Saffron (Crocus sativus) is an autotriploid that evolved in Attica (Greece) from wild Crocus cartwrightianus

Mol Phylogenet Evol. 2019 Jul;136:14-20. doi: 10.1016/j.ympev.2019.03.022. Epub 2019 Apr 1.


Crocus sativus, the saffron crocus, is the source of saffron, which is made from the dried stigmas of the plant. It is a male-sterile triploid lineage that ever since its origin has been propagated vegetatively. Its mode of evolution and area of origin are matters of long-lasting debates. Here we analyzed chloroplast genomes and genome-wide DNA polymorphisms obtained through genotyping-by-sequencing (GBS) to infer the parent and area of origin of C. sativus. These data were complemented by genome size measurements and analyses of nuclear single-copy genes. We could place 99.3% of saffron GBS alleles in Crocus cartwrightianus, a species occurring in southeastern mainland Greece and on Aegean islands, identifying it as the sole progenitor of the saffron crocus. Phylogenetic and population assignment analyses together with chloroplast polymorphisms indicated the C. cartwrightianus population in the vicinity of Athens as most similar to C. sativus. We conclude that the crop is an autotriploid that evolved in Attica by combining two different genotypes of C. cartwrightianus. Triploid sterility and vegetative propagation prevented afterwards segregation of the favorable traits of saffron, resulting in worldwide cultivation of a unique clonal lineage.

Keywords: Autotriploidy; Crocus; Crop evolution; Domestication; Genotyping-by-sequencing; Saffron.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alleles
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Crocus / genetics*
  • Genetic Variation
  • Genome Size
  • Genome, Plastid
  • Greece
  • Phylogeny
  • Polymorphism, Single Nucleotide / genetics
  • Polyploidy*