Mexican saffron or safflower is unrelated to real saffron, although the two share a similar color. Mexican saffron is native to the Mediterranean and also cultivated in Europe and the United States. It grows with a strong central branch stem, a taproot system and a varying number of branches. It is a thistle-like plant that reaches from 1 to 3 feet high. Each branch of the safflower has one to five orange-yellow flower heads and each flower head has 15 to 20 seeds with an oil content ranging from 30 to 50 percent.
Safflower is chiefly a source of cooking oil. One type of safflower oil, high oleic safflower oil, is higher in monounsaturated fat than olive oil. It is a heat-stable cooking oil useful for preparing French fries, chips and other snack items. Cosmetics, infant formula and food coatings may also contain safflower oil.
Though clinical trials are lacking, supplement makers claim safflower modifies lipid profiles. As an herbal remedy, people have used safflower tea to induce sweating, reduce fever and treat colds. Other folk medicine uses for the tea include treating poor blood circulation, bruises, injuries, measles, and delayed menses. Some people use the oil as a laxative.
Discuss the benefits and risks of Mexican saffron with your health care provider prior to use. To make tea, steep 1 tsp. safflower petals in one cup of boiling water. Drink one to two cups of tea per day. A dose of tincture is 20 to 60 drops. A 10 g dose of safflower oil has been used as a placebo.
Some companies market the dried, powdered flowers as an inexpensive substitute for saffron. Its lack of flavor has made it a poor substitute and earned it the name "false saffron." Wine makers may use safflower to color white wine. Traditionally, safflower served as a source of dye for coloring fabrics and cosmetics. Ancient Egyptians may have used safflower extract to color the wrappings of mummies.
Safflower seed goes into some birdseed mixes. Dried safflowers are a pretty addition to dried flower bouquets and may also scent potpourris. Paint manufacturers may add safflower oil to paints and varnishes as a non-yellowing drying agent. Some farmers use safflower cut just after the bloom stage for livestock forage. Safflower meal makes a high-protein, high-fiber poultry and livestock supplement.