DENVER — Saffron has been highly prized since ancient times. Cleopatra soaked in saffron bath water to dye her skin--an early precursor of the spray tan. More importantly, saffron is used in cooking for its distinctive flavor and coloration. The national dish of Spain, paella, owes its signature golden color to saffron. 

Saffron is derived from a species of fall-blooming crocus (Crocus sativus). The red "threads" (the stigma) of the flower are hand-collected and dried. This is extremely labor-intensive. It's easy to see why saffron is so expensive: it takes 80,000 flowers to produce a pound of saffron. A pound costs about $5,000, roughly a quarter of the price of gold.

You can grow saffron crocus at home in a sunny location. Plant the bulbs now about four inches deep. The flowers will appear this fall. Each blossom will produce three threads that you can remove with manicure scissors. Do this when the flower first opens. The bulbs are hardy here. They will produce their leaves in spring. The bulbs will go dormant until they bloom again in fall. Each bulb may produce several flowers.  

Dry the threads on the kitchen counter. They can be used right away or stored. 

Colchicum autumnale is often called meadow saffron. It is somewhat related to saffron crocus--but don't eat it. Colchicum is poisonous. Native to high mountain meadows of Europe, colchicum is a pretty fall flower for a sunny spot. It also blooms without leaves, which appear in spring. The bulbs are hardy and very long-lived since critters avoid them. The double form called 'Waterlily' is especially pretty. 

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