The spice came to the U.S. during Colonial times along with other old-world crops like spelt. According to food historian William Woys Weaver, saffron-loving Pennsylvanians were once called Geeldeitsch, or “Yellow Dutch,” for the distinctive gold hue of their food. Merchants shipped Pennsylvania saffron to Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and, writes Pat Willard, author of Secrets of Saffron: The Vagabond Life of the World's Most Seductive Spice, in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, saffron traded on the Philadelphia commodity exchange at a price equal to gold. In the colonies, saffron acted as a flavoring in soups and teas, as well as a domestic remedy for measles and fevers.
The saffron plant is a species of crocus and, like many crocuses, it has an unusually long style. It is not known which species of insects pollinate the wild crocus relatives of saffron. Nor is it known why the style is full of water-soluble, colorful compounds that redden our foods, or why the style, in small doses, makes great food more delicious with a sort of pungent honey.