This imposter can dye food and cloth.
Another very old spice that was cultivated in ancient Egypt, China, and India is safflower. Colors on fabric found in Egyptian tombs have been tested and shown to contain safflower dyes. A garland containing safflower flowers was found in Tutankhamen’s tomb. Even though it has been grown for such a long time, it is usually grown on small plots for the farmers own use. It is a minor world crop grown mostly for its seeds, which have the oils extracted from them to make a low cholesterol oil that has a delicate flavor when used in cooked dishes. While there are over 60 countries that grow safflower, over half of the production comes from India.
Safflower was grown for its flowers to make dyes, especially before cheaper synthetic dyes became available. There is much confusion between expensive saffron and the much less expensive safflower. The flower petals, which are slightly bitter, have been used as a substitute for saffron in coloring foods. It does not have the same flavor as saffron. Some use it to adulterate saffron making a less expensive form of this very expensive spice. Another thing that safflower and saffron have in common is their Arabic language roots which both mean yellow.
The flowers look a lot like those of a thistle plant. Thistle and artichoke are both relatives of safflower. The flowers give both a yellow and a red color agent. Most of my female readers will know what rouge or blush is. Blush is obtained by adding the red element of safflower with fine powdered talc.
Safflower flowers in today’s cuisine have little to offer. They do appear in some Mediterranean mixes and it is sometimes used in the Georgian (Russia) mixture known as khmeli suneli which is mentioned in the A Little Spice of Life on savory. The seeds are often used in bird feed. It is sometimes substituted for sunflower seeds in bird feed since squirrels don’t seem to feed on safflower like they do sunflower. Within the last 2 years a genetically modified safflower has been developed that produces insulin. This holds great promise for many insulin dependent diabetics.