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Carthamus tinctorius L.

Safflower, False saffron

Source: James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished.

  1. Uses
  2. Folk Medicine
  3. Chemistry
  4. Description
  5. Germplasm
  6. Distribution
  7. Ecology
  8. Cultivation
  9. Harvesting
  10. Yields and Economics
  11. Energy
  12. Biotic Factors
  13. Chemical Analysis of Biomass Fuels
  14. References


Safflower is cultivated for the edible oil obtained from the seed. It contains a higher percentage of essential unsaturated fatty acids and a lower percentage of saturated fatty acids than other edible vegetable seed oils. The oil, light colored and easily clarified, is used in salad and cooking oils, margarines, liqueurs, candles, and as a drying oil in paints, linoleum, varnishes, and wax cloths. Tender shoots eaten as a salad and potherb. Seeds, both edible and nutritious, are eaten roasted or fried and used in chutney. Safflower oil lowers blood cholesterol levels and is used to treat heart diseases. The flowers have been the source of yellow and red dyes, largely replaced by synthetics, but still used in rouge.

Folk Medicine

Seeds used for tumors, especially inflammatory tumors of the liver (Hartwell, 1967-1971). Flowers considered diaphoretic, emmenagogue, laxative, sedative, stimulant, in large doses laxative; used as a substitute or adulterant for saffron in treating measles, scarlatina, and other exanthematous diseases. Charred safflower oil used for rheumatism and sores; seeds, diuretic and tonic (C.S.I.R., 1948-1976). In China, prescribed as uterine astringent in dysmenorrhea (Keys, 1976). In Iran, the oil is used as a salve for sprains and rheumatism.


Meal or seedcake is used as feed for livestock, that from unhulled seeds containing 18-24% protein, from hulled seed, 28-50% protein. Seeds contain 32-40% oil, 11-17% protein and 4-7% moisture. Per 100 g, the seeds are reported to contain 482 calories, 4.8 g H2O, 12.6 g protein, 27.8 g fat, 50.5 g total carbohydrate, 25.1 g fiber, 4.3 g ash, 126 mg Ca, 310 mg P, 9.7 mg Fe, 0 ug beta-carotene equivalent, 0.59 mg thiamine, 0.14 Mg riboflavin, 0.5 mg niacin,, and 0 mg ascorbic acid. The oil contains 1.5% myristic (with lauric and lower acids), 3% palmitic, 1% stearic, 0.5% arachidic (with trace of lignoceric), 33% oleic, and 61% linoleic acids. Decorticated seed for animal feed contain 8.7% moisture, 10.0% fat, 45.4% protein, 20.1% carbohydrates, 8.3 fiber, and 7.5% ash (C.S.I.R., 1948-1976). Safflower florets contain carthamin (C21H22O11 H2O) which is red and insoluble in water, and safflower yellow (C16H20O11) which is soluble in water.


Annual thistle-like herb, coarse, branching above with a strong central stem to 1.5 m tall; leaves spiny, oblong or ovate-lanceolate, waxy, the upper ones clasping, minutely spinose-toothed; flowers in 1-5 heads per plant, 2.5-3.7 cm across, each head developing 15-50 seeds; corollas yellow, orange, white or red, surrounded by a cluster of leafy spiny bracts, which pass over gradually into the bracts of the involucre; achenes (fruits or seeds) white, 6-7 mm long, shining, the hull accounting for 1/3-1/2 total weight of seed. Fl. summer. Sturdy taproot penetrating to 2.5 m.


Many cvs have been developed differing in flower color, degree of spininess, head size, oil content, resistance to disease and ease of harvest. Most common varieties have yellow or orange flowers, but red and white flowered varieties are known. Among the best cvs are: 'Gila' - a high yielding, high test-weight variety, adapted to Arizona growing conditions; 'Frio' - a highly cold tolerant variety with oil and protein content higher than 'Gila', 'Ute' - yield and oil percentage about equal to 'Gila', but highly susceptible to disease and lodging; 'US 10' - similar content, resistant to Phytophthora root rot. Many other cvs have seed with lower hull percentage and higher oil and protein content. Commercial cvs grown in the United States are spiny; present spineless cvs contain too little oil. 'Dart' has tolerance for Phytophthora, Puccinia and Verticillium. It is cold tolerant during early growth. In a 5-year period of testing at Mesa, 'Dart' averaged 4,004 kg/ha. In India, the new non-spiny safflower cv, 'CO-1' averaged yields of 1,020 kgha with irrigation, 720 kg rainfed compared to 790 and 630 kg respectively with the standard cv 'K-1' seed oil contents were 32.1% in 'CO-1', 30.3 in 'K-l'. 'CO-1' tolerates Alternaria carthami infection and is moderately resistant to wilt, while 'K-1' is susceptible to them (Subramanian et al, 1979). Reported from the Central Asian and Near Eastern Center of Diversity, safflower or cvs thereof is reported to tolerate bacteria, disease, drought, frost, fungus, high pH, phage, salt, sand, rust, virus, wind, and wild. Wu and Jain (1977) discuss germplasm diversity in the World Collections of Safflower. (2n = 24, 32).


