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Safflower rediscovered



Though Safflower flowers find mention in of Ayurveda and in European and Japanese pharmacopoeias, the interest in this crop has been rekindled in the last few years, says
Dr Nandini Nimbkar

Safflower, Carthamus tinctorius L. is a thistle-like herb belonging to the family Asteraceae or Compositae. It is one of humanity’s oldest crops cultivated in India mainly for oil from the seeds and a reddish dye from the flowers. Nonetheless, it has mainly remained a minor crop grown on small plots for the growers’ personal use. Though, safflower flowers have been used in preparations of ayurvedic medicines in India and also merit mention in European and Japanese pharmacopoeias, the interest in this crop has been rekindled in the last few years as the medicinal use of these flowers in China has become more widely known. China has a significant area under safflower plantation, but it is grown almost exclusively for its flowers, which are harvested for use in traditional medicines, and the production is not included in international crop estimate reports. Safflower flowers are used in China for the treatment of many illnesses as well as in ‘tonic tea’.

Production in India
India is the largest producer of safflower (2.0 lakh tonnes) in the world with highest acreage (4.3 lakh hectares) but with an average productivity of only 465 kg/ha. Poor crop management under input-starved conditions is the most important reason for such low per hectare yields. It is mainly grown in Maharashtra, Karnataka and parts of Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Bihar, etc. Maharashtra and Karnataka are the two most important safflower growing states accounting for 72 and 23 per cent of area and 63 and 35 per cent of production, respectively.

Safflower is now mainly grown in India for its much-valued edible oil. Safflower produces oil rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids (linoleic acid 78 per cent), which play an important role in reducing blood cholesterol level and is considered as a healthy cooking medium. Safflower oil is suitable where high level of stability at low temperature is required as in frozen desserts. It is also used in infant foods and liquid nutrition formulations.

The safflower crop is usually grown in the rabi or winter season from October/November to March/April, generally as an intercrop with cereals such as wheat and sorghum. It is one of the most important crops for marginal farmers. Traditionally it is grown as a rain-fed crop on residual soil moisture. However, research carried out at the Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute (NARI) at Phaltan during the 1960s showed that safflower has a potential to produce as much as 4.0 tonnes/ha seed yield under irrigated conditions. NARI became the first centre for irrigated safflower research under the All India Co-ordinated Research Project on Oilseeds in 1975. It was shown that just one or two irrigations given to safflower crop at the critical growth stages could boost its seed yield by as much as 50 per cent.

NARI was also a pioneer in starting safflower hybrid development in India. The first non-spiny hybrid in India NARI-NH-1 (PH-6) was developed at NARI and released in 2001. Efforts to popularise safflower flowers as herbal tea in India were also pioneered at NARI. Their use for medicinal purposes is steadily increasing and this is expected to help farmers get increased remuneration from their crop.

Conditions for Cultivation
Although safflower has gained the reputation of being a drought-resistant crop, it is basically true only as far as its dependence on rainfall is concerned. With its deep taproot capable of penetrating to a depth of 2-3 metre, it can draw moisture from deep in the subsoil from levels not available to a majority of crops. Although grown without irrigation over the major portion of its range, as a large-scale commercial crop highest yields are obtained only under some type of irrigation. The crop may use considerable amounts of soil moisture, but it cannot survive standing water for even a few hours in warm weather.

The “allergy” which safflower has to “wet feet” is partly due to the rapid spread of soil borne pathogens such as Fusarium, but also because anaerobic conditions cause plant death very quickly. Excess rainfall, especially after flowering begins, contributes to a vast array of leaf and capitulum’s diseases, which reduce yields and can cause a substantial crop loss. Well-drained, deep, fertile, sandy loam soils support maximum safflower yields. In heavy clay soils, crusting may reduce emergence of seedlings and higher than normal seed rates may be needed.

