A golden-coloured, water-soluble fabric dye was distilled from saffron stigmas in India in ancient times. Shortly after Buddha died, his priests made saffron the official colour for their robes. The dye has been used for royal garments in several cultures.
As a perfume, saffron was strewn in Greek and Roman halls, courts, theatres, and baths; it became especially associated with the hetaerae, a professional class of Greek courtesans. The streets of Rome were sprinkled with saffron when Nero made his entry into the city.
Believed native to the Mediterranean area, Asia Minor, and Iran, the saffron crocus has long been cultivated in Iran and Kashmir and is supposed to have been introduced into Cathay by the Mongol invasion. It is mentioned in the Chinese materia medica (Pun tsaou, 1552–78). In early times, however, the chief seat of cultivation was in Cilicia, in Asia Minor. It was cultivated by the Arabs in Spain about 961 and is mentioned in an English leechbook, or healing manual, of the 10th century but may have disappeared from western Europe until reintroduced by the crusaders. During various periods, saffron has been worth much more than its weight in gold; it is still the most expensive spice in the world.
Saffron is cultivated chiefly in Spain, France, Sicily, Italy (on the lower spurs of the Apennines Range), and in Iran, and Kashmir. The three stigmas are handpicked from each flower, spread on trays, and dried over charcoal fires for use as a food flavouring and colouring. A pound (0.45 kilogram) of saffron represents 75,000 blossoms. Saffron contains 0.5 to 1 percent essential oil, the principal component of which is picrocrocin. The colouring matter is crocin.