Gardening: Crocuses, saffron

As a source of livelihood, Resh Lakish raised crocus plants for their yield of saffron, a spice used as a dye, for incense fragrance and to enhance flavor in a variety of foods.

crocus saffron flower 88 (photo credit: )
crocus saffron flower 88
(photo credit: )
In the last few moments of his life, Resh Lakish suddenly grew sad. His gloominess seemed to make no sense. Resh Lakish had been the most diligent scholar the nation of Israel had produced, someone whose profound love for Torah was matched only by the force of the opinions which he fiercely championed, often as a minority of one. Resh Lakish would never discuss a Torah topic until he had reviewed it 40 times, a tribute to Moses who stayed on Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights while receiving the Torah. The Torah prowess of Resh Lakish was especially noteworthy considering his checkered past, which included exploits as a gladiator and circus strong man - hardly the background you would expect for a Torah scholar. More than anyone, Resh Lakish would have been entitled to look back on his life of personal transformation, teshuva and achievement with great satisfaction. Yet at the end, he lacked tranquility. As a source of livelihood, Resh Lakish raised crocus plants for their yield of saffron, a spice used as a dye, for incense fragrance and to enhance flavor in a variety of foods. Preparing to depart from this world, Resh Lakish took note of a small quantity of saffron that he was about to leave, unsold, behind him. This was what brought him to grief. He sighted a passage from Psalm 49 that disparages "those who leave their riches to others" - as if a small quantity of spices constituted riches! - and died. According to the Torah, leaving money or material goods behind, whether to heirs or anyone else, is a mistake for two reasons. First, there are no guarantees as to how your money will be spent. Second, and more important, excess money or other possessions represent time wasted in material pursuits at the expense of Torah learning. The Chofetz Chaim explained that a small quantity of saffron, in the mind of Resh Lakish, truly constituted a large fortune since it represented wasted effort which could have been spent in Torah study, a pastime whose every second is more precious than gold. It should be noted that saffron has long been the world's priciest spice. Today, high quality saffron sells for more than $100 per ounce. The reason for its expense is the intensive labor required in harvesting it. Saffron is taken from the stigmas, or female organs, of a crocus plant native to the Mediterranean. These stigmas are slender, orange-red threads that protrude from the middle of the flower and occur three to a plant. Harvest of the stigmas must be done by hand and performed at dawn. Stigmas spoil when exposed to the heat of the day. It requires 4,500 flowers to produce one ounce of saffron or 75,000 flowers to produce one pound. A peculiarity of the saffron plant (Crocus sativus) is its sterility, or inability to produce seeds. Its sole means of reproduction is by vegetative proliferation of underground corms. Think of a corm as a bulb made of solid tissue. A bulb - an onion, garlic, leek, lily, tulip, daffodil or hyacinth, for example - is composed of concentric layers or groups of scales. Corms - such as crocus, anemone and gladiolus - consist of a single mass of starch. Both bulb and corm plants typically flower and produce seeds above ground, even as they self-propagate themselves below. Yet saffron, the costliest spice, comes from a corm plant species that propagates exclusively in clonal fashion. Therefore, it cannot make seeds, has no mechanism for sexual reproduction or gene exchange and lacks genetic diversity. The Crocus sativus that you plant in your garden today will be genetically identical to the Crocus sativus grown by Resh Lakish nearly two millennia ago. Another peculiarity of the saffron crocus plant is its fall bloom time, which gives rise to its common name of autumn crocus. All other garden crocuses, whose corms may be planted even now, bloom in late winter or early spring. While the autumn crocus appears solely in lilac, other garden crocuses may be seen in white, yellow, gold, orange, blue, violet and purple, whether in solid color or multi-color configurations. Crocuses belong to the iris family, many of whose members are indigenous to the Middle East. Wild irises are found throughout Israel, from the Golan and Galilee to Samaria and the Negev Desert. Most notable, perhaps, is the Yeroham iris (Iris petrana), found in the northern Negev between Dimona and Yeroham, which occurs in over a dozen different colors, including white, yellow, brown and every shade of blue. One type has flowers that are deep, dark purple, if not black, in color. As long as they have well-drained soil, crocuses and irises are care free garden plants. Allow foliage to shrivel in place and avoid summer irrigation.