A Travelling Botanist: A plant worth its weight in gold!

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Guest blog series by: Sophie Mogg

To those of you who cook exquisite dishes using saffron, I am sure you are aware of its beautiful aroma and colour as well as its hefty price tag. The question I want to ask is, can you name the plant saffron is derived from?

Crocus sativus
Crocus sativus

Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world and is harvested from Crocus sativus, commonly referred to as the saffron crocus. C. sativus will grow to approximately 20-30cm and produce up to four flowers, the saffron itself being the stigmata of the plant and often referred to as strands. This domesticated crocus is in fact sterile and so bulbs must be divided and replanted in order for more crocuses to grow. This plant is sterile due to it’s triploid genome, meaning that it has three paired sets of chromosomes.

Saffron, like tea, is hand-harvested with each flower only yielding 3 strands. The flowers bloom at dawn, gradually withering throughout the day and the stigmata rapidly losing their aroma and colour hence the flowers must be collected quickly so that the saffron can be removed from the flower and dried. It is estimated that over 85,000 flowers would be required to produce 1 kg of saffron. These factors are what contribute to the high sale price of saffron. In order to keep your saffron fresh, buy it in small quantities and store it in an airtight container away from sunlight. This will ensure it stays in top condition for 3-6 months.

The use of saffron is not limited to South Asia and is often used to impart a pale orange-yellow hue to foods such as rice but it also features in Swedish baked goods, soups and Italian liqueurs such as Strega and Fernet. Kashmiri saffron, produced in Pakistan, is commercially sold for use as both a dye and a folk remedy for melancholy. Saffron has also had notable references made to it in the treatment of scarlet fever, measles, Alzheimer’s disease and is currently being investigated for its potential to treat to asthma and insomnia. If you’re interested in the research conducted into the use of saffron you can find all the relevant links here.

Please complete the poll to have a say in the type of plant that features in the series. If you choose other, please specify what you would like to see.

For more information:

Grow your own saffron crocus 

Interesting facts about Crocus sativus

BBC Recipes using Saffron

Did you know you can request a guest blog on a plant of your choice? Comment below with your favourite plant and if it’s in our collection and found within South Asia or Europe, I’ll be happy to feature it!


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Suzanne invited a contribution on gold to add to the seasonal herbological musings on frankincense and myrrh. And who could resist the chance to write about gold? It is probably fair to say that of the Christmas triumvirate, gold is the most valuable. The heavy yellow metal has an affinity for bank vaults that is not shared by its biblical companions. Gold is easy to work, does not tarnish and is relatively rare. This combination of rarity, permanence and beauty accounts for its value.

Gold is heavy and resistant to weathering so it is concentrated in the beds of streams and rivers. It is in these deposits, that gold nuggets are found.

Gold nuggets for sale at the Mining Exchange, Ballarat, Australia

Nugget gold precipitated the gold rushes that were a feature of European expansion in the nineteenth century. Unlike mines, which require skilled labour and significant investment, anyone could try their hand at digging gold from river gravels! The best known gold rushes were in California, Alaska and Australia, but there were smaller gold rushes closer to home. The most famous of these was on the Gold Mines River in Ireland where it is estimated that 400kg of nugget gold was recovered.

Large nugget of Irish gold from the collection of Philip Rashleigh (1729-1811) in the Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro

Britain’s only working gold mine is in Co. Tyrone in northern Ireland. Recent research at The Manchester Museum has described barite with a very unusual morphology from this deposit.

SEM image of baryte from Cavancaw Mine, Co. Tyrone. Britain's only working gold mine.

The same gold-rich rocks that are common in Ireland stretch in a belt across Scotland. A mine was developed on a deposit at Cononish near Tyndrum in the 1990s. It was mothballed when gold prices slumped but will soon come back into production. With gold now trading at more than a thousand dollars an ounce, it is likely to be profitable.

Abandoned ore carts at Cononish Mine near Tyndrum, Scotland. The mine is likely to come back into production this year.

Mines in Wales have supplied gold to the Royal family for many years and because of this, Welsh gold commands a patriotically high price (much higher than normal bullion). As a result, Welsh gold specimens are very hard to get.

Britain’s most unusual gold deposit is to be found in the unlikely setting of the English Riviera at Hope’s Nose near Torquay. Here, the gold occurs in limestone. It forms beautiful dendritic fronds which are highly prized by collectors. A fine example can be seen in the Rashleigh Gallery at Truro Museum.

Gold from Hopes Nose, Torquay, Devon collected by Richard W. Barstow (1945 - 1982)

Gold panning is a popular hobby today. There are competitions every year and one of the museum volunteers, Dr Oneta Wilson, is a gold panning champion.