By Maryann Readal
This month’s Herb Society of America Herb of the Month, safflower, (Carthamus tinctorius), has had many uses throughout its long history. Use of safflower dates back to the ancient Egyptians who used the flowers for dyeing cloth a brilliant red color. Garlands of safflower flowers were found in the tomb of King Tut, and cloth found in the tomb is believed to have been dyed with safflower flowers. It is interesting that in the dyeing process, both yellow and red dyes can be achieved by using the same batch of safflower petals. The flowers are also used to color cosmetics and a variety of food products.
Safflower has been called “poor man’s saffron” and “bastard saffron” because the dried petals resemble the real saffron (Crocus sativus). While it may give your paella a nice yellow color and be a cheaper alternative to using the real thing, you may be sacrificing taste by not using the real saffron. Safflower is used in Middle Eastern cuisines and was used as a saffron substitute by Spanish colonists in the new world. The tender shoots of safflower can be eaten as a salad, and the seeds can be eaten raw or toasted. According to the American Heart Association, safflower oil is a healthy choice for cooking. It has a high smoke point.
Safflower seed is pressed to produce cooking oil, margarine, and salad dressings. The seed oil is also used in paints and varnishes because it does not yellow with age. The leftover product from pressing the seed for oil is used in livestock feed.
If you are a bird lover, you will probably recognize safflower seed as an ingredient in some birdseed. If you grow safflower in your garden, your garden will attract a variety of song birds, including chickadees, finches, nuthatches, woodpeckers, mourning doves and cardinals, who love the safflower seeds. Safflower seeds are oblong shaped and a bit bitter, making them not attractive to bird-feeder bullies like grackles, starlings, and squirrels.
In the past, safflower tea was used to reduce fevers. It was also used externally to soothe bruises, wounds, and painful joints. It has been used as a laxative, though the effectiveness of this use has been questioned by researchers. When rubbed into the scalp and into the nail bed, the oil stimulates hair and nail growth.
The plant requires a long, hot, dry growing season, and full sun. It is grown from seed and can reach three feet in the garden. However, Christine Moore, Horticulturist at the National Herb Garden reports that safflower only grows to six inches and is short-lived at the US National Arboretum in Washington, DC.
Safflower’s red, yellow, or orange flowers bloom mid-summer to fall. It is a thistle-like annual plant with leaves that are toothed with small spines and pointed at the tip. The fresh or dried flowers are very pretty in arrangements. If allowed to go to seed, safflower will reseed itself, giving you plants the following year and also a food source for the birds.
For more information, a beautiful computer wallpaper, and recipes using safflower, visit the Herb Society’s Herb of the Month webpage.
Herb Society of America Medical Disclaimer … It is the policy of The Herb Society of America not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any medical or health treatment.