The safflower plant yields several products. Some of the important ones are: 

Safflower seed oil:  Around the world, safflower is mainly grown for its edible oil, which can be used, for cooking and in preparation of mayonnaise, salad oil and margarine. Safflower oil has the highest ratio of polyunsaturated/saturated fatty acids of any oil available. It has been observed on administration to patients with ‘Hypercholesterolemia’, the unsaturated fatty acids of safflower lower the serum cholesterol level. This effect is variable and not discernible in patients with normal or near normal cholesterol levels, nor does it occur unless the total fatty acid intake is reduced. Though clinical value of safflower oil is still considered to be incompletely proven, there is a considerable health food market for safflower oil, especially in North America, Germany and Japan.

Oil levels in the seed ranging from 10 to 50 per cent have been reported from around the world for safflower. The commercialisation of safflower in the 1950s was driven, in part, by the paint and varnish industry. The oil’s properties contribute to unsurpassed quality in paints, alkyd resins and coatings. However, less costly petroleum products and a shift to water-based paints have limited their use.

Safflower dye:  Until this century, when cheaper aniline dyes became available, safflower was mainly grown for dye. The water-soluble yellow dye, carthamidin, and a water-insoluble red dye, carthamin, which is readily soluble in alkali, can be obtained from safflower florets. Dye manufacture has virtually ceased in Asia, but dye is still prepared on a small-scale for traditional and religious occasions. Carthamin is found in the florets to the extent of 0.3-0.6 per cent and imparts a bright red colour to cotton and silk fabric. In order to get a better colouring effect from carthamin, the yellow colour first has to be separated from it. For extracting the dye, fully-grown flower heads are collected every second or third day before they fade. They are then dried in the shade. Florets can be collected, after the crop ripens, so that dye and oilseed can be obtained from the same crop. Colouring 1 kg of cotton yarn crimson requires 1 kg of dye, rose pink requires 500 gm, and light pink, 250 gm. There is currently in many countries a reaction against the use of chemicals for colouring of yarn, with an increased use of naturally coloured cotton. This has also resulted in a small revival for safflower dyes.

Table 1 : Performance of released safflower varieties and hybrids developed at NARI in comparison with the checks
Variety/ hybrid Seed yield (kg/ha) per cent increase over check Oil yield (kg/ha) per cent increase over check   Flower yield (kg/ha) per cent increase over check
 Nira (NRS-209) 1,576 17.19 (Bhima) 512 26.93 – 
NARI-6 1,024 16.8 (JSI-7) 304 25.97 (JSI-7) 125 20 (JSI-7)
NARI-NH-1 (PH-6) 1,936 11.36
628 30.74 (A-1) 192 118.18 (JSI-7)


Safflower cake:  The meal left after oil extraction from the decorticated seed is used for animal feed, while that obtained from un-decorticated seeds is used for manure. The cake contains about 7.9 per cent nitrogen, 1.9 per cent potash and 2.2 per cent phosphoric acid and its application as manure is supposed to greatly improve the physical properties of heavy soils. Although cattle apparently find safflower cake palatable, its bitter taste maker it unacceptable to humans. Protein isolates prepared from debittered meal can be used to fortify bread, pasta and nutritional drinks. Only lysine is limiting, while methionine and isoleucine are borderline.

Safflower vegetable and fodder:  The tender leaves, shoots and thinnings of safflower are valued as pot-herb and salad. They are high in vitamin A, iron, phosphorus and calcium. Bundles of young seedlings are commonly sold as a green vegetable in markets in India and some neighbouring countries.

Safflower can be grazed or stored as hay or silage. The forage is palatable and its feed value and yields are similar to or better than those for oats or alfalfa. Tests have shown that fairly good seed production from a ratoon crop is possible by cutting at about 3-4 cm above ground at 30-45 days after planting in crops planted before the end of September.

