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Focus on the Crocus

A crocus showing stigma.

Focus on the Crocus

Leicester's internationally acclaimed genetics research involved in European project into saffron production

Issued on 04 March 2010

In our gardens and parks the first signs of spring colour are about to burst on the scene as the varied colours of crocus begin to unfurl.

As March progresses they will come to their peak – weather permitting – as visitors to the University of Leicester Botanic Garden in Glebe Road, Oadby can see at the Garden’s ‘Crocus Sunday’ on 7th March.

The profusion of crocuses at the Botanic Garden includes 20 different species, some in solitary splendour in pots, many in breath-taking drifts across flower beds and lawns.

However, public interest in crocuses ranges beyond their vibrant spring colour, however uplifting, as Professor Pat Heslop-Harrison of the University’s Department of Biology found out when he took part in a meeting of the European Commission’s Crocusbank Project recently in Albacete in Spain, generating (in his words) ‘an extraordinary amount of Spanish press coverage’.

The Crocusbank project centres round saffron as a spice and is supported by the EU Agricultural Directorate. Its aim is to improve saffron production, a crop which is grown in many of the poorer parts of Europe and is both sustainable and of very high value. The condiment is valued for its unique aroma, flavour and colour in celebrated dishes from round the world.

Professor Heslop-Harrison explained: “Saffron is all hand-harvested, hand processed and dried in different ways, which is why saffron from the major growing areas of Spain, Italy, Greece, Iran or Kashmir all have different qualities and characteristics.

“What we‘ve been looking at is the genetic diversity within the different types of saffron that are grown and we have found that many of the clones grown worldwide are genetically identical. It’s only the processing that makes the product different.

“However, it looks as though there are a few varieties that have different genetic makeup from the others and we’re now focusing on finding out what they are, their special characteristics, and why they’ve dropped out of production in many of the world’s saffron producing areas.”

An area of research where Leicester’s world-renowned expertise in genetics is leading the way is in the attempt to re-make saffron from its ‘ancestors’, the two original wild strains which were used to produce the sterile hybrids that are around today.

“We know one of the ancestors but the other hasn’t yet been traced. With modern molecular biological methods, especially those developed at Leicester following the genetic fingerprinting discovery of Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, we are now able to suggest which wild species were involved in making this hybrid,” said Professor Heslop-Harrison.

“Many hundreds of generations ago two plants were crossed to produce varieties like saffron or Dutch Yellow crocuses. We found the parents of the Dutch Yellow a few years ago and proved it was of garden origin because it came from two species that don’t occur together in the wild.

“In the case of the saffron that we eat, it looks as though its ancestors did occur together and it was just a spontaneous and very vigorous plant which early farmers found and decided to grow.”

The Crocusbank project is now trying to find out more detail about the origins of saffron plants, with the hope of remaking new varieties of saffron by new crosses between wild plants. The project also aims to produce a gene bank to reflect the diversity of the plant, so that special and unique genetic characters will never be lost, whether from farmers changing the plants they grow or natural disasters.

Turning his attention back to the splendour of the University’s Botanic Garden display of crocuses, Professor Heslop-Harrison added: “The ornamental crocus plants are also important in horticulture and make our lives very pleasant. We are looking at new hybrids that are vigorous and have many flowers, without being as hard to grow as wild species.”

Director of the Botanic Garden, Dr Richard Gornall, added: “The display of Crocus tomasinianus at the Botanic Garden is an especially beautiful sight – thousands of lilac-coloured flowers nestling under the Japanese Maples – well worth a look! It illustrates nicely the role that Botanic Gardens play in both research and conservation”.

CROCUS SUNDAY at the University of Leicester Botanic Garden, Glebe Road, Oadby takes place on Sunday 7th March 2010 between11am-4pm. Donations will be in aid of LOROS & Rainbows.

The Crocusbank project is led by Professor Jose Antonio Fernandez Perez and supported by the European Commission, Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development.

Crocus vernus flowering in Italy. Crocus flowering under Japanese maple in the Botanic Gardens, University of Leicester.

Crocus flowering in the Botanic Gardens, University of Leicester. Richard Gornall (centre) and Pat Heslop-Harrison (right) discussing crocus origins With David Watkin (left, Chair of the Friends of the Botanic Garden).

Notes to Editors: For more information on Crocus research, please contact Professor Pat Heslop-Harrison, Department of Biology, University of Leicester, E-mail: phh4@le.ac.uk, phone: +44/0 116 252 5079 / 3381. For Crocus Sunday and the Botanic Garden, please contact Professor Richard Gornall E-mail: rjg@le.ac.uk, phone +44/0 116-271-2933 (garden) and +44/0 116-252-3394 (university).

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