Plant Lore-Crocus/Saffron

Plant Lore-Crocus/Saffron



Hail to the King of Bethlehem!
Who weareth in His diadem
A yellow crocus for the gem
Of His authority.

Longfellow, Golden Legend.

In England and North America, the little purple pasque-flower, which the children call gosling, that pushes its way almost through the snowdrifts and is so abundant on our hillsides in the springtime, is often incorrectly called crocus. Some botanists class it in the anemone family. Professor Conway McMillan calls it a species of clematis. The crocus of ancient times was of a bright yellow color and corresponded to our marsh marigold. It was also known by the name of saffron, which is still used to describe a peculiarly brilliant shade of yellow. Readers of Homer will remember that he uses the epithet saffron-robed to describe the glory of the dawn. In Egypt, the expression saffron-colored served to convey an idea of the brilliancy of the setting sun.

The ancients regarded the crocus as dedicated to Helios, the Sun-God. In the Middle Ages the flower was thought to belong especially to St. Valentine. Some writers say that the name is from a Greek word meaning thread, because the fiber of the plant was used in dyeing brilliant yellow, which was a favorite color of the Greeks, as well as other Eastern nations.

The Greeks had a tradition as to the origin of the plant. According to their mythology, Crocus was a noble youth who was very much in love with a beautiful shepherdess named Smilax. According to the laws of the gods, he could not marry her and in his disappointment he killed himself. Smilax was heart-broken and wept so much that Flora, the goddess, felt sorry for her and turned them both into plants; Crocus into the flower that bears his name, and Smilax into a beautiful vine, the tendrils of which were used to bind together garlands of the crocus used by the Greeks as decorations at their marriage festivals.

There is also an autumnal variety. This has been sweetly referred to in verse:

"Say what impels amid surrounding snow
Congealed the crocus' flamy bud to grow?
Say what retards amid the summer's blaze
The autumnal bud 'til pale declining days?"

The plant has many medicinal qualities. Pliny enumerates over twenty remedies derived from it. According to his natural history, those using it as a drink will never suffer from indigestion or headache. He also says that it was regarded as hindering intoxication and as a fine tonic for the heart and lungs. In the time of pestilence and plague, it was used as a preventive. Its wreaths, worn on the head, were said to dispel the fumes of wine. The Egyptians wreathed their wine cups with its garlands for the same purpose. It was used extensively by the Jews as an aromatic, and is referred to by Solomon in Canticles 4-14, as one of the plants in the delectable garden. The Greeks used it also for perfume, while the Romans were so fond of its odor that they decorated their homes and public assembly houses with it, and at banquets small streams of its essence were made to issue from fountains and to descend on the guests in a fine spray. As it was thought to inspire love, potions were made from it. It was said to bloom at dawn on St. Valentine's day.

The coloring matter made from the fiber of the plant has long been used in cooking. Shakespeare, in A Winter's Tale, speaks of its use to color the warden-pies. At present it serves to color confectionery.

The controversy as to the introduction of the plant into England has at times waxed fiercely, but it is now generally conceded that Sir Thomas Smith first imported it from Persia about the middle of the fourteenth century. There is a tradition current at Saffron-Walden, in Cambridgeshire, where the plant was first cultivated, that it was brought by a pilgrim, who wished to render some service to his country. He had his staff made hollow, and in this way brought a root into England at the risk of his life. If he had been discovered, according to the law of Persia, he would have been put to death.

Many beautiful poems have been written about the crocus. The French poet, Rapin, has beautifully told its story and Virgil tells of the fondness of the bees for the "glowing crocus." Moore, in Lalla Rookh, sings of the same thing. Almost all of the New England poets have a word in praise for the "brave little crocus," while present-day writers do not neglect it, as the following, taken from the Westminster Gazette, will prove:

O, you plucky fellows,
All in sunshine yellows,

Braving bitter winds and cold,

Waving fearless flags of gold,
Welcome, crocus fellows!

Hardships and privation,

Sleet and snow for ration,
Leave you laughing, gay and bold,
Grieve you little,—faith untold

Mocks at mere privation.

Welcome, comrade fellows,
All in sunshine yellows!

Still your cups of light unfold,

Out of clay your glory mold!
Welcome, plucky fellows!

Anon, Yellow Crocuses.
Flower lore and legend
By Katharine McMillan Beals


THE Crocus—to be strictly correct, the Saffron '*. Crocus—-stands in the very front rank of Bible Flowers. It is classed, in the Song of Songs, among the prime favourites of the garden; and deservedly so. For, in Eastern and in Western lands, the Crocus is the most popular of spring flowers. Its hardy habit, graceful growth, and varied hues would alone go far to make it a general favourite. But, among Oriental peoples, the esteem in which the plant is held is not a little enhanced by the fact that it yields the muchadmired condiment known as saffron. The Crocus is only once referred to in the whole of the sacred Scriptures—in the Song of Solomon iv. 14. Its Hebrew name is " Karkom"; translated, not altogether incorrectly, in the Anglican Version "saffron." The passage in which it occurs is one of the most poetic in the allegorical amatory poem attributed to the wise Jewish King.

