Red Gold: Saffron's Medicinal Potency

It’s easy to assume that kitchen spices are “just” flavorings, when some of the world’s most valued medicinals can actually be found in those little jars. As JK DeLapp of Rising Phoenix Perfumes points out, it was the spice and incense trade (indistinguishable from the medicine trade) that history its earliest known written documents. The key to unlocking the therapeutic potential of spices lies in both quality and quantity, along with recognition of the appropriate treatment principle.

Let’s take quantity first. The amount of something like cinnamon or clove required for a therapeutic effect is many times what you’d put in your oatmeal or mulled cider. A typical Chinese decoction formula might call for about 10 grams of cinnamon (about a third of an ounce) per day; ginger is used at a similar dosage range, cloves at somewhat lower amounts. Still, we’re talking about upwards of two tablespoons of herbal material in decoction per day, not the 1/4 teaspoon your pumpkin spice bread recipe calls for. So quantity definitely matters. But quality is equally important.

To experience the full therapeutic effects of cinnamon—which can be intensely warming, circulation enhancing and blood sugar stabilizing, along with a host of other benefits—you have to use therapeutic-grade material. The best cinnamon bark (from the Vietnamese species C. loureiroi) costs upwards of $100 per pound. This stuff comes in sticks the size of your arm (or leg!), and is as sweet and spicy as aRed Hot Fireball candy (remember those?). That sweet, sweet burn is the sky-high essential oil content talking.

Much more could be said about cinnamon, which really deserves a book of its own. But today I want to discuss a different precious spice.

Everyone’s heard of saffron, but not everyone knows what it looks like or tastes like. I can’t help you with the taste here—a good risotto alla milanese, paella, or Persian rice dish will leave no room for doubt—but the image below should clear up any confusion as to genuine saffron’s appearance.

The item on the right is high-grade Afghan saffron, i.e. the pistils of the saffron crocus, Crocus sativus. On the left is the botanically unrelated safflower (Carthamus tinctorius), a common saffron adulterant with considerably weaker and more limited therapeutic effects and none of the saffron's flavor profile. For comparison, a Chinese formula might call for 6-9 grams of safflower versus a few tenths of a gram of saffron, reflecting a roughly fifty-fold difference in potency. (For the record, there’s nothing wrong with safflower, an herb which is also very useful—but it’s not in the same league as saffron in terms of potency, and it doesn’t do all that Saffron does)

Saffron has been worth its weight in gold at certain times in history, and has even been reserved for royalty. So, what is it about this "red gold" that’s so prized? The subtle but penetrating flavor and color, sure—an extract ranges from the brightest sunny yellow through orange to blood red, covering all the most brilliant sunny hues according to concentration—but also saffron’s effects. Brightening and quickening, saffron has an affinity for the heart, where it promotes circulation and dispels stagnant blood. This blood stagnation is part of many pathologies, according to East Asian Medicine, and saffron is one of the most potent blood-vitalizing herbs for resolving such stagnation. Through its revitalizing action on the blood, it benefits the skin and complexion, and is thus a famed beauty herb. Again via the blood, saffron reaches down to the reproductive organs, where it treatis menstrual pain (if due to blood stagnation) and erectile issues (likewise); it also reaches up to the brain where it improves oxygenation and cognitive performance. Studies have shown it to be as effective as the standard pharmaceutical drug, Aricept, in arresting the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

Saffron is also a royal herb for the mind--which is not surprising if we recall that the heart and mind have traditionally been understood in conjunction. In the ancient way of thinking, the heart is the seat of the mind, an insight that modern science is also now coming back around to. As it quickens the blood and relieves stagnation in the heart and vessels, it also brightens the mood and relieves mild-to-moderate depression as effectively as SSRI’s and without the side effects (which often include loss of sexual function). Anecdotally, I find saffron to lend a golden glow to one’s meal or day. It’s just hard for the blues to coexist with such a radiant plant.

In terms of administration, I find saffron is best given as a fluid extract. Its constituents are soluble in both alcohol and hot water; if using the latter (as most culinary recipes call for), you should again make sure the threads are toasted until brittle and ground with the back of a spoon before adding liquid. For those not averse to a trace of alcohol, the tincture is probably the most expedient way to go: I find a concentration of 1g saffron per 10-15 mL alcohol solution to be suitably strong. (A second steeping of the same threads can be kept in the kitchen for instant saffronization of any dish.)

Though saffron is more often elebrated for its color and flavor, I love saffron’s aroma in incense blends. Surprisingly, its brightness translates beautifully into the smoke, adding a subtle but penetrating sunny note that complements resins like Frankincense and is equally classic in conjunction with Rose.

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