Red Gold sparks hope
It has a history stretching back millenniums. Emperors have patronised it, poets have romanticised it, monks have used its colour in their robes and worshippers have adored it. Popularly known as "Red Gold", the crimson hued saffron has been used for culinary, medicinal and aesthetic purposes.
Poet Jibanananda Das had compared the stunning colour of saffron with the setting sun of an autumn evening.
Saffron, one of the most prized and covetable condiments on the planet, had never been a major produce of a warm country like Bangladesh as it is mostly cultivated in cold environment.
But a teacher and researcher of Sher-e-Bangla Agricultural University, Dhaka has created a scope for growing the spice in the country.
AFM Jamal Uddin, a professor of horticulture at the university, has managed to flowering saffron plants in a temperature-controlled room. He successfully collected red coloured stigma from the flowers. This stigma, the distal ends of the plant's carpels, is separated from the petals by hand and dried to make saffron spice.
"Saffron cultivation is expensive in its usual habitat -- an open terrain. And producing it in a temperature controlled room is expected to be even more expensive. But the chances of losing a yield is little in this process. And saffron can be harvested multiple times in a year in this method," Jamal Uddin told The Daily Star.
Considering its huge global demand and high price, he said, saffron can be produced commercially in Bangladesh if appropriate support is provided.
The scientific name of saffron is Crocus Sativus. It's a lily herb belonging to the Iridaceae family. The golden spice, which is called zafran in Urdu, kesar in Hindi, has a worldwide fame as an expensive cooking ingredient widely used in a variety of kitchens, starting from the Mughals and lavish hotels.
It is also one of the most revered ingredient used in beauty care. Its distinctive aroma, flavour and colour are also used in dyes and perfumes.
According to industry insiders, more than 90 percent of saffron used in Bangladesh is imported from Iran and the rest from Kashmir, Spain and Morocco.
The reason it's so expensive is that it needs intensive harvesting of tiny stigmas that are extremely delicate and require hand extraction. Here manual labour plays a bigger role than machines.
A large number of crocus flowers is needed to produce a significant amount of saffron. In the international market, each gram of saffron is sold for about $4, meaning each kilogram of the spice costs over Tk 3 lakh.
Jamal Uddin said the popular method of cultivating saffron in wintry countries is to plant it on open terrains.
However, the same method cannot be adopted in Bangladesh, because heavy rainfall can cause the bulbs to rot easily. Also, due to the humidity factor of the soil, even if the plant grows well, the flowers won't bloom as per expectations, he said.
The researcher brought more than 500 saffron bulbs from Japan last year.
"Initially, those were frozen at a specific temperature in order to get them prepared for sowing. Later, they were sown in trays made of plastic and tin and preserved indoors. Finally, flowers bloomed in almost all the plants," Jamal Uddin said.
"Usually, saffron cultivation requires a vast swathe of land, but we have examined that if we adapt the aeroponics procedure, we can produce enough saffron equivalent to the amount grown on a hector of land in a small room. As the plant trays used in this method are arranged vertically, much less space is required," said the researcher.
Aeroponics is the process of growing plants in an air or mist environment without the use of soil or an aggregate medium.
PRODUCTION OF SAFFRON
Jamal Uddin said each flower usually yields 30 milligrams of saffron, which weighs only around seven milligrams once dried.
Therefore, at least 150 flowers are required to get one gram of saffron and for one kg, 1.50 lakh flowers are required.
Once the bulbs become matured, each plant provides one flower in the first year which rises up to seven or eight in subsequent years.
"In Iran and Kashmir, around two-kg of saffron are being yielded from a hector of land. But it is possible to produce the same amount of saffron in a 100 square feet greenhouse or a temperature-controlled room," said the researcher.
Jamal Uddin said costs and collecting bulbs are the major challenges facing saffron cultivation in Bangladesh.
In order to get one kilogram of saffron, stigmas of around 1.50 lakh flowers are required. For sapling, each bulb costs at least Tk 60, so the cost of 1.50 lakh bulbs would be Tk 9 lakh, he said.
Besides, two air conditioners, lights and a person will be required for monitoring the production round the clock.
He, however, said the cost can be cut by collecting bulbs once and then making seedlings by tissue culture.
"Another benefit of cultivating saffron indoors is that we can get its yield throughout the year," Jamal Uddin said.
He said given the success achieved so far, they can easily go for commercial production if they have a sponsorship.
DEMAND IN BANGLADESH
There is no available data on the amount of saffron being imported to Bangladesh and how many people consume it.
Enayet Ullah, chairman of Wholesale Spice Traders Association, said because of its high price, the number of saffron consumers in Bangladesh is very low.
The import is also less for the same reason, he told this newspaper.
The quality of saffron imported is not high, he said, adding that some people sell the spice by mixing it with lower quality of saffron.