The plant has a long history of cultivation and in 1776 the botanist and doctor William Withering, writing in his Botanical Arrangement of all the Vegetables Growing in Great Britain mentioned that ‘cultivation produces a great variety of colours and makes the blossoms double’.
In the wild meadow saffron was ruthlessly eliminated because it’s extremely poisonous to grazing livestock, thanks to the presence of toxic colchicine in all parts of the plant. Like many plant poisons colchicine has been used medicinally, in very low doses, to treat gout. Benjamin Franklin, himself a gout sufferer, is supposed to have introduced the plant to the United States for that very purpose. There have been accidental fatalities with poisoning from either eating the plant (its leaves resemble very lush wild garlic) or using it as herbal medicine at lethal concentrations, so one wonders how many of those who followed William Withering’s advice survived, when he wrote ‘This is one of those plants that upon the concurrent testimony of ages was condemned as poisonous; but Dr. Storck of Vienna hath taught us that it is a useful medicine. The roots have a good deal of acrimony. An infusion of them in vinegar, formed into a syrop by the addition of sugar or honey, is found to be a very useful pectoral and diuretic. It seems in its virtues very much to resemble squill, but it is less nauseous and less acrimonious’.