Safflower food colour:  Addition of safflower florets to food is a widespread and ancient tradition. Health concerns regarding synthetic food colourants has increased interest in safflower-derived food colouring in recent times. Carthamin is the only chalkone-type pigment suggested for colouring foods. It finds use in colouring cakes, biscuits, butter, ice cream, rice, soup, sauces, bread and pickles, yellow to bright orange. Both safflower yellow and carthamin can be used as non-toxic food colourants. True saffron, which is probably the world’s costliest spice, is quite commonly substituted or adulterated with safflower florets due to the similarity in their appearance.

Table 2 : Characteristics of released safflower varieties and hybrids developed at NARI in comparison with the checks
Variety / hybrid Year of release Average seed yield (kg/ha) Oil content (per cent) Reaction to diseases and pests Days to maturity
1 Nira (NRS-209) 1986 1,576 31.5 130
2 NARI-6 2000 1,024 35 Tolerant to alternaria and cercospora 137
3 NARI-NH-1 (PH-6) 2001 1,936 35 Moderately resistant to cercospora and wilt and tolerant to alternaria and aphids 140
4 A-1 (National check) 1969 1,716 30 128
5 Bhima (Local check) 1982 1,305 30 135
6 JSI-7 (Non-spiny check) 1990 852 30 175-180

Safflower medicine: In India flowers of safflower are regarded as stimulant, sedative and as a promoter of menstrual discharge. In large doses, they are laxative. In China, safflower is grown almost exclusively for its flowers, which are used in treatment of many illnesses as well as in ‘tonic tea’. The main active ingredient in safflower medicines is safflower yellow, which is water-soluble, but alcohol extracts are used in some preparations. Many clinical and laboratory studies support the use of safflower medicines for menstrual problems, cardiovascular disease and pain and swelling associated with trauma. Safflower yellow is present in the dried florets to the extent of 26-36 per cent.

Research on safflower at the Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute (NARI) commenced in mid-1960s even before the institute was officially registered in 1968. The safflower research and development at NARI during last 35 years has been devoted to developing suitable agro-production technologies and varieties and hybrids for limited irrigation situations.

Development of Varieties
The major emphasis of the variety improvement programme at NARI is on developing varieties with enhanced oil and seed yield and better tolerance to pests and diseases in addition to responsiveness to limited irrigation. The following cultivars developed at NARI have been released by the government for commercial cultivation (Tables 1 and 2).

Nira (NRS-209): Nira was released for cultivation under protective irrigation in the state of Maharashtra during 1986. It is a spiny cultivar and gives about 17 per cent higher seed yield than the safflower cultivar Bhima, which is the most widely cultivated safflower variety in the state. It gives seed yield of 15 to 18 q/ha under irrigation and 12 to 15 q/ha under rain-fed conditions. It contains 30-33 per cent oil in its seeds. Due to its earliness, it escapes pest infestation and hence is considered to be moderately tolerant to different pests.

The major emphasis of the variety improvement programme at NARI is on developing varieties with enhanced oil and seed yield and better tolerance to pests and diseases

NARI-6:  This is a non-spiny cultivar released in 2,000 for cultivation in rain-fed areas of the country (Fig. 1). NARI-6 on an average produces a seed yield of 10 to 11 q/ha under rain-fed conditions. It contains 35 per cent oil in its seeds. It also yields 1 to 1.5 q flowers/ha. It possesses greater drought tolerance than the other cultivars, which are presently cultivated.

Hybrid Development
NARI pioneered hybrid development in safflower in India during 1983-84. The preliminary evaluation of these hybrids based on genetic male sterility showed them to give 19 per cent higher seed yield than the national check A-1 in the multi-location trials of All India Co-ordinated Research Project on oilseeds. However, these hybrids could not be commercialised due to the undesirable characteristics of the genetic male sterile lines available. This led to the thorough search of the available germ plasm at NARI and a programme for development of several male sterile (MS) lines. These MS lines are high-yielding, uniform and possess desirable traits. They are being exploited for hybrid development at NARI.

