The world’s most expensive spice is now being grown on San Juan Island. Saffron, traded and used for over four millennia, now makes its appearance in the Mossy Knoll Garden on Bailer Hill Road.
Though associated with climates of hot, dry summers and breezes over semi-arid lands (90% of the world production of saffron comes from Iran), the plants can actually survive cold winters with temperatures as low as 41°F and brief periods of snow cover – as discovered by Frank and Vicky Giannangelo, owners of Mossy Knoll Garden.
The two avid organic gardeners established their beds just last year, and already have their first crop. Vicki explains how each flower has only 3 stigmas, which must be hand- picked at just the right moment. The flowers bloom in fall, when it can get pretty wet here. If moisture reaches the stigmas, they will lose color and flavor, so the blooms are carefully checked daily to pluck at the perfect moment, when the flower is just open enough. Their meticulous care in picking and drying the stigmas results in beautiful, long, dark red threads of saffron, the aromatic, sweet hay-like flavoring that gives the brilliant yellow coloring to Indian, Persian, European, Arab and Turkish cuisines. Though the crop was small this year, each bulb will eventually divide into 10, so we can expect much more of this beautiful seasoning.
The Giannangelos farmed 30 acres on the island for 20 years starting in 1973; like so many, they became burnt out on all the hard work, and ended up in New Mexico, teaching organic gardening (mulch is the key there!) When their well dried up and three more drilling efforts failed to produce water, they were forced to sell their land. Where else to go but back to beautiful San Juan Island?
They landed here last year on property they had purchased – sight unseen – and have established natty gardens as beautiful to the eye as the surrounding natural landscape. This is no ordinary garden. The red and green chards are remarkably shiny and crisp; asparagus pokes up tall and stately; artichoke plants promise big globes (Frank’s tip for selecting artichokes: choose those that are opened, not closed; they open when the heart swells, so you’ll have more of that tender center once the leaves have spread.) The garlic plants are a Japanese variety which produces 6 huge cloves per head. Run your hands over the low-lying tufts of Corsican mint then smell your hands – it’s like a natural sinus opener. Orderly vines of long tayberries and thorn-less blackberries march up the fencing. By the way, the thorn-less blackberries are a result of cross-breeding, not genetic modification.
There is not a weed in sight, and each bed is covered in a layer of symmetrically shredded alfalfa, which acts as mulch to conserve moisture in summer, and an insulator to preserve heat in winter. It also makes the weeds easier to pull up – and worms like it, which makes it good for the soil. One of the garden areas is arranged like a labyrinth, nice to walk for those contemplative moments. In the works is a “zen garden,” complete with water trickling into a natural pond of giant gold fish – or it will be, once it’s done.
The enthusiastic Mossy Knoll Garden tenders bring vegetables, culinary herbs, and flowers direct to Coho Restaurant, but the public can buy too. Stop by their Bailer Hill locale just east of Wold; they’ll pick everything for you fresh to order. You can follow them on Facebook, and can reach them through their website, www.avant-gardening.com. But best of all is the organic gardening advice and inspiration you’ll walk away when you visit.