Saffron is a herbal preparation harvested from the stigma of the Crocus sativus flower. It is dark orange and threadlike in appearance, with a spicy flavor and pungent odor. The plant is grown in India, Spain, France, Italy, the Middle East, and the eastern Mediterranean region.
In addition to its culinary uses, saffron is prescribed as a herbal remedy to stimulate the digestive system, ease colic and stomach discomfort, and minimize gas. It is also used as an emmenagogue, to stimulate and promote menstrual flow in women.
Preliminary studies have shown that saffron may also be a useful tool in fighting cancer. According to a 1999 study, use of the herb slowed tumor growth and extended lifespan in female rats. A 2002 study done at Indiana University indicates that saffron may not only be effective in treating certain types of cancer, but significantly less likely to cause birth defects if given to pregnant women than all-trans-retinoic acid (ATRA), the compound most often given to treat these cancers. Saffron may thus be a preferable alternative to treating ATRA-sensitive cancers in women of childbearing age.
Additional human studies have indicated that saffron has powerful antioxidant properties; that is, it helps to protect living tissues from free radicals and other harmful effects of oxidation.
Two chemical components of saffron extract, crocetin and crocin, reportedly improved memory and learning skills in learning-impaired rats in a Japanese study published in early 2000. These properties indicate that saffron extract may be a useful treatment for neurodegenerative disorders and related memory impairment.
Paula Ford-Martin, Rebecca J. Frey PhD, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,