The history of saffron is not quite certain. Many people believe that the crocus Sativus is a mutation of the crocus Cartwrightianus, a wild species what is native to Greece, and was selected and domesticated in Crete during the Late Bronze Age. The Ancient Greeks used saffron because of the aromatic qualities and because of its coloring property. Most of the population of the Ancient Greece had black hair and because, undoubtedly, their favorite color was blond, they used yellow dyes to color their hair. They used a mix of saffron flowers and potassium water. In Greece there have also been found frescoes on which the saffron harvest is shown dated from 1600–1500 BC for example the famous fresco in the Knossos palace on Crete island. Saffron was already known by the ancient Egyptians. Pharaohs used saffron as a taste maker and as an aphrodisiac, they also used it to perfume their baths, houses and temples. In late Hellenistic Egypt, Cleopatra used saffron in her baths so that lovemaking would be more pleasurable.
In ancient Persia the cultivation of saffron was being significantly increased. It was cultivated at Derbena and Isfahan in the 10th century BC. There, Persian saffron threads have been found interwoven into ancient Persian royal carpets and funeral shrouds.
Darius the Great of Persia (500 BC) instructed his governors to ensure that saffron was planted throughout the far northern regions of the Persian Empire (in Caucasia). Because of its value, saffron has always been a symbol of wealth and elegance. The ruling classes of the ancient empires each used it to enhance their food, dye their robes and to perfume their banqueting halls. Saffron was used by ancient Persian worshipers as a ritual offering to their deities and as a medicine. Later, Persian saffron was heavily used by Alexander the Great and his forces during their Asian campaigns. They mixed saffron into teas and dined on saffron rice. Alexander personally used saffron sprinkled in warm bath water because he believed it would heal his many wounds.
At least 500 B.C, saffron had spread from Persia to the east of India. There, following the death of Buddha, it was ordained that the robes of the title class of Buddhist priests would forever be dyed with saffron. By 100 BC, saffron was even being exported from Persia to China, along with cucumber, onions, jasmine and the vine. Rome of course also imported its saffron from Persia. During the fall of the Roman Empire saffron cultivation was introduced in Europe by Moors, first in spain and later in parts of France and southern Italy. During the 14th century the Black Death in Europe the saffron demand skyrocketed. It was coveted by plague victims for medicinal purposes. Because many of the farmers who were capable of growing it also died off the Black Death, saffron was being imported by Venetian and Genoan ships from Mediterranean islands such as Rhodes. One such shipload, worthy €420.000 in today's money, was stolen by a group of nobleman, and the ensuing bout of saffron piracy lead to the 14 week "Saffron War" and the establishment of Basel as a safer saffron production center which also was much closer.
Later the European production and trade centre moved to Nuremberg, where rampant adulteration of saffron lead to the Safranschou code, under which adulterers could be fined, imprisoned or even put to death.
Saffron cultivation was introduced into England in around 1350, the story being that corms were smuggled from the Levant in a special hollow compartment of a pilgrim's staff. The crop seems to have been initially grown in monastic gardens for medicinal use, only being planted in the less kind conditions of open fields many decades later. The light, well-drained, and chalk-based soils and climatic conditions of the north Essex countryside caused that by the sixteenth century, saffron cultivation had centred on Eastern England. The Essex town of Saffron Walden got its name as a saffron growing and trading centre. Its name was originally Cheppinge Walden.
Europeans introduced saffron to the Americas when immigrant members of the Schwenkfelder Church left Europe with a trunk containing its corms. Church members had grown it widely in Europe. By 1730, the Pennsylvania Dutch cultivated saffron throughout eastern Pennsylvania. Spanish colonies in the Caribbean bought large amounts of this new American saffron, and high demand ensured that saffron's list price on the Philadelphia commodities exchange was equal to gold. Trade with the Caribbean later collapsed in the aftermath of the War of 1812, when many saffron-bearing merchant vessels were destroyed.
The word saffron stems from the Latin word safranum via the 13th-century Old French term safran. Safranum in turn derives from Persian زعفران (za'ferân). Some argue that it ultimately came from the Arabic word زَعْفَرَان (za'farān), which itself derives from the adjective أَصْفَر (asfar, "yellow"). However, some etymologists argue that زَعْفَرَان (za'farān) is the arabicized form of the Persian word زرپران (zarparān) — "having golden stigmas". Latin safranum is also the source of the Italian zafferano, Portuguese açafrão and Spanish azafrán etc. Crocum in Latin is a Semitic loan word derived from Aramaic kurkema via Arabic kurkum, and Greek krokos.
In Greek mythology, Smilax was a Nymph who was loved by a mortal named crocus(Krokos). In some versions of the tale they were each other's constant companion while in others Smilax could not decide if she should accept the affection of a mortal or not. No matter the reason the gods were irritated by their behavior transforming Crocus into a splendid purple flower which to this day bears his name while Smilax was transformed in a yew tree.
Because crocus Sativus is a sterile triploid that can only reproduces itself by means of bulbs it is very likely that it is one of the oldest cultivated flower bulb species. It's very interesting knowing that the crocus Sativus bulbs that you can buy today do have the same properties as the bulbs which were cultivated in the ancient Greece.