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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Safflower Carthamnus tinctorius

Safflower Carthamnus tinctorius is a very ancient crop plant, cultivated at least since the time of the ancient Egyptians. The orange florets have been found sown into garlands of papyrus and cloth wrapped around the necks of mummies (including that of Tutankahmun) dated as early as 1600BC. Later the Egyptians learned to extract the dye from red- and orange-flowered varieties and used it to dye cloth, and together with indigo it remained an important dye up until the development of modern synthetic substitutes. The valuable edible oil content of safflower seed was probably discovered by the Romans. The crop has been cultivated for its oil in India for hundreds of years and by the end of the 19th. century it began to be grown elsewhere - including the United States - as a source of oil. A field crop of safflower in full bloom must be quite a sight. It develops deep roots quickly, so grows well on the falling water table in summer in Mediterranean climates and is relatively drought-tolerant. It produces two kinds of oil - polyunsaturates for soft margerines and salad oils and mono-unsaturates used for frying. More recently, ornamental varieties have been bred, not least because the florets retain their colour well when the flowers are dried - something that the ancient Egyptians discovered. The plant in the picture arrived in wild bird seed that I put out for birds in winter, and came up in the garden as a self-sown seedling.