[Histonet] Re: Safran du Gatinais

Bernice Frederick b-frederick <@t> northwestern.edu
Mon Aug 20 11:25:09 CDT 2007

Rowley biochemical sells Alcoholic saffron as part of a Movat's kit as
well as stand alone.

Bernice Frederick HTL (ASCP)
Northwestern University
Pathology Core Facility
710 N Fairbanks Court
Olson 8-421
Chicago,IL 60611

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Sent: Sunday, August 19, 2007 3:40 PM
To: histonet <@t> lists.utsouthwestern.edu
Subject: [Histonet] Re: Safran du Gatinais

 Lynne Cates in Durham NC asks about buying saffron in bulk for
histologic use.

Saffron, a culinary spice and coloring agent most familiarly used in
paella, consists of the stigmas of the flowers of Crocus sativus. The
spice has a very strong odor, and also contains a dye of some histologic
interest. Because of its labor-intensive production (do YOU want to
spend your days picking the sex organs out of itty bitty flowers?)
saffron's extremely expensive.

Saffron is used histologically as a connective tissue stain,
traditionally in one of the many techniques attributed to Dr. Masson,
and in the Movat pentachrome stain. It dyes collagen a yellow-orange
color that contrasts subtly with eosin. 

Saffron has a Colour Index number (75100) and is described in the 9th
edition (I don't have the 10th) of Conn's Biological stains. The active
coloring matter is called crocin, composed of crocetin and gentobiose.

To prepare the stain, the dye is extracted from the crude spice with
ethanol. Because saffron is so expensive, the WHO tumor fascicles (in
the 1960's) suggested extracting the dye into ethanol using a reflux
condenser to achieve maximum yield. This alcohol extract has an
obnoxious medicinal smell. 

A look-alike, safflower (Carthamus tinctorius), sometimes called dyer's
saffron or bastard saffron, is odorless and contains a different dye,
carthamin or carthamone, chemically unrelated. I have never seen
safflower referred to as a histologic stain. Safflower is sometimes
referred to as saffron, and I'd be careful not to buy it for histologic
use - remember it's odorless. (Safflower is grown commercially as an oil

Saffron was historically grown in France and Spain. It is still grown
commercially in Spain, but most of it is grown in India. The traditional
histologic designation "safran du Gâtinais" referred to the French
product, which I think is no longer available. (Saffron was grown in
England centuries ago, hence the place name Saffron Walden.)

I checked a high-end spice dealer, Penzeys Spices (disclaimer - my wife
orders a box of spices from them about once a month), and found saffron
for US$10 to 15 a gram, retailed in gram quantities, depending on the
source. I suspect it could be ordered from India, perhaps through an
Indian grocery store, for less, but I'd want to be awfully careful I was
getting Crocus sativus. Apparently lower grades of saffron can be bought
in bulk for a dollar or two a gram.

The Wikipedia article on saffron is worth reading.

According to Wikipedia the coat of arms of Saffron Walden is "Vert
within a representation of town walls having two towers and a Gateway
between towers Argent three Saffron Flowers issuant from the battlements
of the gateway blown and showing the stamens proper And for the Crest On
a Wealth of the Colours Upon a Chapeau Gules turned up Ermine a Lion
rampant Azure grasping in the dexter paw a representation of the Ancient
Mace of the Borough of Saffron Walden proper."

Bob Richmond
Samurai Pathologist, histoantiquarian and occasional blazoner wannabe
Knoxville TN

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