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US (VT): Researchers grow saffron with help from Iran

Saffron, grown for centuries for its aromatic, culinary and healing properties, is literally more valuable than gold; made from the crocuses' stigmas, the spice can fetch as much as $5,000 per pound. Recent medical research suggests that saffron's therapeutic and medicinal applications may include lowering blood cholesterol levels, preventing convulsions, fighting cancer and combating depression.

To that last point, saffron could someday help mitigate the midwinter blues of Vermont's farmers in more ways than one. Over the past year, researchers in the University of Vermont Department of Plant and Soil Science have concluded that high-quality saffron can be grown in Vermont even during cold months, when farmers lack options for lucrative cash crops.

It took an agricultural researcher from the world's largest saffron-producing region — northeastern Iran — to recognize the spice crop's potential in Vermont. Three years ago, Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani was visiting his wife, Agrin Davari, who's an entomological researcher at UVM. During his visit, Ghalehgolabbehbahani, who completed his doctoral thesis in Iran on an unrelated subject and is now a postdoctoral researcher at UVM, asked research professor Margaret Skinner a simple question: "Why doesn't anyone grow saffron in Vermont?"

As Skinner recalls, her answer seemed like a no-brainer at the time: "Because it's too darned cold!" she told him.

Indeed, Khorasan, the Iranian province that produces 90 percent of the world's saffron, couldn't be more different from the Green Mountain State. It has a semiarid climate, and the temperature rarely drops as low as it does in Vermont.

But Ghalehgolabbehbahani suspected the flower could still survive here. He knew that the saffron crocus is a hearty plant — cold-resistant down to minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit — and relatively easy to cultivate. Even in Iran, it's harvested in the fall and winter.

Read more at Seven Days
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