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Table of Contents
Year : 2021  |  Volume : 4  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 228-234

The history of saffron in China: From its origin to applications

1 School of Pharmacy, Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Shanghai 201203, China
2 School of Pharmacy, Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Shanghai 201203, China; Pharmaceutical Services Program, Ministry of Health, Selangor 46200, Malaysia
3 School of Pharmacy, Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Shanghai 201203; Engineering Research Center of Shanghai Colleges for TCM New Drug Discovery, Shanghai 201203, China

Date of Submission28-Jan-2021
Date of Acceptance18-Nov-2021
Date of Web Publication28-Dec-2021

Correspondence Address:
Prof. Hong- Xi Xu
School of Pharmacy, Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Shanghai 201203; Engineering Research Center of Shanghai Colleges for TCM New Drug Discovery, Shanghai 201203
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/CMAC.CMAC_38_21

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Saffron (Stigma Croci) is an autumn-flowering perennial plant, and its use has a history of over 3500 years. Saffron has often been considered as the costliest medicinal plant, a premium spice, and the best dye with a golden yellowish color. Iran currently produces the finest quality saffron and dominates its global production (>90%). Other countries such as Australia, Canada, the USA, China, and some countries in Central Africa, produce saffron at a lower yield. In China, saffron is celebrated as “red gold” owing to the red stigmas of the flower and its price, which is comparable to the price of gold. Saffron has been one of the most attractive traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) herbs in the Zhong Guo Yao Dian (《中国药典》Chinese Pharmacopoeia) since its inclusion in the 2005 edition. The earliest use of saffron in TCM was recorded in the Ben Cao Shi Yi (《本草拾遗》Supplement to Materia Medica) written during the Tang dynasty (741 A.D.). However, saffron grown in inland China has been widely mistaken as originating from Tibet. This is because its Chinese name begins with “Xi” or “Zang,” which sounds similar to its Tibetan name (“Xi Zang”). In this review, we clarify the origin of saffron and its introduction to China and summarize its various applications.

Keywords: Cosmetics industry, history, origin, perfumery, saffron, spice, traditional Chinese medicine

How to cite this article:
Dai RC, Nik Nabil WN, Xu HX. The history of saffron in China: From its origin to applications. Chin Med Cult 2021;4:228-34

How to cite this URL:
Dai RC, Nik Nabil WN, Xu HX. The history of saffron in China: From its origin to applications. Chin Med Cult [serial online] 2021 [cited 2022 Jun 27];4:228-34. Available from: https://www.cmaconweb.org/text.asp?2021/4/4/228/334096

  Introduction Top

Saffron (Stigma Croci) is the dried red stigmas of Crocus sativus L., a herbaceous flowering plant that belongs to the family Iridaceae, and the genus Crocus itself comprises approximately 80 species. Saffron is globally renowned as one of the most attractive spices owing to its unique properties that include a vivid crimson color, bitterness, and distinct aroma.[1] Saffron has been widely used in food, perfume, and cosmetics industries worldwide. In addition, recent studies have highlighted the therapeutic potentials of saffron including anticancer, antibacterial, and antioxidant activity.[2]

Saffron blooms in autumn, specifically in November, for only 15–20 days, and does not propagate by seeds. The cultivation and processing of saffron, including harvesting, drying, and screening, require delicate and manual handling. To produce 1 kg of saffron, approximately 70,000–200,000 flowers are required and each flower weighs approximately 0.3–1.0 g. This explains why saffron remains one of the world's most expensive medicinal plants. The price of top-grade saffron can reach 100 RMB (approximately 15–16 USD) per gram in China.[3] Globally, Iran produces saffron on the largest scale and its produce is of the highest quality. Other countries, such as Australia, Canada, the USA, China, and some countries in Central Africa, also produce and export saffron every year but at a lower yield.[4]

The applications of saffron have been extensively studied. There are contradictory reports in historical aspects, such as its origin and introduction to China, and there has been less emphasis on these topics. Hence, this review intends to clarify the origins of saffron and its introduction to China [Table 1], as well as to summarize its diverse applications in medicine, art, food, perfumery, and cosmetics industries in China and overseas [Figure 1].
Table 1: The history of saffron documented worldwide and in China

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Figure 1: The application of saffron

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  Methods Top

Electronic searches were performed on PubMed and China National Knowledge Infrastructure, from their inception to January 2021. The search terms used were saffron, 红花, Stigma Croci, and C. sativus. Articles were included if they covered the origin and application of saffron, and the full text was retrievable. Articles were excluded if the used Crocus species were unspecified, or other species were used. Data from included articles were extracted and entered into a data extraction sheet.