Believed to have originated in southern Asia and is known to have been cultivated in China, India, Persia and Egypt almost from prehistoric times. During Middle Ages it was cultivated in Italy, France, and Spain, and soon after discovery of America, the Spanish took it to Mexico and then to Venezuela and Colombia. It was introduced into United States in 1925 from the Mediterranean region and is now grown in all parts west of 100th meridian.


Safflower grows in the temperate zone in areas where wheat and barley do well, and grows slowly during periods of cool short days in early part of season. Seedlings can withstand temperatures lower than many species; however, varieties differ greatly in their tolerance to frost; in general, frost damages budding and flowering thus reducing yields and quality. Safflower is a long-day plant, requiring a photoperiod of about 14 hours. It is shade and weed intolerant, will not grow as a weed because other wild plants overshadow it before it becomes established. It is about as salt tolerant as cotton, but less so than barley. It thrives in heavy clays with good waterholding capacity, but will grow satisfactorily in deep sandy or clay loams with good drainage, and needs soil moisture from planting through flowering, Soils approaching neutral pH are best. Safflower may be grown under irrigation or as a dryland crop. Often grown following a wetland crop, such as rice, on high watertable land without additional irrigation. For irrigation 3-3 1/2 acre-feet of water is needed; under dryland conditions 25 acre-inches are required. Ranging from Cool Temperate Steppe to Moist through Tropical Desert to Tropical Dry Forest Life Zones, safflower is reported to tolerate annual precipitation of 2.0 to 13.7 dm (mean of 38 cases = 6.9),annual temperature of 6.3 to 27.5deg.C (mean of 38 cases 17.5), and pH of 5.4 to 8.2 (-9.0) (mean of 33 cases = 7.1) (Duke, 1978, 1979).


Propagation is by seed, which are usually pretreated with insecticides and fungicides. Same machinery used for small grains may be used for planting, cultivation and harvesting. Seed should be planted in a soil prepared and completely free of seeds, when the soil temperature is about 4.4°C and the upper 10 cm of soil is moist. Seed germinates quickly at 15.5°C. Plant in early winter in areas equivalent to southwestern United States or as a spring crop in northern Great Plains of the United States. Plant seed by solid drilling, 2.5-5 cm deep, at rate of 9-23 kg/ha on dryland or 23-27 kg/ha when irrigation is used; seed may also be broadcast, but not preferred. Crop should be cultivated for weed control until just before flowering. Fertilization needs are determined by natural soil fertility and available moisture. Nitrogen requirements are none on the Great Plains, and 135 kg/ha at planting time in areas under intensive irrigation. Safflower takes the place of barley or other feed grains in rotation, and on dry lands the highest yields follow summer fallow. It should not follow itself in rotation due to disease hazards. It may be cultivated as a subsidiary to other crops as potato, mustard, opium poppy, barley, wheat, linseed and gram. Opium and safflower are said to be particularly suited to each other, although opium lands are often manured with cow-dung and ashes.


Safflower matures in from 110-150 days from planting to harvest as a spring crop, as most of it is grown, and from 200 or more days as fall crop. It should be harvested when the plant is thoroughly dried. Since the seeds do not shatter easily, it may be harvested by direct combining. The crop is allowed to dry in the fields before threshing.

