Name: Safflower (Cathamus tinctorius)
Otherwise known as: Bastard Saffron
Habitat: An annual member of the Asteraceae family growing to about 1m in various types of poor quality soil. It has a stout, upright stem carrying spiny, thistle-like leaves that are topped by bright orange flowers.
What does it do: A native of southern Asia, it is now grown throughout the semi-tropical and mild temperate areas as an oil bearing crop. It is strongly drought resistant, sending down a taproot to a depth of 2m.
Safflower was used by the ancient Egyptians as a dyeing agent for cotton and is mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus as a tonic and stimulant for the blood; apart from this little was known of the medicinal properties of the plant until the 20th century when closer studies of Chinese herbal medicine revealed its value in an extraordinary range of treatments.
Safflower contains triglycerides, linoleic acid, potassium, calcium, zinc, magnesium, iron, sodium, copper and 18 amino acids. The seeds contain 40% polyunsaturated oil. In Ayervedic medicine the plant is used as a treatment for infantile measles, fevers and eruptive skin disorders, such as eczema. However, the Chinese herbals of the middle-ages revealed that safflower oil was used to treat thrombotic conditions, coronary diseases and liver tumours. Later research revealed the plant was potent in the treatment of arteriosclerosis, thrombosis, hypertension, cardiovascular disorders, menstrual problems, male sterility, female infertility (an American study rated safflower the third most potent anti-fertility plant out of 250 plant sources), rheumatism and reducing the pain and swelling associated with trauma. A Japanese study speculates that safflower has a valuable role to play in the field of diabetes.
The edible oil extracted from the plant is used as a light cooking and salad oil and is one of the main ingredients of margarine. It is also used in paint varnishes and cosmetics, particularly lipsticks. It is an adhesive for glass, a constituent of linoleum, and a substitute for Plaster of Paris.
After processing, the remaining husk is turned into a nutritious seed cake for cattle. The flowers have been used for millennia as a substitute for saffron, yielding a bright yellow and pink dye for textiles and food colouring. The ‘saffron’ that one encounters in our street markets is in fact safflower petals.