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The crocus — reasons to be cheerful

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Crocus sativus

As we move towards springtime, green shoots of crocus plants are beginning to appear, ready to burst into bloom in a variety of colours.

The crocus was first brought to England in the late 16th century by Jean Robin, curator of the Jardin du Roi in Paris.

The popular garden varieties exist as many different species and hybrids and are native to a large area of Central and Southern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia.

Although thought of as spring flowering plants, the huge number of varieties can, with careful selection, provide colour for most of the year.

Saffron is produced from the tiny, dried stigma of the lily-like blossom of Crocus sativus. It has been used, cultivated, and of great economic importance as a spice for more than 3, 500 years.

It was first cultivated in Ancient Greece, but the major producer in modern times is Iran, which supplies almost 90 per cent of the world’s saffron.

Its use as a culinary spice is well known, and it was added to teas and wine by the Greeks and Romans. Alexander the Great added it to his bath water to ease his wounds, and the Romans used it similarly for its fragrant effect.

Saffron has had several uses as a dye. Ladies of the court of Henry VIII used it to tint their hair, and in the fifth century BC it became the official colour of Buddhist robes.

Although once considered a remedy for digestive problems, saffron is no longer used medicinally in the West. In Asian medicine and in particular Persian traditional medicine, it is used to treat menstrual disorders, difficult labour, inflammation, vomiting and throat diseases.

Saffron has also long been used to treat depression, and a recent trial by scientists from Tehran University confirmed this, concluding that it was of similar effectiveness to imipramine in treating mild to moderate depression over a six-week period, with saffron having the advantage of lacking the anticholinergic side effects common with imipramine.

Studies in mice suggest that two active ingredients are responsible — crocin, which inhibits dopamine and norepinephrine uptake, and safranal, which has a similar effect on serotonin.

In a troubled region of the world these results could have beneficial social effects as well as medical ones.

Efforts are being made, particularly in areas of Afghanistan, to persuade farmers to grow crops other than opium poppies, which are having devastating effects on countries in the region, and it is hoped that incentives for growing C sativus may tempt some farmers away from this trade.

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From: Beyond pharmacy blog

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