Saffron was detailed in a 7th-century BC Assyrian botanical reference compiled under Ashurbanipal. Documentation of saffron's use over the span of 3,500 years has been uncovered. Saffron-based pigments have indeed been found in 50,000-year-old depictions of prehistoric places in northwest Iran.The Sumerians later used wild-growing saffron in their remedies and magical potions. Saffron was an article of long-distance trade before the Minoan palace culture's 2nd millennium BC peak. Ancient Persians cultivated Persian saffron (Crocus sativus 'Hausknechtii') in Derbent, Isfahan, and Khorasan by the 10th century BC. At such sites, saffron threads were woven into textiles, ritually offered to divinities, and used in dyes, perfumes, medicines, and body washes. Saffron threads would thus
be scattered across beds and mixed into hot teas as a curative for bouts of melancholy. Non-Persians also feared the Persians' usage of saffron as a drugging agent and aphrodisiac. During his Asian campaigns, Alexander the Great used Persian saffron in his infusions, rice, and baths as a curative for battle wounds. Alexander's troops imitated the practice from the Persians and brought saffron-bathing to Greece.
Conflicting theories explain saffron's arrival in South Asia. Kashmiri and Chinese accounts date its arrival anywhere between 2500 and 900 years ago. Historians studying ancient Persian records date the arrival to sometime prior to 500 BC, attributing it to a Persian tra
nsplantation of saffron corms to stock new gardens and parks. Phoenicians then marketed Kashmiri saffron as a dye and a treatment for melancholy. Its use in foods and dyes subsequently spread throughout South Asia. Buddhist monks wear saffron-coloured robes; however, the robes are not dyed with costly saffron but turmeric, a less expensive dye, or jackfruit.Monks' robes are dyed the same colour to show equality with each other, and turmeric or ochre were the cheapest, most readily available dyes. Gamboge is now used to dye the robes.
Some historians believe that saffron came to China with Mongol invaders from Persia. Yet saffron is mentioned in ancient Chinese medical texts, including the forty-volume pharmacopoeia titled Shennong Bencaojing (神农本草经: "Shennong's Great Herbal", also known as Pen Ts'ao or P
un Tsao), a tome dating from 300–200 BC. Traditionally credited to the fabled Yan ("Fire") Emperor (炎帝) Shennong, it discusses 252 phytochemical-based medical treatments for various disorders. Nevertheless, around the 3rd century AD, the Chinese were referring to saffron as having a Kashmiri provenance. According to Chinese herbalist Wan Zhen, "[t]he habitat of saffron is in Kashmir, where people grow it principally to offer it to the Buddha." Wan also reflected on how it was used in his time: "The flower withers after a few days, and then the saffron is obtained. It is valued for its uniform yellow colour. It can be used to aromatise wine.
South East Mediterranean
The Minoans portrayed saffron in their palace frescoes by 1600–1500 BC; they hint at its possible use as a therapeutic drug. Ancient Greek legends told of sea voyages to Cilicia, where adventurers sought what they believed were the world's most valuable threads. Another legend tells of Crocus and Smilax, whereby Crocus is bewitched and transformed into the first saffron crocus. Ancient perfumers in Egypt, physicians in Gaza, townspeople in Rhodes, and the Greek hetaerae courtesans used saffron in their scented waters, perfumes and potpourris, mascaras and ointments, divine offerings, and medical treatments.
In late Ptolemaic Egypt, Cleopatra used saffron in her baths so that lovemaking would be more pleasurable.Egyptian healers used saffron as a treatment for all varieties of gastrointestinal ailments.Saffron was also used as a fabric dye in such Levantine cities as Sidon and Tyre in Lebanon. Aulus Cornelius Celsus prescribes saffron in medicines for wounds, cough, colic, and scabies, and in the mithridatium.
Preserved "Safran", Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde, Karlsruhe, Germany
Saffron was a notable ingredient in certain Roman recipes such as jusselle and conditum. Such was the Romans' love of saffron that Roman colonists took it with them when they settled in southern Gaul, where it was extensively cultivated until Rome's fall. With this fall, European saffron cultivation plummeted. Competing theories state that saffron only returned to France with 8th-century AD Moors or with the Avignon papacy in the 14th century AD. Similarly, the spread of Islamic civilisation may have helped reintroduce the crop to Spain and Italy.
The 14th-century Black Death caused demand for saffron-based medicaments to peak, and Europe imported large quantities of threads via Venetian and Genoan ships from southern and Mediterranean lands such as Rhodes. The theft of one such shipment by noblemen sparked the fourteen-week-long Saffron War. The conflict and resulting fear of rampant saffron piracy spurred corm cultivation in Basel; it thereby grew prosperous. The crop then spread to Nuremberg, where endemic and insalubrious adulteration brought on the Safranschou code—whereby culprits were variously fined, imprisoned, and executed. Meanwhile, cultivation continued in southern France, Italy, and Spain.
The Essex town of Saffron Walden, named for its new specialty crop, emerged as a prime saffron growing and trading centre in the 16th and 17th centuries but cultivation there was abandoned; saffron was re-introduced around 2013 as well as other parts of the UK (Cheshire).
Europeans introduced saffron to the Americas when immigrant members of the Schwenkfelder Church left Europe with a trunk containing its corms. Church members had grown it widely in Europe. By 1730, the Pennsylvania Dutch cultivated saffron throughout eastern Pennsylvania. Spanish colonies in the Caribbean bought large amounts of this new American saffron, and high demand ensured that saffron's list price on the Philadelphia commodities exchange was equal to gold. Trade with the Caribbean later collapsed in the aftermath of the War of 1812, when many saffron-bearing merchant vessels were destroyed. Yet the Pennsylvania Dutch continued to grow lesser amounts of saffron for local trade and use in their cakes, noodles, and chicken or trout dishes. American saffron cultivation survives into modern times, mainly in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.