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69. Crocus Sativus, Allioni.—The Saffron Crocus.

Sex. Syst. Triandria, Monogynia.
(Stigma, L.—Stigmata, E. D.)

History.—Saffron is mentioned in the Old Testament. [Solomon's Song, iv. 14.] Homer [Iliad, xiv. 346.] speaks of the crocus (κροκος). Hippocrates [Opera, Ed. Foes. pp. 407, 575, 614, 626, and 876.] employed saffron in uterine and other maladies. The word saffron (za'faran) is probably of Persian origin.

Botany. Gen. Char.—Perianth [coloured], with a slender tube twice as long as the limb; limb 6-partite, equal, erect. [Stamens 3, inserted into the tube; anthers sagittate.] Stigmas 3, thick, convoluted, generally crested. Capsule under ground, elevated by a short peduncle from the root, which peduncle elongates after the decay of the flowers, and the capsules appear above ground. (Hooker, with some additions.)

Sp. Char.—Stigma protruded, drooping, in 3 deep linear divisions. (Hooker.) Cormus roundish; its brownish coats reticulated, separating superiorly into distinct parallel fibres. Leaves linear, with a white central stripe, and surrounded at their base with long membranous sheaths. Flowers light purple, shorter than the leaves, with a two-valved membranous spathe. Anthers pale yellow. Stigmas deep orange-coloured.

Hab.—A native of Asia Minor. Now naturalized in England, France, and some other European countries. It is a doubtful native of the eastern parts of Europe. It is said to have been introduced into Spain by the Arabs. [Dillon, Travels through Spain.] It flowers in September and October.

Preparation.—The flowers are gathered in the morning, and the stigmata, with a portion of the style, plucked out for use, the rest of the flower being thrown away. The stigmata are then dried on paper, either by means of portable kilns over which a hair-cloth is stretched, [Douglas, Phil. Trans. for 1728.] or in a room by the sun. [Fiske, Stephenson and Churchill's Med. Bot. vol. iii.] When dried between paper under the pressure of a thick board and weights, the saffron is formed into cakes now no longer to be met with.

Description.—The only saffron now found in the shops is that called hay saffron. The article sold as cake saffron is in reality not saffron.

Hay saffron (crocus in foeno) consists of the stigmas with part of the style, which have been very carefully dried. They are from an inch to an inch and a half long, thin, brownish-red; the upper portion (stigma) is expanded, notched at the extremity; the lower portion, which constitutes part of the style (called by Th. Martius [Pharmakognosie, 1832.] Föminelle), is narrow, capillary, yellowish. The odour is penetrating, aromatic, and, of large quantities, narcotic. The taste is bitter, somewhat aromatic. When chewed, saffron tinges the mouth and the saliva yellow.

It consists of triparted red filaments having an orange colour; the segments dilated at the apex. Moistened with water and rubbed on paper, it produces an intense orange-coloured stain.—Ph. Lond.

I find by careful examination that one grain of good commercial saffron contains the stigmata and styles of nine flowers; hence 4,320 flowers are required to yield one ounce of saffron.

α. English saffron (crocus anglicus) is no longer found in commerce.

β. Spanish saffron (crocus hispanicus) constitutes the best saffron of the shops. It is imported from Gibraltar (principally), Cadiz, Denia, Santander, and Malaga. From the concurrent accounts of pharmacologists it would appear that formerly Spanish saffron was spoiled by being dipped in oil to preserve it. But the saffron now imported from Spain has not been subjected to this treatment. Occasionally Spanish, at well as any other kind of saffron, is oiled by the dealers to give it an appearance of freshness.

γ. French saffron (crocus gallicus) is usually considered in commerce to be of second quality. It is the produce of Gatinais (Gatinais saffron) and Orléanais, which comprehend part of the departments of Seine-et-Marne and Eure-et-Loire, and the whole of the department of Loiret. The saffron of Angoulême is intermixed with the pale styles, and is the worst. [Guibourt, Histoire des Drog. ii. 194, 4ème édit. 1849.] French saffron is shipped for England at Calais, Boulogne, and Havre.

Besides the preceding, several other varieties of saffron are mentioned by pharmaeologists, but they are not distinguished in English commerce, and I am unacquainted with them. Such are Austrian, Bavarian, Oriental, and the Sicilian saffron (C. austriacus, bavaricus, orientalis, and siciliensis) mentioned by Murray, [App. Med. vol. v.] Geiger, [Handb. der Pharm.] and others. The saffron of Lower Austria is said to be the best and most costly in Europe, but the produce is scarcely sufficient for the home consumption; and, therefore, saffron is imported into Austria. Austrian saffron is chiefly produced at Ravelsbach, Meissau, Eggendorf, Kirchbeg, and Wagram. [Pharmaceutical Journal, vol. viii. p. 171, 1848.]