  The Origin of Saffron Top

The origin and history of saffron

The name “saffron” most probably originates from the Persian word “sahafaran.”[20] Some researchers attribute the name “saffron” to the Arabic word “Zafaran,” which means yellow.[1] Numerous legends have clouded the exact origin of saffron, while expert opinions on its origin are diversified as well. Vavilov suggested that saffron originated from the Middle East, while other researchers asserted Asia Minor or the South-Western Greek islands as its origin.[21],[22] A recent study applied the genome-wide single-nucleotide polymorphisms method to examine the genetic make-up of saffron and affirmed that it evolved from Crocus cartwrightianus in Attica, Greece.[23] The earliest evidence of saffron as a fabric dye was unearthed in Castilla-Mancha, Spain, and has been dated to approximately 2400 B.C.[5] Then, during the reign of Hammurabi (1800 B.C.–1700 B.C.), saffron was used as a condiment.[5] The first evidence of saffron cultivation is of a much later date and can be traced to the Minoan civilization of 1550 years B. C., as inscribed in the Papyrus Eber.[6] This Egyptian medical document referred to the frescoes in the Palace of Knossos, which portrayed young girls picking saffron flowers while holding baskets.[24] Negbi et al. documented that saffron was probably selected for domestication in Crete during the latter years of Bronze Age (1500 B.C.–1100 B.C.).[7]

The unique aroma lends itself to be used as a spice. This was initially described in the ancient religious writings: The Old Testament of the Bible (12th century B.C.),[8] and the Hebrew Bible (known as the Tanakh) that was the first classic of Judaism (1000 B.C.).[25] During the reign of Ashurbanipal (7th century B.C.), the Assyrians pioneered the documentation of the therapeutic values of saffron in their botanical dictionary.[10] Manganaro et al. described their archeological findings of the ancient coins and inscriptions in Sicily, where saffron had been cultivated and used as medicine for gastrointestinal ailments and nephropathy since the Graeco–Roman era (8th century B.C. – 3rd century B.C.).[11] In Iran, which was historically known as Persia, saffron was woven into carpets and shrouds for the kings (10th century B.C.).[10] The Persians, later on, introduced saffron to the Kashmir region.[11] The saffron-bathing practice was initiated by the Persians to relieve fatigue or to cool off,[9] and this was expanded to Macedonia when Alexander the Great promoted it to the Greek soldiers (356 B.C.–323 B.C.).[26] Safranbolu, a city in northern Turkey, later developed a famous annual saffron harvest festival after saffron cultivation was introduced to the city. A similar “Saffron Rose Festival” has also been held annually on the last weekend of October in the town of Consuegra, Spain since the late 20th century.[27]

The introduction of saffron to China

Researchers hold contradictory opinions on when and how saffron was introduced to China. It is widely accepted that saffron was introduced to China through the Silk Road.[28] The Silk Road was initiated in the Western Han dynasty (202 B.C.–8 B.C.) when Emperor Wu tasked Zhang Qian (张骞) to open up a land passage from the capital, Chang'an (today's Xi'an), stretching through Central Asia and Western Asia (through Gansu and Xinjiang), and connecting to Mediterranean countries. Silk was exported from China westward toward India, Persia, Rome, and Egypt. In exchange, Western medicine and spices were imported to China. Saffron was probably introduced to China during that period.[29] Saffron was initially treated as a precious spice for the royal family and noble officials, and years later became a valuable gynecological medicine in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).[30]

Some historians contended that the earliest introduction of saffron to China resulted from the Mongols' invasion of Persia, while others believed that saffron entered the capital of ancient China from Tibet during the Ming dynasty.[31] However, more researchers are convinced that saffron was introduced into China from India, along with the eastward dissemination of Buddhism during the Han and Jin dynasties (approximately 67 B.C.).[32] At that time, Indian Buddhists offered the whole saffron flower to the Buddha, and merchants were willing to sell the stigmas after the flower withered. Moreover, after the death of Shakyamuni, the Buddha, his corpse and clothes were also dyed with saffron, and the Buddhist disciples used saffron as the official color of dharma clothes. Buddhist scriptures also recorded the medicinal use of saffron for serious disease, in which patients were smeared with saffron, or bathed in water with saffron in it.[25]

