Bloomin’ marvellous: volunteers wanted for saffron harvest

Croydon is about to have its first mass harvest of saffron since Roman times, and you could play a part.

Saffron on a plate

Saffron on a plate: some of the first strands of Croydon’s crop

The spice that’s worth more than its weight in gold is gathered from crocus flowers, and across the borough, in particular at Saffron Central on the building site where Taberner House once stood, tens of thousands of Crocus Sativus are coming into bloom.

In barely three months, a community-funded, community-planted pop-up saffron farm has… well, blossomed. And the time has arrived when volunteers are being urged to sign up to help harvest the crop.

Some of the 20,000 corms which were bought with the £4,000 crowd-funded capital have been distributed around the borough’s 24 wards. But the majority of the crop was planted up by around 150 volunteers at the Taberner House site next to Queen’s Gardens in the town centre just a few weeks ago. This coming Halloween weekend will be the first when the project organisers need many hands to make light work of the saffron-gathering.

“It’s very hard to give an exact date when the bulk will be in bloom but October 31 and November 1 seems to be a decent weekend to target,” said Ally McKinlay, the project’s creator.

Crocus in bloom: the time has come to harvest the saffron

Crocus in bloom: the time has come to harvest the saffron

“Ideally the Saffron needs to be extracted when it first presents itself. The chances of 20,000 appearing on the same weekend are zero, so I’m trying to get in every day and pick what I can. If the Halloween weekend doesn’t suit people I am available from 1pm to 2pm on most weekdays.”

Due to the compact nature of the site and peripheral hazards of the demolished area, it is essential that any volunteers are 100 per cent physically fit and able. There is a strict induction and code of conduct for anyone entering Croydon Saffron Central with a limit of 12 people at any one time.

“Extracting the stigmas is fiddly, requiring squatting, kneeling and a very steady hand. I don’t want to stop anyone coming in but they must be in control at all times. I don’t want any injuries over a few Saffron strands.”

Volunteers of all ages played a part in the crocus planting. Help is now needed for harvesting. Photography by Lee Townsend

Volunteers of all ages played a part in the crocus planting in September. Help is now needed for harvesting. Photograph by Lee Townsend

Viewing windows looking into the site are available from Queen’s Gardens, which give a great feel for what the farm is all about.

When the saffron has all been extracted and the crocus petals wilt away, the 20,000 plants will be divided among the 24 wards create their own saffron farms for future years.

“We’re looking for Community Gardens, Friends of Parks, Schools or publicly accessible organisations to care for their future. If looked after, the corms will produce more corms and the 20,000 could be more than 100,000 within three to five years,” McKinlay said.

  • If you’re interested in harvesting the saffron or receiving plants in a Croydon ward, please contact Ally McKinlay at ally_mac22@hotmail.com. There is a Facebook page “Croydon Saffron Central” for regular updates
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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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