From the Customs report [Trade List for 1837-8-9.] it appears that saffron is occasionally imported into England from Hamburg, Antwerp, Genoa, Naples, and Bombay. But I am ignorant of its place of growth and quality. According to Gussone, [Lindley, Flora Medica.] Crocus odorus yields Sicilian saffron. Dioscorides [Lib. i. cap. xxv.] considered the saffron of Corycus (a mountain of Cilicia, in Asia Minor, now called Curco) to be the best, and that of Lycia and Olympus to be of second quality; while Cyrenaic saffron, as well as that from Centuripinum (Centorbe) in Sicily, he declares to be the worst.

Cake saffron (crocus in placenta) was formerly prepared by compressing hay saffron. But the cakes now met with in the inferior shops are composed of Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) and gum-water, made into a paste, and rolled out on a tin plate with a rolling-pin into oval cakes of 11 inches long, 10 inches broad, and about one-tenth of an inch thick. These are dried on brown paper in a stove. They are shining, and of a brownish-red colour. I can detect neither saffron nor marigolds (Calendula officinalis) in them. Their price is considerably less than that of good hay saffron. I am informed by a maker of cake saffron that there is only another person besides himself by whom this substance is made in London.

Adulteration.—To increase the weight of saffron, it is said tp be sometimes intermixed with sand or grains of lead. To detect these, it is sufficient to scatter the saffron loosely over a sheet of white paper, when the sand or grains of lead fall out.

To give saffron flexibility and an appearance of freshness, as well as to augment its weight, it is sometimes damped or oiled. To detect either water or oil, a small portion of saffron should be subjected to pressure between folds of white blotting paper; if this become either moistened or greased, the adulteration is obvious.

Another adulteration practised on saffron is intermixing it with the petals of some plant; usually of safflower (Carthamus tinctorius), which is sometimes called bastard saffron. The safflower readily escapes the eye of a superficial observer. If rubbed with the moistened finger on paper, it produces a slightly yellow mark only, whereas genuine saffron causes a very intense orange-yellow stain. The fraud may also be detected by carefully examining the suspected portion by a magnifying glass. The fraud is the more easily detected if the suspected saffron be previously macerated in hot water. Genuine saffron consists of a filiform style, divided at one extremity into three long, convoluted, deep orange stigmata, which are a little dilated upwards and notched at the extremity. Safflower, on the other hand, is composed of florets, each consisting of a monopetalous, tubular, 5-toothed red corolla, inclosing 5 syngenesious stamina and a style. Moreover, the corolla is devoid of the softness and flexibility of the stigmata of saffron; but is, on the contrary, dry and brittle.

Other florets, or strips of petals, artificially dyed to give them colour, and greased with oil to render them supple, have been employed to adulterate saffron. Guibourt mentions the marigold (Calendula officinalis), arnica, and soapwort (Saponaria), as having been used for this purpose. By attention to the above-mentioned characters of saffron, the fraud may be readily detected. The dilated extremities of the stigmata of saffron are broader than the style: whereas the extremities of the divisions of a strip of a petal will usually be found narrower than the body of the strip.

Genuine saffron, from which the colouring matter has been extracted, is sometimes found in commerce. [Pharmaceutical Journal, vol.iii. p. 341, 1843.] The sample which I have seen had the essential characters of the stigmata of saffron, but wanted the softness and flexibility of good saffron, and was somewhat darker coloured. It did not present the pale yellow filaments (styles) of ordinary saffron, and imparted no colour to spirit of wine.

Fibres of smoked beef are said to have been used for adulterating saffron.

Commerce.—The quantity of saffron on which duty (of 1s. per lb.) is paid is about 5,000 lbs. per annum. The places from which it is imported have been already mentioned. It is brought over in cases, barrels, and boxes.

Composition.—Saffron was analyzed, in 1811, by Vogel and Bouillon-Lagrange, [Bull. de Pharm. iv. 89.] and in 1818 by Aschoff. [Gmelin, Handb. d. Chim. ii. 1334.]

Vogel and Bouillon-Lagrange.Aschoff.
Volatile oil7.51.4
Wax0.54.0
Polychroite65.052.0
Gum6.510.4
Soluble albumen0.5--
Woody fibre10.019.0
Water10.010.0
Balsamic matter, soluble in ether and alcohol--2.0
---------
Saffron100.098.8

1. Volatile Oil of Saffron. (Oleum Croci)—Obtained by distilling saffron with water. It is yellow, heavier than water, has a burning, acrid, somewhat bitter taste, and is slightly soluble in water. By keeping, it becomes white, solid, and lighter than water. On it depend probably the medicinal properties of saffron.

