The Truth about Saffron

Jim McKenney
Tue, 01 Nov 2005 08:35:33 PST
Here's my take on Jim W's three questions:

1. Is there more than one clone of saffron? 

There is no simple answer to this. There are at least two basic things to
take into consideration: a) the fact that the word clone means different
things to different people and b) saffron is of unknown, ancient origin. 

Let's take the clone issue first, note the two basic (and unfortunately
mutually contradictory) definitions of clone, and apply them to the

First, let's assume you subscribe to the old concept of clone, i.e. clone as
the group name for all of the vegetatively propagated progeny of one
original seedling. Is saffron crocus a clone in that sense? Apparently, but
there is no way to be absolutely sure.

Next, let's assume you subscribe to the modern media concept of clone, i.e.
clone as a group characterized by absolute (genetic) uniformity. Is saffron
crocus a clone in that sense? Probably not, if only because botanists have
given names to forms of Crocus sativus in the broad sense (e.g.
cashmirianus) and that implies recognizable differences. Plants long in
cultivation generally accumulate somatic mutations. And then there is the
issue of stocks which are virus infected and stocks which are virus free.
Some people (not I) might say those are different clones. 

Now let's consider the question of the origin of saffron. The two basic
facts to consider are these: a) saffron is obviously very similar to Crocus
cartwrightianus and b) nowhere in the world is there a sexually reproducing
population of crocus (in other words, a species in the biological sense of
species  rather than the nomenclatural sense of species) which corresponds
to what we know as Crocus sativus. 

Saffron is a triploid, Crocus cartwrightianus is a diploid. Not only is
saffron a triploid, but it is the sort of triploid which you would expect to
get from Crocus cartwrightianus. The diploid number for Crocus
cartwrightianus is 16 (8 x 2, di=two, diploid), the triploid number for
Crocus sativus is 24 (8 x 3, tri=3, triploid). I point this out because some
other members of the series Sativi have different chromosome counts. In
other words, the chromosome counts reinforce the empirical evidence, namely
that C. sativus and C. cartwrightianus are closely related. 

So the question becomes, and no one knows with certainty what the answer is,
is Crocus sativus simply a triploid Crocus cartwrightianus? It's tempting to
jump to that conclusion, but there are stumbling blocks. In particular, in
all the variation of Crocus cartwrightianus, there are apparently no plants
which exactly match Crocus sativus. 

The triploid nature of Crocus sativus can have been the result of several
scenarios. One is that a plant of Crocus cartwrightianus was pollinated by
another plant of C. cartwrightianus and during the process one of the
gametes failed to reduce. That would produce the triploid plant. Another
possibility is that the reason the gamete did not reduce is that it was a
gamete from a different, related species. 

Triploids sometimes result from crosses of related species. Another famous
triploid crocus is the Dutch Yellow, a hybrid of, probably, Crocus flavus
and C. angustifolius. 

Above I alluded to the distinction to be made between "biological species"
and "nomenclatural species". That distinction may be what Brian Mathew had
in mind when he wrote his account of the saffron group: he listed Crocus
sativus at the beginning of that account among the other valid (a term of
nomenclature) species. But note his numbering of the actual biological
species: Crocus cartwrightianus is number 29, Crocus sativus is number 29a. 

So that's an introduction to some of the issues and likely solutions of
those issues with respect to the origin of saffron.

2. Jim W's second question, Are there color forms of saffron, is not the
simple question it seems to be. Why? Because of that word "forms". In my
view, flowers with pure unbroken colors and those with broken colors due to
color breaking virus infection are not different "forms" any more than short
and tall plants of the same clone are different "forms". These are the same
plant manifesting the influence of differing environmental factors. 

In that sense, there are not different "forms" of Crocus sativus. For
instance, there are no white flowered forms of Crocus sativus of which I am

But to someone who is doing a design, a pure lilac crocus and one striped in
light and dark lilac are very different "forms". 

So it seems to me that the answer here depends on what you think "form"

3. Arnold has given an answer to Jim W's third question. Arnold's answer is
evidently the correct answer, at least in the sense of what is currently
happening commercially.

However, there is a historical note of interest in this context. In the
past, a white-flowered form (or white flowered forms) of Crocus hadriaticus
was distributed as Crocus cartwrightianus 'albus'. 

In reading this long post, you perhaps are thinking that there is a lot of
uncertainly and confusion surrounding these plants. Yes, there is, and it
goes right back to the beginning of formal nomenclature.

If you could bring Linnaeus back to life and walk through a crocus planting
with him, you would be very surprised to hear what he had to say. If you
pointed to a clump of Dutch Yellow and asked this Linnaeus redivivus what it
was, he would say "Crocus sativus". If you pointed to a clump of blue and
white Dutch crocus and asked him what they were, he would say "Crocus
sativus". If you showed him a picture of saffron crocus and asked him what
it was, he would say "Crocus sativus". And if, by some amazing chance you
had a Romulea on hand, and asked him about it, he would probably say "Crocus

When Linnaeus set up the genus Crocus he set it up with only one species,
sativus, and four varieties. Note that the words crocus sativus literally
mean "cultivated crocus". There is a reason for that. Linnaeus as a young
man was befriended by the gardener Phillip Miller of the Chelsea Physic
Gardens. It has long been speculated that everything Linnaeus knew about
crocuses came from whatever it was that he learned in the company and under
the influence of Phillip Miller. Linnaeus probably thought all of Millers
crocuses were garden plants (thus the epithet sativus, cultivated). 

It gets worse. Taxonomists after Linnaeus restructured the ideas to reflect
the growing knowledge of crocus. The blue and white ones became Crocus
vernus (that in itself opened several cans of worms). The saffron crocus
became C. sativus. The Romulea became a Romulea. The yellow crocus, however,
is problematic. I am of the school of thought which believes that the yellow
crocus Linnaeus saw in Miller's garden is none other than our friend 'Dutch
Yellow'. Centuries of botanists have attributed 'Dutch Yellow' to Crocus
flavus. But 'Dutch Yellow' is now believed to be of hybrid origin (as
mentioned above). Thus the stage is set for some nomenclatural seismic
shocks. But I think most will agree that the potential for confusion makes
it imprudent to insist on nomenclatural purity, especially since there are
uncertainties involved which will probably never be conclusively resolved.  

There we have it: Crocus is a genus whose type "species" is a species in
name only, a clone which is not only of unknown origin but which cannot be
attributed to any other living species with certainty.  The plants Linnaeus
knew as Crocus sativus had yellow, blue and/or white flowers and bloomed in
the spring and in the fall. 

They are so sweet, so charming, so innocent: ha! They're all tricky little

Jim McKenney
Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, USDA zone 7, where I hope I have not
exceeded my daily allotment of bandwidth. 

-----Original Message-----
From: []
On Behalf Of James Waddick
Sent: Tuesday, November 01, 2005 9:07 AM
To: Pacific Bulb Society
Subject: [pbs] The Truth about Saffron

Dear all;
	IN all the posts I don't think any said it clearly and I hope 
some can give short answers to these questions, all related to Crocus 

	1. Is there more than one clone of saffron?
	2. Are there color forms of Saffron?

	3. The plants sometimes sold by large commercial dealers as 
'white flowered saffron' is actually _____________(fill in the blank)

	I have my thoughts, but let's hear from these list experts.

		Best	Jim W.
Dr. James W. Waddick
8871 NW Brostrom Rd.
Kansas City Missouri 64152-2711
Ph.    816-746-1949
Zone 5 Record low -23F
	Summer 100F +

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