“Saffron” was mentioned in many ancient works during medieval times, including Tang Hui Yao (《唐会要》Institutional History of Tang),[15] Liang Shu (《梁书》The Book of Liang),[13] and Nan Zhou Yi Wu Zhi (《南州异物志》Nanzhou Record of Foreign Goods).[12] “Saffron” was even cited in Chinese literature, specifically in the well-known poem Ke Zhong Xing (《客中行》Writing as a Guest) by Li Bai (李白) during the Tang dynasty. The word “saffron” quoted in these ancient works was misinterpreted as “Yu Jin Xiang” (郁金香) instead of “Xi Hong Hua” (西红花).[32] In fact, “Yu Jin Xiang” is Tulipa gesneriana L., which is the national flower of the Netherlands. Criticisms made by Chinese scholars noted that the “Yu Jin Xiang” in those ancient works referred to saffron (Stigma Croci), rather than to T. gesneriana L. American sinologist Edward H. Schafer also noted that “Yu Jin Xiang” was quoted in the Sa Ma Er Han de Jin Tao (《撒马尔罕的金桃》Golden Peach in Samarkand), a catalog of exotic goods received in the capital city during the Tang dynasty.[33] He consistently specified that the “Yu Jin Xiang” presented by the state of Ghabia (today's Kashmir) to China was actually saffron, and interpreted all the references to “Yu Jin Xiang” in the poetry of the Tang dynasty as saffron.[32]

Historically, China relied on imported saffron for centuries until the 20th century. In 1965, a Chinese herbal medicine company attempted to plant a batch of saffron corms from West Germany in some open fields located in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Qingdao, Nanjing, and Sichuan.[34] Unfortunately, the corms degenerated and the effort to introduce saffron eventually failed. Later, in 1979, a Shanghai medicinal materials company imported 0.5 tons of saffron corms from Japan and successfully planted them in Ma Qiao town of Shanghai by combining the technology of cultivating corms in open fields with indoor flowering. From 1980, saffron corms were continuously imported from Japan, and 1.674 kg of saffron was harvested in China in that year and increased by 80% in 1981. Between 1981 and 1983, 36 tons of saffron corms were imported from Japan, and advancements in cultivation technology expanded the scale of production. China eventually began to export saffron from 1987.[35]

In 1990s, China made great progress in saffron cultivation and research, which contributed to the expansion of the planting area. At present, saffron has been successfully grown in more than 20 provinces and cities in China, especially Tibet, Shanghai, and Zhejiang. In Shanghai, saffron production is mainly distributed in Baoshan and Chongming districts. The saffron harvested from Chongming accounted for over 90% of China's total yield in recent years. Between 1981 and 1983, its sown area was 190 hectare and the cumulative yield of saffron exceeded 4300 kg.[35] Despite the advancement in saffron cultivation, its price remains high, primarily because of limited resources and production constraints.[35]

  The Applications of Saffron Top

Saffron's use in folk medicine

As a part of TCM herbs, the earliest record of saffron in China was found in the Ben Cao Shi Yi (《本草拾遗》Supplement to Materia Medica) published during the Tang dynasty (741 A.D.).[14] During the Yuan dynasty, saffron was listed in the Yin Shan Zheng Yao (《饮膳正要》Principles of Correct Diet) by the name “Ji Fu Lan” (洎夫蓝).[16] During the Ming dynasty (1505 A.D.), the official revision of Ben Cao Pin Hui Jing Yao (《本草品汇精要》Collected Essentials of Species of Materia Medica) used “Sa Fu Lan” (撒馥兰) as the name of saffron, a synonym of “Fan Hong Hua” (番红花).[17] Jing Zhu Ben Cao (《晶珠本草》Jingzhu Materia Medica),[18] an ancient Tibetan medical book, recorded that “the appearance of saffron was similar to chrysanthemum, yellow and red, and with slightly fragrant aroma. Saffron was used to reduce adverse effects, remove blood stasis, and strengthen one's power.” The medical book encouraged long-term intake of saffron to enhance beauty and boost body immunity. Females prone to qi and blood deficiency will find that taking saffron will make them energetic and promote a ruddy complexion.[18]

According to TCM, saffron stimulates blood circulation and nourishes blood. This effect was first included in the Zhong Guo Yao Dian (《中国药典》Chinese Pharmacopoeia) edition 2005 under the Chinese name “Fan Hong Hua” (番红花), “Xi Hong Hua” (西红花), or “Zang Hong Hua” (藏红花). In the latest 2020 edition, saffron is primarily indicated to activate blood circulation, dissipate blood stasis, and disperse depression. It is also used to treat melancholy, chest congestion, hematemesis, typhoid fever, delirium, terror and trance, amenorrhea, tumefaction, pain, and postpartum blood stasis with abdominal pain.[19]

