Herbs in History: Crocus
Crocus sativus L.
By Alain Touwaide & Emanuela Appetiti | October 2022
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Filaments of gold
Illustration 1: Crocus
Saffron has the rather unique privilege of being the most expensive spice with the highest demand for medicinal uses worldwide. It is the stigmas of crocus, painstakingly collected during its short flowering period (ca. two weeks) toward the end of October and the very first days of November.
Saffron crocus (Crocus sativus L.) is a small perennial flowering species of the Iridaceae family, which grows from bulb-like corms, with few leaves, a lilac, blue-purple flower in the middle of which are three yellow stamens and three orange-red stigmas with a light, delicate scent (Illustration 1). Saffron is the dried stigmas. One kilo requires between 100,000 and 150,000 flowers, and hours of difficult, yet meticulous work in the field most often performed by women. The major producer is Iran (430 tons reported in 2019), followed by India (22 tons), Greece (7.2), Afghanistan (6), Morocco (2.6) Spain (2.3), Italy and China (each 1 ton).
From the gods to humans
The origin and history of saffron crocus have been debated for quite some time. What is its botanical ancestor? Was it native to Greece, Western Asia, or even further, Iran? And where and when was it domesticated? These and other questions are relevant in the interpretation of a representation of what seemed to some species of crocus in a wall painting (frescoe) in Thera (island of Santorini) that date as far back as 1650 BCE ca. where we see women harvesting the plant (Illustration 2).
Illustration 2: Young girl harvesting saffron crocus. Minoan fresco of Thera (Santorini).
The very name (krokos in ancient Greek and crocus in Latin) was supposed for a long time to come from the Middle East or maybe Asia Minor, allowing to conjecture that the plant was native to West Asia. Twentieth-century research moved the origin of crocus toward the Mediterranean, with a diffusion and speciation eastward. More recently, however, two sites were considered: Greece, and a vast region from Turkey to India. At the same time, the relationship between Crocus sativus and other species such as C. cartwrightianus attested in Crete was also investigated. Such was the state of research when, in 2019, a phylogenetic analysis brought new, convincing data: C. sativus derives from C. cartwrightianus and has its origin at the northwestern limit of the area of distribution of C. cartwrightianus, that is, in Attica (Athens region) and the surrounding islands, with a speciation sometimes between 1600 and 350 BCE. Interestingly, this conclusion resolved the uncertainty in the identification of the plant in the Thera fresco: the crocus there is not C. sativus, but C. cartwightianus with its typical shape, which was disseminated from Crete to the Aegean, without addressing, however, the fact that mostly women are represented in the fresco.
In researching the early history of crocus, the literary evidence has been forgotten. This might be because mythological tales do not help, whereas they usually contain information on the origin of plants that become significant when they are properly interpreted. As the story goes, indeed, Crocus was a young male who was desperately in love with the nymph Smilax. To put an end to his unhappiness the gods turned him into the plant that bears his name, that is, our Crocus sativus, while Smilax, too, was transformed into the homonymous plant (Smilax aspera L., that is, Bindweed). Already in antiquity, this genesis was explained in geographical terms, as the two plants were supposed to be native to the same region (Cilicia, corresponding to current south-east Turkey). The tale was also interpreted in an erotic way, with Smilax embracing Crocus with her flexible climbing stems, as the god of the gods Zeus did with her wife Hera in a sexual union. Another tale narrates a different story: Crocus was playing with his friend the god Hermes. While both were throwing the disk, Hermes accidentally hit Crocus at the head, and killed him. A plant grew from Crocus’ blood.
Literary works of creation are more indicative. Crocus appears as early as the most ancient piece of the Greek world, the Iliad (8th cent. BCE) where it is said to grow on Mount Ida, the residence of Zeus and his spouse Hera. Later mentions of crocus are not about the plant itself, but about textiles with a saffron colour, indicating that crocus was used as a dyeing substance as early as immemorial times. It is worth noting that the Golden Fleece is described as saffron-coloured, making us wonder if Jason’s expedition to conquer the famous Fleece was not aimed to learn about the art of dyeing with saffron.
In historical times, crocus appears in the scientific and medical literature. It was then a fully domesticated plant, with agricultural techniques aimed to maintain the productivity of its cultivation. It was also used in medicine for a broad range of applications. From classical Greece it was transmitted to Rome and, further on, to Byzantium and the Arabic World and, from there, to the east, up to China in a tradition that was never interrupted, even though it was sometimes reduced to the mere cultivation of decorative garden flowers and a foraging plant for bees. Nevertheless, the tradition was always remembered and was a constant reference to be looked at for renewed uses.
More to come?
Crocus is now extensively investigated for a broad range of applications, from anxiety and depression to cancer, to ophthalmologic pathologies, to neurological conditions, and to many others. Just as it was the case in the past, tradition is a source of information. Ten years ago, an article concluded that crocus “is a good candidate with many promising potentials to be considered for new drug design”. This is such that, as early as 2014, an article defined crocus as “A Herbal Medicine of [the] Third Millennium” and called for “more comprehensive studies” because “saffron and its constituents have shown multiple useful effects”. Agronomical research has followed suit, not only to improve yield to meet the demand, but also to make production sustainable.
