I’ve witnessed countless tiny wars break out over saffron, but one particular time really stands out: My grandmother accused my mom of pilfering a few grams from her stash. They didn’t speak for days, which for them was a lifetime. In fairness to both of them, given how scarce and expensive saffron is, it’s a spice worth fighting over.
In fact, pound for pound, saffron is actually more expensive than gold. The delicate flowers of the Crocus sativus plant are harvested in the fall and are one of the few remaining crops that must be handpicked. The plant produces two flowers — each with three stigmas — that have to be plucked in a matter of hours each morning before they wilt. All in all, it takes about 200 flowers to produce a single gram.
But it’s hardly just the scarcity and expense of saffron, primarily grown in Iran, India, Spain and Greece, that’s fed its folklore. Saffron changes people. Its mere presence or lack thereof has, on more than one occasion, turned even the most deferential members of my family into shameless beggars. I can’t tell you how many times my mom, grandma, cousins, aunts or uncles have pleaded with near-strangers traveling back to Iran to return with as much saffron as they can fit in their suitcase.
Then there’s the saffron itself. When you steep a small pinch of the ground-up stigma in near-boiling water, the dusty orange powder springs alive. If food can be a religious experience, saffron is a spirit. A red ghost. Without it, the long grains of basmati rice shaped into scorched cakes — a Persian culinary staple — lack their signature egg yolk color. But maybe more importantly, my grandmother used to suggest that this ancient spice also possessed magical, mood-boosting powers. “Drink it,” she would say, pouring a little extra into an auburn-coated glass. Then she’d swirl it around, making sure to capture every bit of the spice as it slowly dissolved into a burnished red pool. “It’ll make you happy,” she’d insist.
I did as she asked, of course, though I considered saffron’s healing powers for mental and emotional health to be more of an old wives’ tale than fact. But as Western medicine continues to turn its view east in search of natural elixirs — see: the proliferation of turmeric — I was curious if saffron was also under consideration by clinicians as a potential salve or treatment for people with mood disorders.
“In our nation, historically, it’s believed that saffron is useful in changing the mood,” says Gholamali Jelodar, a professor of physiology at Shiraz University in Iran who led one of the first studies that investigated the medicinal uses of saffron in humans, and has been studying its use as a treatment for depression since 2012. He found that among the 40 men and women diagnosed with severe depression, saffron helped significantly reduce homocysteine, an amino acid that at high levels has been found to cause depression of mood.
Jelodar tells me that when he began looking into the potential antidepressant qualities of saffron, there wasn’t a single study that examined whether it could mitigate symptoms of depression in humans. Even in Iran, where saffron fields are plentiful, the potential for what the spice could do was largely relegated to folk medicine and animal trials — though some research had looked into the abortifacient effects of high doses of saffron in women. (The lethal dose of saffron is approximately 20 grams, while 10 grams or more has been used for abortion.)
In terms of folk medicine, ancient texts have swirled around the streets of Iran since the 10th century, which is roughly when Persian physician, philosopher and alchemist Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi first mentioned saffron in his comprehensive book on medicine, Al-Hawi. In 2015, a team of researchers led by Hamid Mollazadeh compiled writings from Al-Hawi and confirmed that the current pharmacological data on saffron is similar to al-Razi’s original observations. Essentially, modern medicine had validated ancient folklore.
Saffron’s medicinal history, however, is even more ancient than that. According to Susan C. Ferrence, an archaeologist with the Institute for Aegean Prehistory, “the saffron plant has been grown throughout time and space.” To that end, in 2004, Ferrence and the late medical historian Gordon Bendersky made a discovery that fundamentally altered our understanding of the earliest known use of plants as medicine. Until then, it was believed that myrtle, lilies and poppies were among the first plants used to treat people medicinally. But Ferrence and Bendersky found ancient frescoes in Greece that showed “young women, goddesses and monkeys doing various things with saffron locuses.”
The frescoes, dated back to more than 3,600 years ago, were from the town of Akrotiri on the Greek island of Thera. In one, a woman appears to be treating her bleeding foot with saffron. In another, a monkey is seen handing a goddess a handful of saffron stigmas. In all of the frescoes, saffron plants and women appear to be the governing factors, says Ferrence.
Those same healing qualities depicted in the ancient wall paintings are driving present-day researchers to continue to investigate the mental and physiological benefits of saffron. In 2017, a team at the Mashhad University of Medical Sciences in Iran found that saffron fared better than a placebo in improving depression symptoms among mothers with mild postpartum depression. Two years later, Adrian Lopresti, a clinical psychologist in Australia, set out to investigate if he could replicate these same antidepressant effects in a population of Australian people. “There was an increasing body of evidence that depression was associated with increased inflammation in the body,” says Lopresti. “This chronic, low-grade inflammation was theorized to have a negative effect on mood-boosting neurotransmitters such as serotonin.”
In the largest human study on the subject to date, which included 160 people, Lopresti found that those who used saffron capsules of 28 to 30 milligrams per day in tandem with their antidepressants reported having less symptoms of depression than those who took a placebo. And as recently as February, researchers in the U.K. reported that a 30-milligram dose of saffron per day for eight weeks improved depression scores among their 56 participants.
Admittedly, the sample sizes in all of these recent studies were small, but the encouraging results could explain why saffron is experiencing something of a moment in the unregulated and largely unproven world of supplements. This month, Goop launched a sexual health supplement that’s designed to “support women’s sexual desire, arousal and mood.” It’s called “DTF,” and it contains, among other substances, saffron. In January, Standard Dose, another wellness brand, launched its saffron supplement called “Kinder Thoughts.”
All of which, if nothing else, is vindication for my grandma. When I ask her what she thinks about her beloved saffron becoming the latest wellness craze, she just smiles. “Good,” she says. “It will make them happy, too.”