The stigmas of Crocus sativus, Linné"—(U. S. P.).
ILLUSTRATION: Bentley and Trimen, Med. Plants, 274.
Botanical Source.—Saffron is a perennial herb, with a roundish cormus; the integuments consisting of parallel fibers, distinct at the upper end. The leaves are radical, very narrow, linear, long, flaccid, revolute at the margin, with a longitudinal, white furrow above, and surrounded at the base with long membranous sheaths. The flowers are large, axillary, nearly or quite sessile on the bulb, with a 2-valved membranous, thin, transparent, radical spathe, appearing with the leaves, striate, with a long white tube, and purple, elliptical segments. The style is filiform, with 3 stigmas deeply divided, linear wedge-shaped, and of a deep-orange color, hanging down on one side of the flower, fragrant, and notched at the points. The capsule is 3-celled, and many-seeded; the roundish (L.—W.).
History.—Saffron is indigenous to Asia Minor, and is much cultivated in some parts of Europe. The greater portion in this country is shipped from Spain and France. The former country sends Spanish Alicante, or Valencia saffron, which is admixed, to some extent, with other varieties. The latter are considered objectionable by the U. S. P. France sends Gâtinais, or French saffron, which is a better grade than the Spanish. English and Austrian saffron are both of very fine quality, but do not reach our markets. Saffron is also cultivated in the United States, notably in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvanian product, which is of first quality, is often termed American saffron, a term which should not be confounded with that of the florets of another plant—the Carthamus tinctorius—which is the true American saffron. The so-called African saffron is usually Carthamus florets, though the flowers of a south African plant (Lyperia crocea, Ecklon), of the natural order Scrophulariaceae, have passed under that name. Saffron requires a rich soil, and the yield per acre is said to be about 35 pounds. Saffron blossoms in autumn, the flowers are in abundance, and mantle the fields with a flax-gray covering. Each flower has one style, on the summit of which are the smooth, shining, dark, orange-red stigmas. The flowers are gathered early in the morning, just before they open; the stigmas are picked out, very carefully dried by the heat of a stove, and sometimes compressed into firm cakes. Five pounds of fresh saffron are required to yield one pound of dry (Ed.). The other parts of the flower are useless; of the stigmas it takes 70,000 to make one pound of saffron (P. L. Simmonds, Amer. Jour. Pharm., 1891, p. 200). Saffron of commerce was formerly of two kinds, viz.: The Hay saffron, which is the best, and at present alone in use, consisting simply of the stigmata entangled together, and retaining their original deep-orange color; and the Cake saffron, which is in flexible cakes, about half a line in thickness, and of a dirty, brownish, orange tint, made by beating the stigmata together before they are quite dry.
Description.—The U. S. P. thus describes saffron: "Separate stigmas, or three, attached to the top of the style, about 3 Cm. (1 1/5 inch) long, flattish-tubular; almost thread-like, broader and notched above; orange-brown; odor strong, peculiar, aromatic; taste bitterish and aromatic"—(U. S. P.). Saffron imparts its properties to water, vinegar, or spirit. The best saffron is that which is recent, being very slightly damp, not readily reduced to powder, of a strong, acrid, diffusive odor, but free from any disagreeable smell when burned; it, imparts a soapy-like touch between the fingers, coloring them orange. On account of the great volatility of the aromatic part of the saffron, it should be wrapped in bladder, and preserved in a box, or tin case (Ed.).
Chemical Composition.—The yellow aqueous-alcoholic extractive matter obtained in the early analyses of saffron by Vogel, Bouillon-Lagrange (1811), and Aschoff (1818), was called polychroit, on account of its property of changing color when acted upon by certain reagents. It was first obtained pure by Quadrat, in 1851, and named crocin by Rochleder and Mayer, in 1862, who found it identical with the yellow coloring matter of Gardenia grandiflora, Loureiro, and established its glucosidal nature. When heated with acids, it splits into sugar and crocetin which Weiss (1868) proposed to call crocin, and retain the older name (polychroit) for the mother-substance.
R. Kayser (Amer. Jour. Pharm., 1885) obtained crocin by first depriving saffron of its fatty matter by means of ether, extracting the coloring matter with cold water, and removing it from its aqueous solution by shaking with bone-charcoal, washing with cold water, evaporating to dryness, and extracting the coloring matter with 90 per cent alcohol, which upon evaporation left crocin, as a brittle residue. It is soluble in water and dilute alcohol, less soluble in absolute alcohol, almost insoluble in ether. Its formula is C44H70O28. In strong sulphuric acid it dissolves with blue color, which first turns to violet, then cherry-red, and subsequently to brown. Heated with weak bases (e.g., baryta water), it is converted into crocetin (C34H46O9), insoluble in pure water, soluble in alcohol and alkaline liquids, and a peculiar sugar not quite identical with dextrose, hence called crocose.
