(כִּרכֹּ ם, karkom', Sept. κρόκος) occurs only once in the O.T., viz. in Song 4:14, where it is mentioned along with several fragrant and stimulant substances, such as spikenard, calamus, and cinnamon, trees of frankincense, myrrh, and aloes (ahalim): we may therefore suppose that it was some substance possessed of similar properties. The name, however, is so similar to the Persian karkam (see Castelli, Lex. Hept. Col. 1808) and the Greek κρόκος that we have no difficulty in tracing the Hebrew karkon to the modern crocus or saffron. It is also probable that all three names had one common origin, saffron having from the earliest times been cultivated in Asiatic countries, as it still is in Persia and Cashmere (comp. Theophr. Plant. 6, 6; Pliny, 21, 17), and especially in ancient Cilicia (Strabo, 14, 6, 71; Dioscor. 1, 25). Crocus is mentioned by Hippocrates and Theophrastus. Dioscorides describes the different kinds of it, and Pliny states that the benches of the public theatres were strewn with saffron; indeed, "the ancients frequently made use of this flower in perfumes. Not only saloons, theatres, and places which were to be filled with a pleasant fragrance were strewn with this substance, but all sorts of vinous tinctures retaining the scent were made of it, and this costly perfume was poured into small fountains, which diffused the odor which was so highly esteemed. Even fruit and confitures placed before guests, and the ornaments of the rooms, were spread over with it. It was used for the same purposes as the modern potpourri" (Rosenmiller, Bibl. Bot. p. 138). In the present day a very high price is given in India for saffron imported from Cashmere; native dishes are often colored and flavored with it, and it is in high esteem as a stimulant medicine. The common name, saffron, is no doubt derived from the Arabic zafran. as are the corresponding terms in most of the languages of Europe. To this it may be added that it was a favorite pigment or dye. "Saffron-vested" (κρόκοπεπλος) is a Homeric epithet for aurora or morning, and the crocota was a robe of delicate texture and bright-yellow color, occasionally worn by actors and Roman ladies. Its beauty in the landscape is referred to by Homer (Iliad, 14, 399), Virgil (Georg. 4, 182), and Milton (Par. Lost, 4, 700). Nothing, therefore, was more likely than that saffron should be associated with the foregoing fragrant substances in the passage of Canticles, as it still continues to be esteemed by Asiatic nations, and, as we have seen, to be cultivated by them. Hasselquist also (Trav. p. 36), in reference to this Biblical plant, describes the ground between Smyrna and Magnesia as in some places covered with saffron; and Rauwolf mentions gardens and fields of crocus in the neighborhood of Aleppo, and particularizes a fragrant variety in Syria. Kitto (Phys. Hist. of Palest. p. 321) says that the safflower (Carthamus tinctorius), a very different plant from the crocus, is cultivated in Syria for the sake of the flowers which are used in dyeing; but the karkam, no doubt, denotes the Crocus sativus.
Saffron belongs to the flag or iris order (Iridaceoe). The different members of the crocus family are great favorites: the purple and golden varieties (Crocus vernus, Willd., and C. aureus, Sin.), which, on English flower borders, are the first to follow the snowdrop, and often fill with a flush of coming spring the earliest days of March; and the lonely, fragile sort (C. nudiforus, Sm.), which, with its own leaves still underground, comes up amid the drifting foliage of autumn, making a mournful effort to cheer the last days of October. These, and other species now naturalized in various localities, are regarded by some as only varieties of the C. sativus of Linnaeus, the true or saffron-yielding crocus — a plant of plentiful occurrence in Greece and Asia Minor. The name saffron, as usually applied, does not denote the whole plant, nor even the whole flower, of Crocus sativus, but only the stigmas, with part of the style, which, being plucked out, are carefully dried. (Comp. Halle Encykl. 1, § 20, 165 sq., and plates in Plenck, Icones Plantar. Med. 1, plate 32.) These, when prepared, are dry, narrow, thread-like, and twisted together, of an orangeyellow color, having a peculiar aromatic and penetrating odor, with a bitterish and somewhat aromatic taste, tinging the mouth and saliva of a yellow color. Sometimes the stigmas are prepared by being submitted to pressure, and thus made into what is called cake saffron, a form in which it is still imported from Persia into India. Hay saffron is obtained chiefly from France and Spain, though it is also sometimes prepared from the native crocus cultivated for this purpose. Saffron was formerly highly esteemed as a stimulant medicine, and still enjoys high repute in Eastern countries both as a medicine and as a condiment. See, further, Beckmann; Geschichte der Erfind. 2, 79 sq.; Celsius, Hierobot. 2, 11 sq.; Bod. a Stapel. Comment. in Theophr. p. 663 sq.; Hertodt, Crocologia (Jen. 1670); Tristram, Nat. Hist. of the Bible, p. 496.