Clinically, saffron has been used alone or in combination with other Chinese materia medica. A combination of saffron with Da Qing Ye (大青叶 Folium Isatidis) or Ban Lan Gen (板蓝根 Radix Isatidis) clears heat and removes toxins from the body.[36] When treating measles with fever and blood stagnation, saffron is usually applied together with Zi Cao (紫草 Lithospermum erythrorhizon Sieb. et Zucc.) and Chi Shao (赤芍 Radix Paeoniae Rubra), depending on the features of the rashes, such as whether they are dense or faint.[36] The efficacy of saffron on promoting blood circulation is further potentiated when combined with Yi Mu Cao (益母草 Herba Leonuri) and Dan Shen (丹参 Radix Salviae Miltiorrhizae).[37]

However, caution is needed when taking saffron as it may induce rhythmic uterine contractions, and large doses may trigger off spasmodic contractions and eventually cause miscarriage in pregnant women. During menstruation, the uterine contractions will consequently lead to abdominal pain, diarrhea, and even depletion of circulating blood volume. Saffron is, therefore, contraindicated for pregnancy and menstruation, particularly heavy bleeding.[38] Similarly, patients who have just undergone surgery or have obvious bleeding wounds should not take saffron as it is detrimental to wound healing and may even aggravate bleeding.[39]

Saffron is also used in other traditional medicine. For example, traditional Iranian medicine uses saffron to treat erysipelas. The Greeks use saffron to treat acne, skin diseases, and wounds, as well as to relieve bile accumulation in the liver.[26]

Saffron's use in food and perfume industries

Food industries all over the world use saffron to dye and season famous dishes, for example: “Paella Valenciana” and “zarzuela” in Spain, “Milanese risotto” and saffron cake in Italy, “Bouillabaisse” in France, “chelow kabab” in Iran, “biryanis” in India, “koftas” and “mrouzia” in Morocco, and “Lussekatter” buns in Sweden.[40] Saffron is also used in alcoholic beverages because of its aroma, coloring, and flavoring properties.[41] In China, people are accustomed to adding 5–10 saffron stigmas to tea and alcohol, and the stigmas are edible after the drinks are finished. A pinch of saffron is also added when making congee and stew, or as a seasoning when preparing assorted delicacies in China.[42] Chefs and saffron specialists describe the flavor similar to honey, but with a slight metallic note.[43] Some attribute the bitterness of saffron to picrocrocin, one of its key bioactive components, while its intense aroma is related to its volatile oil composition.[44]

The perfume industry also makes use of the unique aroma of saffron. In ancient Greece, saffron was initially used by the royal clan to perfume salons, courts, theaters, and bathrooms. Aristophanes noted that the pleasant aroma that was released from dried saffron was a “sensual smell”.[45] A recent study has identified safranal, a cyclic terpenic aldehyde, as the principal component contributing to the aromatic property of saffron.[46] Today, saffron is often found in both feminine and masculine perfumes since it has a woody, sweet note, and pleasing scent.[47]

Saffron's use in dye and cosmetics industries

A natural dye, saffron contains pigments that impart its coloring power. The golden yellowish color of saffron is incorporated into painting and textiles, including the clothes of Buddhist monks, silk, wool, and Oriental carpets.[47] The walls of Potala Palace, a magnificent ancient building in Tibet, China, are repainted annually after the rainy season and before the winter season. The paint is mainly made of pure natural raw lime that is obtained from Yangbajing, Lhasa. Saffron, milk, sugar, and honey are added to thicken the paint for better protecting the building walls.[48] The advantage of saffron is its coloring property, high water solubility, and ability to reduce the oxidation of cellulose. Saffron is also stable in alkaline and acidic media because of its pKa (acid dissociation constant), dicarboxylic acids, esters, and nitrogen compounds.[49]

Saffron also makes a large contribution to the cosmetics industry. In India, women dab a yellow dot of saffron on their foreheads to make the bindi, symbolizing good fortune and conscience.[47] Traditional Iranian medicine applies saffron to enhance the complexion while traditional Greek medicine uses saffron to refresh the face.[9] Despite the beauty effects offered by saffron, only minute amounts are used in cosmetics because of its high price.