"A garden locked up is my sister, my spouse,
Thy plants are the shoots of Paradise,
Pomegranates with delicious fruits,
The fragrant Henna with the Nards,
The Nard and Crocus,
The sweet-scented Reed and Cinnamon,
With every tree of incense."

The connection in which the Crocus is here mentioned, along with Spikenard, Calamus, the Myrrh rose and Aloes, shows that it must have been an aromatic plant cultivated on account of its pungent and pleasing odour. It may, of course, be said that the scent of the Crocus, like the smell of saffron, is not very perceptible. But then it must not be forgotten that Eastern peoples look down, metaphorically speaking, upon Western noses as incapable of appreciating any but coarse scents and strong perfumes. And there may be something in this. Any way, few Western poets would be disposed to speak, as King Solomon does, of the "vine with the tender grape" emitting a pleasing odour. Most people would think a very delicate and susceptible organ requisite to detect the faint odour of growing grapes.

Of the signification of the Hebrewword"Karkom" there exists, fortunately, no reasonable doubt. We are spared, therefore, in this case, the necessity of discussing the far-fetched conjectures of rival commentators. There is no difficulty in tracing both the name and the plant from the remotest antiquity down to the present day. The Persian designation is " Karkam," Arabic " Kurkum," and the Greek— which is of course identical with the name familiar to Englishmen—is " Krokos." The common origin of all these designations is self-evident; and it is easily accounted for by the fact that the Crocus was a native of the Indian Valleys and the Persian Highlands, and gradually spread towards the West, carrying with it, wherever it went, the name by which it was known in its primitive home. The cultivation of the Saffron Crocus has always been an industry of some magnitude in the East. The books of the Hindoos contain innumerable references to it. Among the Greeks Homer, Theophrastus, and Dioscorides allude to the plant, and mention the several uses to which the product Saffron was put in former days.

The " Karkom" or Crocus of the Song of Solomon is the Crocus Sativus, the true Saffron plant. From the context, which refers to a garden, it is evidently a cultivated variety. It abounds to this day in Asia Minor, and grows wild in Palestine. It differs somewhat from the familiar blossom of European flower gardens; the leaves are rather narrower, and the blossom is somewhat smaller. The flower is pink, purple, yellow, white, or blue, and it has occasionally been found red. The plant is bulbousrooted, and has a lotus-like appearance when the petals are fully expanded. In spring, after the heavy winter rains have passed, the Crocus springs up like magic, "covering, with a carpet as varied as a kaleidoscope, the generally drab livery of the country."

The parts gathered by the peasantry are the stigmata and the style which contain the odorous and colouring principle of the plant. These, when dried, look like little bits of shrunken, withered string. They have a peculiar and, to Europeans, not altogether agreeable smell, and a decidedly bitter flavour. Pounded in a mortar and pressed into cakes, they form the saffron tablets of the eastern bazaar and markets; and left au naturel they constitute the well-known saffron of commerce. Saffron, properly zafran, is the Arabic word signifying yellow; and the Arabs frequently, or rather generally, use the word to designate the Crocus itself that produces the condiment. «.

Among the ancient Jews the Crocus and its product saffron were used for quite a variety of purposes. The leaves were strewed upon floors along with sweet-scented reeds and rushes; and they were employed for stuffing the divans and couches upon which the wealthy reclined at meals. Extravagant people distilled a scent from the blossoms, and threw saffron cakes into fountains that played in the courtyards, in order to diffuse the odour throughout their dwellings. Little bags filled with the petals were worn about the person as a preventative against sickness. As a condiment for flavouring food saffron was esteemed second to none. To be deficient or sparing of saffron in the confections, cakes, and sweetmeats served up to one's guests, was to be ignorant of the ways of good society among the Jews, and stamped a man as a niggardly host and an underbred person. The Talmud, of course, contains a good many references to the Saffron Crocus. But the "Karkamo " of the Rabbins referred to in Tractate Sabbath of the Talmud as a medicine for women, and in the treatise " Kelim" as a colouring matter, should not, in our opinion, be confounded with the "Karkom " of the Bible.

The Crocus proper appears to have been known to the later Jews of the Talmudic period by the term "Haria," perhaps from a root signifying to pound. It is mentioned in Tractate Ukzim and the Tosephta. The plant is also probably intended in the passage of Beza, where the word " Merika" is used.

According to a well-known legend which the Greeks obtained from the Syrians, the river-flag or reed fell in love with the earliest spring flower that blossomed. But the flower rejected the suit of the water-reed in disdain. Whereupon the flag was changed into the yew tree, mourning always for its lost love, and the spring blossom into the Saffron Crocus. The ancient Syrians made large use of the Crocus in their heathenish sacrificial rites and hideous ceremonies. It garlanded the head of the ox they immolated upon the high places of their deities, and often the brows of the children whom they hurled from the rocks of the mountain side, to propitiate their god Moloch.
Bible flowers and flower lore