From a flower in Kashmir comes a precious spice

SRINAGAR, India (AP) : Cradled by low mountains and spread across a vast expanse of small, fertile fields, a sea of purple flowers opens in Himalayan Kashmir to produce one of the world’s most precious spices, saffron.

At the end of autumn, families in the Muslim-majority region race against the clock to harvest the saffron crocus flowers, which bloom for only two weeks a year. Men, women and children stoop as they laboriously pick the delicate flowers and place them in wicker baskets.

A Kashmiri farmer plucks crocus flowers, the stigma of which produces saffron, on a farm in Khrew, south of Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)

They next separate the purple petals by hand, and from each flower comes three tiny, delicate stigmas which are then dried in the sun, becoming one the most expensive and sought-after spices.

Across the world, saffron is used in products ranging from food to medicine and cosmetics. A kilogram (2.2 pounds) requires the stigmas of about 150,000 flowers and can easily sell for $3,000-$4,000. 

In Kashmir, the spice is a source of pride and has fueled the region’s economy and culture for centuries. But over the years its cultivation has faced troubles due to climate change, poor irrigation facilities and imports of cheaper Iranian saffron.

Kashmiri farmers pluck crocus flowers, the stigma of which produces saffron, on a farm in Khrew, south of Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)
Gulshan Banoo walks with a basket filled with crocus flowers, the stigma of which produces saffron, on a farm in Khrew, south of Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)
Kashmiri farmers pluck crocus flowers, the stigma of which produces saffron, on a farm in Khrew, south of Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)

Strife in the region has also impacted its production and export. For decades, a separatist movement has fought Indian rule in Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both. Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces have died in the conflict.

To boost saffron’s cultivation and export, authorities in Kashmir have set up a high-tech spice park to increase production quality and quantity. But very few farmers find the latest technology lucrative and most still use century-old techniques for picking and drying the saffron.

A Kashmiri farmer family plucks crocus flowers, the stigma of which produces saffron, on a farm in Khrew, south of Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)
Tasleema Banoo gathers crocus flowers, the stigma of which produces saffron, on a farm in Khrew, south of Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)
Kashmiri farmers pluck crocus flowers, the stigma of which produces saffron, on a farm in Khrew, south of Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)
Kashmiri farmer Mohammad Ramzan, center, along with his family members remove the stigma of crocus flowers inside their house in Khrew, south of Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)

Most of Kashmir’s saffron is grown in Pampore, a tiny town south of the region’s main city, Srinagar.

In Kashmir, the spice is mostly used in Kehwa, a slow-brewed sugary green tea infused with spices like cinnamon and cardamom and garnished with almonds. Saffron is also used in Wazwan, a traditional Kashmiri wedding meal cooked by special chefs that includes more than 30 dishes.

Crocus flowers that have been uprooted stand placed on a table at the home of a farmer in Dussu, south of Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)
A Kashmiri shopkeeper Shabeeh Farooq displays saffron boxes inside his showroom in Lethpora, south of Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)
Employees of India International Kashmir Saffron Trade Center spread the stigma of crocus flowers on trays before drying them in a machine in Dussu, south of Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)
Stigmas of the crocus flowers are grouped together after being separated from the petals before they are dried, at India International Kashmir Saffron Trade Center in Dussu, south of Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)
Kashmiri farmers remove the stigma of crocus flowers inside their house in Khrew, south of Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)
Abid Ahmed, left, helps his brother Muneeb Ahmed, a Kashmiri saffron farmer, to separate the stigma of crocus flowers inside the India International Kashmir Saffron Trade Center in Dussu, south of Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)
Tasleema Banoo walks with a jute bag filled with crocus flowers, the stigma of which produces saffron, as she walks homewards with family members on a farm in Khrew, south of Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)

By : DAR YASIN – AP PHOTOS

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