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Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) is a highly branched, herbaceous, thistle-like annual plant. It is commercially cultivated for vegetable oil extracted from the seeds and was used by the early Spanish colonies along the Rio Grande river as a substitute for saffron. Plants are 30 to 150 cm (12 to 59 in) tall with globular flower heads having yellow, orange, or red flowers. Each branch will usually have from one to five flower heads containing 15 to 20 seeds per head. Safflower is native to arid environments having seasonal rain. It grows a deep taproot which enables it to thrive in such environments.
Safflower is one of humanity’s oldest crops. Chemical analysis of ancient Egyptian textiles dated to the Twelfth Dynasty identified dyes made from safflower, and garlands made from safflowers were found in the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun. John Chadwick reports that the Greek name for safflower κάρθαμος (kārthamos) occurs many times in Linear B tablets, distinguished into two kinds: a white safflower (ka-na-ko re-u-ka, ‘knākos leukā’), which is measured, and red (ka-na-ko e-ru-ta-ra, ‘knākos eruthrā’) which is weighed. “The explanation is that there are two parts of the plant which can be used; the pale seeds and the red florets.”
The early Spanish colonies along the Rio Grande River in New Mexico used safflower as a substitute for saffron in traditional recipes. An heirloom variety originating in Corrales, New Mexico, called “Corrales Azafran”, is still cultivated and used as a saffron substitute in New Mexican cuisine.
Traditionally, the crop was grown for its seeds, and used for coloring and flavoring foods, in medicines, and making red (carthamin) and yellow dyes, especially before cheaper aniline dyes became available.For the last fifty years or so, the plant has been cultivated mainly for the vegetable oil extracted from its seeds.
Safflower seed oil is flavorless and colorless, and nutritionally similar to sunflower oil. It is used mainly in cosmetics and as a cooking oil, in salad dressing, and for the production of margarine. INCI nomenclature is Carthamus tinctorius.
There are two types of safflower that produce different kinds of oil: one high in monounsaturated fatty acid (oleic acid) and the other high in polyunsaturated fatty acid (linoleic acid). Currently the predominant edible oil market is for the former, which is lower in saturated fats than olive oil. The latter is used in painting in the place of linseed oil, particularly with white paints, as it does not have the yellow tint which linseed oil possesses.
Safflower at a market
Safflower oil as a medium for oil colours
Safflower flowers are occasionally used in cooking as a cheaper substitute for saffron, sometimes referred to as “bastard saffron”.
The dried safflower petals are also used as a herbal tea variety.
In coloring textiles, dried safflower flowers are used as a natural dye source for the orange-red pigment carthamin. Carthamin is also known, in the dye industry, as Carthamus Red or Natural Red 26.
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