Yields and Economics

Seed weighs from 81 to 105 kg/bu, the weight depending on the variety and the growing conditions. In California average yields are 1,900 kg/ha, but yields above 4,500 kg/ha are not uncommon; in the Great Plains yields run about 850 kg/ha. In Arizona 'Dart' yields 4,004 kg/ha or 1,622 kg oil/ha, 25% more than the open-headed Gila which is susceptible to birds. The cost of growing safflower runs just a little more per ha than barley. This crop is usually grown and sold under contract, either by a fixed price per ton or at market price at harvest. The major producer of safflower is India where 590,000 ha were grown in 1970-71, producing about 300,000 MT. India produced about 48,000 MT oil in 1969-1970 and domestically consumed that plus 4,000 MT imported. In India, when seed oil is the object, yields are about 90-130 kg florets, and 440 to 660 kg seed/ha. Intercropped yields are only 110 to 279 kg/ha seed (C.S.I.R., 1948-1976). Under rainfed conditions, hybrid sorghum yielded 4.21 MT/ha in the kharif monsoon and the following safflower yielded 470 kg seed. Grown after fallow however, the safflower yielded 1,220 kg/ha (Veeranna, Jagannath, and Gidnavar, 1980). Raghu and Sharma (1978) report India yields of 1,350 kg rainfed, 1,940 kg irrigated. In 1965 about 12,400 ha of safflower was planted in the United States. Prices for safflower seed are about twice that for barley. In 1971 Australia stepped up its production of seed to 8,000 MT.


The world low production yield was 244 kg/ha in Israel, the international production yield was 789 kg/ha, and the world high production yield was 1,900 kg/ha in U.S.A. Yields higher than 4,000 kg/ha have been attained. Oil yields approach 50%, leaving a meal with ca 21% protein, 35% fiber, and 1-3% fat. The meal is used for livestock feed. In spite of its thorny bracts, safflower may be grazed by sheep, either the green growing plant or the stubble left after harvest. Considering the safflower's resemblance to a small sunflower, I have extrapolated from sunflower factors to assume a straw factor of 2.5 and a chaff factor of 0.2. According to Khoshoo (1982), the BTU value per gallon of safflower oil is 130,730 cf. 130,450 for rapeseed, 130,900 for sunflower, and 138,252 for diesel. Viscosity is a main drawback, i.e. 32.7 for safflower, 35.3 for sunflower, 51.3 for rapeseed, and only 2.9 for diesel. Tractors were run on 100% safflower oil for over 90 hours to cut hay and cultivate in Australia, and diesel engines fueled with safflower oil were run more than 700 hours in Idaho with no obvious difference ascribed. Indians have "successfully cultivated safflower on sodic soil of Banthra with pH 8.5-9.0, EC value below one, and ESP between 25-40, and a yield of 360 kg/ha oil was obtained. In northern Idaho, it requires about 25 gallons of liquid fuel to harvest 212-262 gallons of extractable oil per hectare from safflower and sunflower (Khoshoo, 1982). According to the Wealth of India (C.S.I.R.,1948-1976), the oil content ranges from 20-30%, 92 kg yielding 16 kg oil, 28 kg oil cake, and 38 kg husk.

Biotic Factors

Safflower is self-pollinated with some cross-pollination. Pollen and nectaries are abundant with insect working the flowers. Safflower is attacked by many fungi: Alternaria carthami (leaf spot and bud rot), A. zinniae, Bremia lactucae, Cercospora carthami, Cercosporella carthami, Chaetomium globosum, collectorichum capsici, Corticium solani, Ectoctroma carthami, Epicoccum nigrum, Erysiphe cichoracearum, Fusarium acuminatum, F. solani, Gloeosporium carthami, Glomerella cingulata, Leveillula compositarum, L. taurica, Macrophomina phaseoli, Macrosporium carthami, Marsonia carthami, Oidium carthami, Oidiopsis taurica, Phyllosticta carthami, Phytophthora drechsleri (root rot), Ph. palmivora, Ph. parasitica, Puccinia carthami (rust), Pythium debaryanum, P. oligandrum, Ramularia carthami, Sclerotinia sclerotiorum, Septoria carthami, Verticillium albo-atrum (wilt). It is parasitized by Orobanche cernua and Striga lutea, and is attacked by the Chilli mosaic and Cucumber mosaic viruses. Pseudomonas solanacearum, a bacterium, attacks it. Among the nematodes, the following have been isolated from safflower: M. Meliodogyne incognita acrita, M. javanica, (Golden p.c., 1984). Insect pestS include: Lygus bugs, wireworms, aphids, leaf hoppers, thrips, and sunflower moth larvae.

Chemical Analysis of Biomass Fuels

Analysing 62 kinds of biomass for heating value, Jenkins and Ebeling (1985) reported a spread of 19.23 to 18.10 MJ/kg, compared to 13.76 for weathered rice straw to 23.28 MJ/kg for prune pits. On a % DM basis, the straw contained 77.05% volatiles, 4.65% ash, 18.30% fixed carbon, 41.71% C, 5.54% H, 46.58% O, 0.62% N, 0% S, 0% Cl, and undetermined residue.


Complete list of references for Duke, Handbook of Energy Crops
Last update July 3, 1996