Current preclinical and clinical advancement of saffron

Recent studies have identified the major bioactive compounds of saffron as terpenoids, flavonoids, and anthraquinones.[50] Increasing evidence has demonstrated various biological properties of saffron-derived compounds, including anticancer, antibacterial, cosmetic, anti-inflammatory, antinociceptive, hypnotic, anxiolytic, anesthetic, antidepressant, and bronchodilatory effects. They also have therapeutic effects on the eye diseases, premenstrual symptoms, gastrointestinal tract disease, and liver disease.[51] For example, Al-Hrout et al. revealed that safranal, one of the primary bioactive components of saffron, inhibits the proliferation of HepG2 hepatocellular carcinoma cells by inducing endoplasmic reticulum (ER)-stress-mediated apoptosis and G2/M cell cycle arrest. More importantly, safranal promotes DNA damage through induction of DNA double-strand break and deregulation of DNA replication and transcription.[52] Safranal has recently been discovered to repress the recurrence of prostate cancer and suppress tumor growth in vivo.[53] The neuroprotective property of saffron is evident when the lipid peroxidation and levels of nitric oxide in the brains of saffron-treated mice were markedly reduced compared with those in the control group.[54]

In addition to its clinical use in TCM, saffron has been clinically tested in Iran for patients with metabolic syndrome, Alzheimer's disease, and depression. In an 8-week double-blind, randomized clinical trial, patients with metabolic syndrome who received 30 mg/d of saffron had improved lipid profiles compared with those receiving a placebo.[55] Another study randomized 46 patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease and they received either 15 mg saffron, or a placebo, twice daily for 16 weeks. Compared with the placebo group, saffron improved both the cognitive functions and dementia symptoms of the treated patients.[56] Patients suffering major depressive disorder and anxious distress also benefitted from a 6-week daily treatment of 30 mg saffron. The beneficial effect of saffron in improving symptoms of depression and anxiety was comparable to citalopram, an antidepressant medication.[57] These clinical findings further corroborate the therapeutic potentials of saffron and saffron-derived components.

  Discussion Top

Low yield, short flowering time, and high labor costs are the main challenges in lowering the price of saffron. Iran and southern European countries yield more than 90% of global saffron production, while other countries produce saffron to a much less extent. Compared with the scale of other medicinal plants, the scale of saffron production is still limited, thus lowering the yield.[4] Moreover, saffron hardly grows in the wild because it does not propagate by seeds. Saffron is usually planted in April or May and it blooms in late October or November in Shanghai, China.[58] Because saffron is an autumn-flowering species, the month of planting may differ across regions, depending on geographical and climatic differences. It flowers for only 15–20 days,[59] and the quality of harvested saffron rapidly withered when exposed to sunlight, warranting speedy harvest before sunrise. Saffron production comprises many steps including harvesting, drying, stripping of stigmas, screening, and bundling. All these steps require delicate manual handling, thus raising the labor costs.[60] In addition, a massive amount of raw material only produces a small amount of saffron. Taking all these factors together, saffron remains the most expensive medicinal plant and premium spice that attracts the attention of various industries.[61]

Unfortunately, the prohibitive price of saffron leads to the phenomenon whereby illegal traders make substantial profits by selling fake or adulterated saffron. It is frequently adulterated with other parts of the Crocus flower, such as the styles, stamen, or strips of the corolla. Other common adulterants are safflower, calendula, poppy, arnica, onion skins, turmeric, annatto, capsicum, and stigmas of maize.[62] Adulteration of saffron dates back to the Middle Ages in Europe, where the penalty for adulterating merchants was execution. Identification of adulterations is of great importance in the contemporary saffron market. Recent research has focused on enhancing the yield and improving the quality of saffron stigmas to decrease its price and make it more affordable for common use.[63]

The long history, diverse uses, and growing evidence of its various therapeutic potentials mean that saffron deserves more in-depth mechanistic, phytochemical, and pharmacological studies to support its development as a therapeutic agent.


This study was financed by grants from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (No. 81803571), the China-Morocco Traditional Chinese Medicine Center Construction Project (No. ZY (2018-2020)-GJHZ-1005), and the Key-Area Research and Development Program of Guangdong Province (No. 2020B1111110003).

Ethical approval

This article does not contain any studies with human or animal subjects performed by either of the authors.

Author Contributions

Rong-Chen Dai and Hong-Xi Xu contributed to the conceptualization and design; Rong-Chen Dai performed the literature search; Rong-Chen Dai and Wan Najbah Nik Nabil contributed to the data acquisition, data analysis, manuscript preparation and manuscript editing; Hong-Xi Xu edited and reviewed the manuscript.

Conflict of interest

Hong-Xi Xu is an editorial board member of Chinese Medicine and Culture. The article was subject to the journal's standard reviewing procedures, with peer review handled independently of this editorial board member and their research groups.

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