2. Coloring Matter: Polychroite (so called from πολος, many, and κρος, colour, in consequence of its being susceptible of numerous changes of colour).—By digesting the aqueous extract of saffron in alcohol, and evaporating the tincture to dryness, a substance is obtained which Bouillon-Lagrange and Vogel called polychroite, but which Henry [Journ. de Pharm. vii. 397.] has separated into volatile oil and a bitter red substance (polychroite properly so called). Pure polychroite is pulverulent, bitter, scarlet-red, odourless, slightly soluble in cold water, much more so in hot water, readily soluble in alcohol and oils (both fixed and volatile), slightly soluble in ether. Sulphuric acid turns it blue, then lilac. Nitric acid makes it green, but the colour is very fugitive. The hypochlorites destroy the yellow colour of a solution of polychroite.

Chemical Characteristics.—An aqueous infusion of saffron gives no indication of starch on the addition of a solution of iodine. The hypochlorites bleach it. Sulphuric and nitric acids act on it as on polychroite above mentioned. Acetate of lead causes no precipitate. By evaporation, the infusion yields an extract from which alcohol removes the colouring matter and leaves a gummy substance.

Physiological Effects.—Formerly, saffron was considered to be cordial, aromatic, narcotic, and emmenagogue. Some [Boerhaave, Hist. Plant. pars ii. p. 590.] have accused it of causing laughing delirium; others [Bergius, Mat. Med. t. i. p. 39.] have ascribed to its use great mental dejection; and several [Boerhaave, op. cit.; Riverius, Op. Med.] have declared that they have seen immoderate uterine hemorrhage produced by it, which, in the case referred to by Riverius, is said to have terminated fatally. But modern experienco has proved that most of these statements are erroneous. Alexander [Experim. Essays, p. 88, 1768.] swallowed four scruples of saffron without perceiving any obvious effects therefrom; and Wibmer [Wirk. d. Arzneim. Band. ii. S. 204.] took a drachm without observing the slightest effect.

By the long-continued use of saffron, the colouring particles become absorbed, and tinge the secretions, especially the urine and perspiration. In some instances, the foetus in utero has been stained by it. [Wibmer, op. cit.] The failure of Alexander to detect the yellow tinge in his secretions arose probably from the short time he had been using this medicine. Mr. Gibson [Mem. of the Lit. and Phil. Soc. of Manchester, 2d Ser. vol. i. p. 148.] gave a considerable quantity of saffron to a pigeon, which thereby had its feces tinged, yet no perceptible alteration was produced in its bones.

Headache, prostration of strength, apoplexy, and even death, have been ascribed to the inhalation of the vapour arising from large quantities of saffron; [See the Reports of Borellus, Tralles, Forster, and others, quoted by Wibmer and Murray, op. cit.] and perhaps correctly so, for it is well known that the odours of other plants (as the rose, the pink, &c.) act on some individuals as narcotic poisons. [Orfila, Toxicol. Gén.]

Uses.—Saffron is employed, especially on the Continent, as a flavouring and colouring ingredient in various culinary preparations, articles of confectionery, liqueurs, &c. It was used by the ancients as a perfume as well as a seasoning agent. [Beckmann, History of Inventions and Discoveries, vol. i. p. 278.]

In the modern practice of medicine, it is used chiefly as a colouring ingredient. It is a popular remedy for assisting the eruption of exanthematous diseases; on the same principle, I suppose, that bird-fanciers give it to birds when moulting. It was at one time esteemed as an antispasmodic in asthma, hysteria, and cramp of the stomach; and was formerly used as an emmenagogue, and to promote uterine contractions and the lochial discharge. Lastly, it has been employed as a stimulant to the nervous system in hypochondriasis.

Administration.—It maybe given in doses of from ten grains to a drachm, in the form of powder or pill. It is popularly used in the form of infusion or tea.

1. SYRUPUS CROCI, L. E. D.; Syrup of Saffron.—(Saffron [chopped fine, D.] ℨv [ℨx, E., ℥ss, D.]; Boiling Distilled Water Oj; Sugar lb iij [or as much as may be sufficient; Rectified Spirit, f℥ijss.or as much as may be sufficient, L.]. Macerate the saffron in the water for twelve hours, in a vessel lightly covered, then strain the liquor and add the sugar to it. To the syrup, when cold, add the spirit.)—It is employed principally for its colour.

2. TINCTURA CROCI, E. D.; Tincture of Saffron.—(Saffron, chopped fine, ℥ij; Proof Spirit Oij [Oj, D.]. Macerate for fourteen days, strain, express, and filter, D.—This tincture is to be prepared like tincture of cinchona, either by percolation or by digestion, the former method being the more convenient and expeditious, E.)—Used as a colouring liquid. It is also employed as a stimulant and emmenagogue in doses of from fℨj to fℨij.

As a colouring and flavouring ingredient, saffron is a constituent of several other preparations.


The Elements of Materia Medica and Therapeutics, Vol. II, 3th American ed., was written by Jonathan Pereira in 1854.



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