protective properties of saffron will lose their mystery, as knowledge of their mechanisms is integrated into the biomedical mainstream. At the time of writing, saffron is still regarded by many as a neutraceutical, too little understood to be part of the medical mainstream.