Agron. Sustain. Dev.
Volume 28, Number 1, January-March 2008
Page(s) 95 - 112
Published online 18 December 2007
Agron. Sustain. Dev. 28 (2008) 95-112
DOI: 10.1051/agro:2007030

Saffron, an alternative crop for sustainable agricultural systems. A review

F. Gresta1, G.M. Lombardo1, L. Siracusa2 and G. Ruberto2

1  Dipartimento di Scienze Agronomiche, Agrochimiche e delle Produzioni Animali, Università di Catania, Via Valdisavoia 5, 95123 Catania, Italy
2  Istituto del CNR di Chimica Biomolecolare, Via del Santuario 110, 95028 Valverde CT, Italy

(Accepted 31 May 2007; published online 18 December 2007)

Abstract - Saffron (Crocus sativus L.) is an autumnal flowering geophite whose dried stigmas, well known for their aromatic and colouring power, have been used since immemorial time as a spice in human nutrition, for medicinal purposes and as a dye. Many doubts remain on its origin; it was probably selected and domesticated in Crete during the Late Bronze Age. Saffron is an autotriploid geophyte species, self- and out-sterile and mostly male-sterile and therefore unable to produce seed, that reproduces by means of corms. Furthermore, it has a reverse biological cycle compared with the majority of cultivated and spontaneous plants: flowering first in October-November, then vegetative development until May, which means that the vegetative development is not directly important for production of stigmas, but for the production of new corms. Due to its unique biological, physiological and agronomic traits, saffron is able to exploit marginal land and to be included in low-input cropping systems, representing an alternative viable crop for sustainable agriculture. Notwithstanding this great potential and the considerable increase in new generation consumer demand for saffron, the future of the plant is still uncertain. Indeed, the main obstacles to saffron production are: (1) the limited areas of cultivation in countries where it is traditionally grown, (2) the great amount of sophisticated spice, (3) management techniques executed by hand, and (4) the very high price of the spice. Here we review the main biological, genetic and ecological traits associated with agronomic management techniques of saffron in relation to environmental conditions. Colour, taste and aroma are the essential features on which the quality of saffron stigmas is founded. In turn, these aspects are strictly connected with the biomolecular composition of the stigmas, namely, the carotenoids and their derivatives. With this in mind, the biosynthetic pathway that leads to the formation of saffron secondary metabolites and their abundance in the spice is presented, together with the biomedical properties commonly associated with saffron. Furthermore, a detailed overview of the more recent instrumental methods to assess the quality of saffron, strictly from a chemical point of view, will be discussed.

Key words: Crocus sativus / saffron / carotenoids / yields / quality / sustainability

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© INRA, EDP Sciences 2007