Spain: Introducing the Crocusbank project


A new European partnership hopes to secure the future of the world's most valuable spice and, with it, its endangered wild relatives.

The Crocusbank project has received funding from the European Commission to "create, characterise, and exploit a germplasm collection (bank) in Crocus species including saffron crocus (Crocus sativus)".

wild crocus growing in spain

Wild crocus in the mountains near Madrid, Spain. © Joaquin Medina

"The collection has two main goals: first, to collect and reproduce saffron bulbs, from all the countries that cultivate saffron, for direct use of this plant material in selection programmes all over the world; and second, to create a collection of saffron allies for conservation, since they are endangered. Crocus species are exploitable sources of resistances and other interesting traits to be transferred to saffron, through appropriate breeding programmes and technological tools."

Saffron thrives in Mediterranean-type climates and has been an important trading crop for thousands of years. Despite being unknown in the wild the long-stigma (sterile) mutant probably emerged in Bronze Age Crete. Its sterility means its genetic variability is low, which is why Crocusbank is such an important piece of work.

Scientists at the University of Leicester in the UK have been tracking down "heirloom" species from its historical growing regions to go in the genebank, while others are tracing the wild ancestors. All of this knowledge should combine to create new disease resistant strains, while helping to preserve the wild ancestors of this globally important crop.

The prices achieved by saffron on the open market are extraordinary, but typically fluctuate around £1,000 per kg.

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