Though regularly expanding, the range of the medical conditions for which saffron is studied, has not yet included many of the applications described in the ancient medical literature. Interestingly enough, these ancient applications gradually expanded, hinting at new research already in the past.
In the most ancient body of Greek medical literature, the set of writings attributed to the Father of Medicine, Hippocrates (5th-4th century BCE), crocus is mostly used for the treatment of gynecological conditions. Of its twenty uses, indeed, fourteen are exclusively gynecological, expecially for affections of the womb, but also for promoting fertility and provoking abortion. The other uses are ophthalmologic (pain, inflammation and lacrimation, three cases) and vulnerary (three cases). The predominance of gynecological uses in the Hippocratic writings recalls the representations of women in the Thera fresco with crocus. Might it be that it suggested a special link between women and crocus, referring to an early knowledge of its gynecological uses? If so, the fresco would be a visual representation of medicinal uses of crocus that are not otherwise attested in any contemporary writing but were commonly known. But it might also be that harvesting saffron was a women’s specialty, requiring time, patience, and a gentle touch.
All these Hippocratic uses appear again in the first century CE, be it the treatise on materia medica compiled by Dioscorides or in the encyclopedia of natural sciences by Pliny. In Dioscorides, the different uses of crocus are accounted for by three major actions which attest to an effort to rationalize and express in theoretical, abstract terms the uses known by tradition: digestive, emollient, and slightly astringent, in addition to procuring a good, healthy colour to the skin and preventing drunkenness. This effort toward abstraction was further pursued by Galen, in the second-third century CE, who attributed two major properties to crocus, which he tried to explain: astringent and warming. For him, astringency came from a cold and earthy nature. Heat dominated, however, resulting in a drying action which explains the digestive and astringent properties of crocus. The combination of moderate heat and light astringency was ideal for vulnerary creams in external application.
Returning to Dioscorides, crocus is also said to be aphrodisiac, to calm skin irritation and swellings, and to be useful for otitis. Strangely, it is also considered to be lethal. This could result from a confusion with Meadow Saffron (Colchicum autumnale L.), which is not only very similar to crocus with its blue-lilac flower, but also flourishes at approximately the same time as crocus. Nevertheless, some toxicity of saffron has been reported, without being life-threatening, however.
From the Greek and Roman world and, later, from Byzantium, knowledge of crocus reached the Arabic world thanks to the translation of Greek medical literature. In the 9th/10th century, Razi compiled the uses of crocus known in his time, with a broader range of applications. Gynecology is still present: crocus is recommended for the treatment of pre-menstrual and other womb disorders, and in cases of difficult childbirth. These are no longer the major applications, however. According to Razi, indeed, crocus acts on the respiratory system, on the liver and the gastrointestinal tract, on the psyche, on internal and external inflammations, on malignant wounds, on the eyes, and also on the cardiac system, in addition to being diuretic and aphrodisiac.
In the 10th/11th century, ibn Sina, best known as Avicenna, devoted a chapter to crocus in his Qanun (Canon of Medicine). If he confirmed the usages enumerated by Razi, he also expanded on them. For him, crocus acts on swellings (including of the ears) and skin inflammation, and it is sedative and lightly anesthetic, being also exhilarant and cardio-tonic. For the eyes, Avicenna considers that crocus strengthens vision, prevents affections, treats what is now identified as hemeralopia, and helps in the cases of eye bruise. As Razi already did and clinical tests confirmed, Avicenna stated that crocus increases respiratory capacity and reinforces the lungs, and that it is diuretic and aphrodisiac. Similarly, he mentioned that it stimulates the digestive system and the liver, being also emetic. Here, Avicenna reminds us of Galen, as he considered that crocus is both warming and astringent as his Greek predecessor already did. Lastly, Avicenna reported the use of crocus to treat swellings and hardness, including of the womb. He also mentioned that crocus reverses putrefaction processes, which seems to refer to the treatment of bacterial infections effectively treated with crocus. Lastly, Avicenna reported that crocus is toxic exactly as Dioscorides did ten centuries earlier. Whereas all the other usages reflect new developments in Avicenna’s time, this mention of toxicity was repeated from literature.
Although therapeutic uses of crocus as those above were transmitted through time, in the late 19th century the plant was almost abandoned in therapeutic literature. Recent revived interest is generating new research, with an enormous economic impact of global dimensions. It is significant that the best production of saffron, that of the Kozani region in Greece (Illustration 3), which has received the status of Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) from the European Union, has attracted the attention of China. As early as 2014, a Chinese delegation visited the town of Kozani and its fields of crocus, with the intention to acquire the local production. In 2020 a pilot shipment of one kilo of saffron was exported to China, paving the way to new commercial agreements with other countries, including the United States.
|Illustration 3: Map of Greece with the location of Kozani (Google)|
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