Picro-crocin, or Saffron-bitter (C38H66O17), Kayser observed to crystallize from ethereal extracts of saffron in colorless prismatic needles, melting at 75° C. (167° F.), and having a bitter, persistent taste. Soluble in water and alcohol, sparingly soluble in ether. It is a glucosid which, when acted upon by weak bases, resolves into crocose and a volatile oil (terpene, C10H16), which has the characteristic and intense odor of saffron. The same oil was prepared by R. Kayser by distilling saffron with steam in a current of carbonic acid gas.
Adulterations and Tests.—Muscular fibers are said to have been used as an adulterant. They may be known by the odor of burning flesh, emitted on burning the suspected article. Rubbing between the finger and thumb, without staining the skin yellow, indicates that the saffron has been exhausted by water or spirit. According to J. Müller, genuine saffron immediately assumes an indigo-blue color, when acted upon by chemically pure sulphuric acid, while the adulterations remain unchanged (Chem. Gaz., May 1845, p. 197).
Saffron has ever been liable to various forms of adulteration, and the practice does not seem to have abated. It is frequently substituted in part, or entirely replaced by the florets of Carthamus tinctorius; yet substitution in this case may rather be due to ignorance, owing to the misleading name American saffron, affixed to this plant. Other substitutes are the worthless yellow styles of its flowers, or the florets of Calendula officinalis, the flowers of Arnica montana, the petals of red poppy, especially cut into shape for this purpose (C. Bernbeck, 1882), etc. Saffron is sometimes weighted by the addition of oil, or glycerin, or water, the gain from the latter source often being attained by storing the drug in damp places. Thus Dr. Niederstadt, in 1887, observed in "good" Spanish saffron 20 per cent of moisture, while genuine saffron contains from 10 to 12 per cent (Caesar and Loretz, 1891). Sand and other mineral matters, as calcium sulphate, barium sulphate, or soluble salts, as sodium sulphate (Beringer, Amer. Jour. Pharm., 1889) have been used as adulterants of saffron, and are admixed by means of honey or syrup. These additions (if they do not consist of ammonium salts) naturally increase the amount of ash, which should be about 5 per cent in good saffron. Adulteration of saffron with barium sulphate has been detected by Morpurgo (Drug. Circ., 1897, p. 129), microscopical examination having revealed abnormal crystals within the cells. Closer examination showed that the drug had been soaked in solution of a barium salt and then treated with solution of a soluble sulphate. In a similar sophistication with barium sulphate, the ash amounted to 60 per cent (Vierteljahreschrift von Hilger, etc., 1896). The addition of sugar, according to Dr. Niederstadt, is difficult to detect, since sugar is a natural constituent of saffron, amounting to 15 per cent. Another adulteration often reported, is the admixture of a large proportion of shredded fibers of sedge grass, tinged with safranin (a coal-tar color), or with some nitrophenol compound (related to picric acid). Saffron may also be exhausted of its color and then dyed with yellow aniline or other yellow.
The U. S. P. provides the following tests for saffron: Saffron should not include the yellow styles. When pressed between filtering paper, it should not leave an oily stain. When chewed it tinges the saliva deep orange-yellow. When soaked in water, it should not deposit any pulverulent, mineral matter, nor show the presence of organic substances differing in shape from that described. On agitating 1 part of saffron with 100,000 parts of water, the liquid will acquire a distinct yellow color. No color is imparted to benzin agitated with saffron (absence of picric acid and some other coal-tar colors). On drying saffron at 100° C. (212° F.), it should not lose more than 14 per cent of its weight (absence of added water). When thus dried, and ignited with the free access of air, 100 parts of the dry saffron should not leave more than 7.5 per cent of ash (absence of foreign inorganic substances).
Action, Medical Uses, and Dosage.—Emmenagogue and diaphoretic. It has been reputed of benefit in amenorrhoea, dysmenorrhoea, chlorosis, hysteria, and in suppression of the lochial discharge. It arrests chronic discharges of blood from the uterus. In menorrhagia, with dark clotted losses, give 6 drops of specific crocus, or a teaspoonful of the infusion several times a day. Saffron is not the important drug it was at one time. Like many of the old remedial agents, it is being supplanted by others that serve better the purpose. As a diaphoretic, it is used in febrile and exanthematous diseases, especially of children. In the latter it assists in producing the eruption, and is valuable in cases of retrocession of the same. Many consider this valuable agent as inert. Dose of the powder, from 12 to 40 grains; of the tincture or syrup, from 1 to 2 fluid drachms; of the infusion (saffron, ℨj; hot water, Oj.), from 1 to 3 fluid ounces. Saffron is recommended for coloring tinctures, etc., but it is too costly an article for this purpose.
Related Species.—Gardenia grandiflora, Loureiro; Gardenia radicans, Thunberg; Gardenia florida, Linné. Nat. Ord.—Rubiaceae. Europe and south Asia. The berries of these shrubs are used as a refrigerant and demulcent. The fruit pulp contains a coloring material identical with polychroit, and has been used in the Orient to impart a yellow color to fabrics.
King's American Dispensatory, 1898, was written by Harvey Wickes Felter, M.D., and John Uri Lloyd, Phr. M., Ph. D.