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There are so many names to refer to wild saffron but there is still the danger of not being able to recognize it and end up using it for cooking. Maybe some of us didn't even know about this plant that looks so much like the one from which we get the precious risotto powder, and not only. So here is some more information to avoid being caught unprepared.
Wild saffron: habitat and plant
Belonging to the family of Iridaceae this plant grows above all in arid meadows and pastures, spontaneously, and we can also find it in the bare grasslands on the hills. It reaches the pre-Alpine area, then does not rise further, and we can see it emerge next to sub-Mediterranean oak groves, vineyards and olive groves, preferably on a limestone ground up to a maximum altitude of 1200 meters.
Can we find wild saffron also in Italy? The answer is yes, in almost the entire national territory except in some regions: Aosta Valley, Friuli Venezia Giulia and Sardinia. Having said that, don't expect to come across plants of this type just around the corner: wild saffron is and remains an uncommon plant, much more so is the Crocus vernus that we will soon learn to distinguish.
If we are stubbornly determined to observe this poisonous plant live, in addition, we can go in search of it on the western side of the peninsula. from Tuscany to the south of the Arno until you get to the Sicily and along the coasts of the lower Adriatic (Gargano) and the Ionian Sea. There is also in the Po Valley, in the province of Brescia and Bergamo while it is really rare to meet it in Liguria and Piedmont, too far north.
The flower of the wild saffron
The flower that emerges from this plant does so in the winter period, from the month of December, so when it is really cold, up to the maximum in April, it does not go further. But let's get to know first of all the plant that we have not yet described. We are facing one perennial bulbous herbaceous which never reaches heights exceeding 20 centimeters but neither drops below 10. Usually two or three sheathing spathe sprout from the bulb, the leaves of the upper part are instead linear and have a white central stripe, they can be from 3 to 7 and are usually about twenty centimeters long but really narrow, a couple of millimeters.
The colors of this plant are quite classic, the leaves are dark green while the flowers can take on shades of light purple with shades also from white to yellowish. They pop up in a number that can range from 1 to 5 if you're lucky. They consist of a perigonial tube 9 to 15 centimeters long with elliptical laciniae that have tints tending to light purple on the outside while they are darker inside, but with touches of white - yellowish. Outside the laciniae there are also 3 - 5 longitudinal dark purple striae while the fauce is yellow and has hairy filaments.
Wild saffron: because it is poisonous
Wild saffron is a classic example of how knowing how to recognize plants can be really useful even when it seems trivial to do so. Our saffron, also called Colchicus in autumn (Colchicum autumnale L.) is often confused with the exotic plant we extract it from real saffron, edible. If we don't know the difference it's a big mess because what we've talked about so far is a poisonous plant.
You understood well, nature has played a bad joke on us but with a moment of patience, in the next paragraph, we will learn not to be fooled.
Whoever confused the wild from the wild saffron is himself poisoned, in fact, nothing useful can be obtained from our flower for cooking the classic Milanese risotto and unfortunately there are still some who get confused. Colchicum is a poisonous plant because it contains the colchicine, a highly toxic alkaloid capable of blocking cell division.
How to recognize wild saffron
The time has come to learn how distinguish the two "saffron". The reason why we get confused is above all the color of the flowers because those of both have shades of purplish pink and have similar shapes. Similar but not the same in the eyes of a good observer.
The saffron flower has three stamens, while the autumn colchicum can have even more, in addition there is also a seasonal theme because the two flowers sprout in different periods, and also geographic because in Italy and in Europe in general it is really difficult to find real saffron which is a species originally from Asia Minor and with us it is present only because it is cultivated.
To complicate things we must also take into account the presence of two other similar species, the Crocus weldeni Backer (Welden's saffron) and the Crocus reticulatis Steven (Trieste saffron). The first is widespread in the Karst area near Trieste, has no yellow spots at the base of the tepals and produces smaller flowers. Triestine saffron is always in the same area, but also in Abruzzo and Lazio and always has single-flowered leaves, leaves not exceeding the flowers and conspicuously reticulated bulb tunics.
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