Cultivated since ancient times and native of southwestern Asia. Probably already known in the Mediterranean area at the time of the Roman Empire. Saint Isidore of Seville mentions this plant in his Etymologiae (c.560–636). Its three red styles are plucked from the flower, allowed to dry and lightly roasted. The resulting food colouring and flavouring is peerless but very expensive because 100,000 flowers are needed to obtain one kilogram. It is used in homeopathy as a painkiller and for diseases of the womb. In popular medicine it was an aid for childbirth but has the disadvantage of turning amniotic fluid red, making it more difficult to detect haemorrhages. In ancient times it was used as an aphrodisiac. Dioscorides devotes a chapter to this plant and another to saffron ointment. In the Roman world, it was already an expensive product in the first century, according to Dioscorides himself, who added that when taken with straw wine, it produces urine and prevents drunkenness. Saffron ointment causes drowsiness and when mixed with water as eye drops is most useful for short-sightedness.
Ramón Morales Valverde
Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid
(Extract from the commentary volume of Mattioli's Dioscorides illustrated by Cibo)