Table 3 : Analysis of safflower flowers of  NARI-NH-1
Sr. No. Parametre Value
1 Protein,  per cent by wt.            10.4
2 Total sugars,  per cent by wt.    11.8
3 Zinc, (mg  per cent)      2.6
4 Sodium, (mg  per cent) 17.0
5 Potassium, (mg  per cent)          3,264.0
6 Iron, (mg  per cent)       42.5
7 Calcium, (mg  per cent) 708.0
8 Magnesium, (mg  per cent)        142.0
9 Copper, (mg  per cent) 1.1
10 Cadmium, (mg/kg)        0.33
11 Manganese, (mg  per cent)        4.7
12 Lead, (mg/kg)   1.84
13 Arsenic, (mg/kg)            Nil

In 2001 for the first time a non-spiny hybrid NARI-NH-1 (PH-6) was released for cultivation in all the safflower growing regions of the country. It gives a seed yield of 18 to 20 q/ha under irrigation, has 35 per cent oil in its seeds and produces nearly 2 q flowers/ha (Tables 1 and 2).

Identification and release of the non-spiny variety and hybrid in safflower is expected to be a boon to farmers due to the extra income they are expected to give the farmers from the flowers. Due to their non-spiny nature it is easy to harvest and thresh as also pick flowers from them. This will not only increase their popularity among traditional farmers who had discontinued safflower cultivation due to reluctance of labourers to carry out any operations in it due to its spiny nature, but will also increase the spread of safflower in non-traditional areas.

The success of hybrids of any crop depends upon the simplicity and cost effectiveness of hybrid seed production. Thus at NARI considerable efforts have been spent on perfecting the technology of hybrid seed production in safflower.

However, there are some inherent problems associated with the seed production in genetic male sterility system, one of them being its labour-intensive nature. Ultimately only the cytoplasmic male sterility-based system can provide the most feasible way of hybrid seed production especially in spiny hybrids of safflower. Therefore, efforts are underway at NARI to develop cytoplasmic male sterility in safflower, and to identify suitable maintainer and restorer genotypes for producing highly productive hybrids.

Battery-Operated Flower Collector
The manual collection of safflower flowers from spiny varieties is not very cost-effective due to the presence of spines on the capitulum. Thus, a knapsack-type lightweight battery-powered flower collector has been developed to enable the collection of dried flowers from spiny safflower plants. The battery of this collector can be charged, using a solar photovoltaic module.

Popularisation of Safflower
To commercialise safflower flowers in India, efforts have been initiated to popularise them as an herbal health tea for curing several chronic diseases. Regular users of this tea have reported its usefulness in alleviating diseases like hypertension, spondylosis, angina, arthritis, constipation, menstrual disorders and hypercholesterolemia. Analysis of flowers for nutritional qualities was conducted recently at the Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI) at Mysore and the results of this investigation are given in Table 3. They were found to contain substantial quantities of amino-acids and minerals such as potassium, calcium, magnesium and iron.

Package of Practices
In general, highest seed yields could be obtained from safflower when

  • Safflower was planted in the first week of October.
  • Plant population of about 1,00,000/hectare was maintained.
  • Fertiliser containing 60 kg/ha nitrogen in split dose (30 kg at the time of planting and 30 kg after 1 month of planting) and 30kg/ha phosphorus was applied to the crop.
  • Irrigating twice – first at elongation (35 days after sowing) and second at flowering stage (75 days after sowing) were applied, in addition to a pre-sowing irrigation.
  • Crop was protected against diseases such as alternaria leaf spot and wilt and insects such as aphids and heliothis.

Seeds of spiny variety Nira, non-spiny variety NARI-6 and non-spiny hybrid NARI-NH-1 are available at NARI. NARI is also ready to transfer the technology of seed production to any interested parties.

The author Dr. N. Nimbkar has an M.S. and Ph.D. in agronomy from University of Florida, Gainesville, USA and is the President, Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute, Phaltan.


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