Safflower: A 4,000 Year-Old Spice

Historians are not certain about the origin of safflower, but many believe it to have originated in one of three locations: India, Central Asia or Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea).

There are mentions of safflower going back almost 4,000 years. Cultivation of safflower is thought to have started in the Fertile Crescent. Safflower was found in the tomb of Amenophis I, which dates back to 1600 BC and it was referred to in manuscripts of Ptolemy II from 260 BC.

The dye from safflower was exported to France, Italy, and England to color cheeses and sausages in the 18th century.

Today, the seeds are the part of the plant most commonly used. Most safflower is cultivated for oil, which is extracted from the seeds. The seeds are also used as bird feed. Most recently, safflower has become popular as a nutritional supplement.

Most of the world’s safflower supply comes from India.

Safflower flavor profile

Safflower has a rich sweet aroma that can hold up to cooking. Its flavor is mild and has been described as having notes in common with the flavors of chocolate and tobacco. Because of safflower’s mildness, you will have to use a lot if you want to enjoy its flavor. Many cooks consider the flavor of safflower oil to be neutral, which means that it is ideal for someone who does not like the flavor of stronger tasting oils like olive oil.

Health benefits of safflower

The petals of the safflower plant contain a range of nutrients like:

  • Phytochemicals: Safflower contains limonene, which is a powerful antioxidant that can help to prevent cancer. It may even be able to help you to manage your weight.
  • Minerals: Safflower contains iron, manganese, and magnesium. Iron is important for red blood cell production while manganese helps to build healthy bones. Magnesium helps with a large number of the body’s enzymatic reactions.
  • Vitamin B-3: Also known as niacin, vitamin B-3 can help with cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. It boosts good cholesterol levels while lowering the levels of bad cholesterol.

Safflower has been used to treat a range of conditions including:

  • Abdominal cramping: Practitioners of Chinese herbal medicine use it to encourage menstruation and for easing abdominal pain.
  • Fevers: Herbalists in the US use safflower as a treatment for fevers.
  • Skin diseases: Safflower is considered by some to be an effective treatment for measles along with rashes and other skin problems.

Common uses of safflower

Safflower has a reputation as the poor man’s saffron. Because the dried petals do bear some similarity to saffron, it is sometimes called “false saffron” or “bastard saffron.” Even so, safflower plays a major role in many cuisines around the world. For example, it is used the Azerbaijani lamb and chickpea stew called “piti.”

In Syrian cooking, it is a favored ingredient and is used for cooking vegetables as well as omelets. It can also make Spanish paella a far less costly dish to make since it is not as expensive as saffron. Safflower is also used to provide the yellow color to margarine.