A guide to farming saffron in South Africa

Thousands of corns yield just a few grams of saffron. South Africa’s first saffron farmer, Renske van Zyl, explains the process of growing this delicate spice. Jay Ferreira reports.

A guide to farming saffron in South Africa
The ideal way to store saffron is in a dark, dry, airtight tin in order to preserve its delicate flavour. Photo: Jay Ferreira
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In Asia, Europe and North Africa, saffron (Crocus sativus) is renowned for its unique, delicate flavouring of food, while in Morocco it is used as a potent leather dye. It is no less famed for being the world’s most expensive spice. Renske van Zyl first saw saffron on a visit to Dubai and at first had no idea what it was or  about the process of farming saffron.

Fascinated, she began researching how to grow it on her return to South Africa. From the start, it proved a challenge for Renske and her husband, Jan, who have a wine farm near Vredendal in Namaqualand. No one had ever considered the process of farming saffron in South Africa, and there was no advice on offer.

Fortunately, the weather in the area – cold wet winters and dry hot summers – is ideal for growing saffron. The soil on the farm, too, was well-suited to the crop, which demands well-drained, sandy soils. Saffron can also withstand frost and even occasional snow, though this is seldom a consideration.

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The stamens are placed in a sieve so as not to damage them. They are then heat-dried in a convection oven to preserve them.

“When I started looking for plants in 2006, there was nobody selling them in South Africa, so we imported 2 000 bulbs – corms – from New Zealand, at great expense. “Back then, they were about R12 a bulb,” recalls Renske. The first crop was planted in 2007.

The Van Zyls use their existing vineyard staff for farming Saffron as the requirements fit into their normal schedule; no additional workers were employed.

Planting and management in farming saffron

The saffron corms are planted during the first week of March. The soil is softened and aerated and then composted and fertilised. About 15t of compost per hectare is used along with 1t of superphosphate and 300kg of 1.0.1(36). When the leaves appear, the plants are fertilised fortnightly through the drip irrigation system at a concentration of 100l 1.0.1(14)/ha until the plants reach maturity.

The drip irrigation rate is 4l/h, with drippers spaced 0,6m apart and the plants are watered when necessary. The soil must remain damp – not wet. In fact, better too dry than too wet for saffron, stresses Renske. The corms are hand-planted 10cm deep and about 25cm apart, and 40cm spaces are left between rows.

A white ‘spear’ is the first part of the plant to appear above the ground. This is followed by the leaves. About 40 days after planting, purple flowers appear at ground level. Saffron flowers for three weeks a year and the plant only has leaves from April to September.

Renske says that she picks the flowers as soon as the stamens are mature. Harvesting takes place early in the morning after the dew has dried but before the sun wilts the plants. The entire flower is picked and the stamens carefully removed.

Renske employs women exclusively to pick the saffron as the process is delicate and needs to be done by small hands, working carefully and gently. Plants are checked daily to ascertain those that can be picked.

Closed flowers are also picked as they open quickly thereafter. Renske says that on some days, there are just one or two flowers ready for picking, while on other days there may be dozens. The flowers have to be protected from the sheep and small antelope on the farm, but moles are the only actual pest encountered so far.

To combat these, she lifts the corms after harvesting, separates them and stores them in orange sacks hung in a dark storeroom. Each year, they are replanted. This is not standard practice, as they can remain in the ground for up to five years, if the area is mole-free.

Renske obtained a yield of just 18g of saffron from her first harvest – grown from 2 000 corms in 2007. She gave it to chefs and friends to try, as she was unsure of the quality. The feedback was surprising and gratifying: everyone said it was the best quality saffron they had ever tasted.

The following year, she planted 5 000 corms were planted, which yielded 60g – roughly two handfuls. Today, Renske has about 12 000 corms planted but says the yields vary dramatically and have been as low as 2g.

“I’m told that great variance in the yield is common and it sometimes doesn’t yield at all,” she says. “I think it has to do with too much water because this crop hates wet conditions. But farming Saffron is also a work in progress for me.” All the saffron Renske grows is bought by a Namibian restaurant owner for its high quality, though she does keep some for her own use. Saffron sells locally for about R120/ g and for far more overseas.

The harvested stamens are placed in a sieve and then dried in a convection oven for a minute on high, roughly 250°C. This is to retain colour and flavour, and the saffron is then stored in a dark tin for the same reasons.

While saffron is used as a leather dye and hair colourant in certain countries, it is also believed to have medicinal properties, and is touted as a cure for jaundice. Renske says that she has witnessed its efficacy. “Just three strands of saffron brewed into a tea with 50ml of water cured a baby overnight,” she claims.

The future
Farming saffron requires a substantial cash outlay, patience and passion. Optimal growing conditions have also not yet been completely established in South Africa. For Renske, growing saffron is likely to remain a hobby, albeit an expensive one. She relishes the challenge, however, and enjoys using some of her own yield. Ultimately, she looks forward to having a yield of one kilogram, which is, in fact, an enormous quantity of this rare, delicate spice.

Email Renske van Zyl at [email protected].

This article was originally published in the 30 August 2013 issue of Farmers Weekly.

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