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Botanical name: Carthamus tinctorius
Common name: Safflower, Carthamus
Literal name translation: red flower
Family: Asteraceae, aster family
Part used in Chinese medicine: flower
Major Chinese medicine actions:
Invigorates blood in larges doses, nourishes the blood in small doses,
unblocks menstruation, alleviates pain
Carthamus tinctorius, or Hong Hua, is more commonly known as safflower and is grown around the world for many uses. When pressed, the seed yields a large quantity of oil, known for containing a higher percentage of unsaturated essential fatty acids and a lower percentage of saturated fatty acids than other edible vegetable seed oils. The flowers are grown as a saffron substitute, and also used to dye cloth. Yellow dye is made by steeping the flowers in water, and a red dye is made by steeping the flowers in alcohol. Tender shoots of the plant can be eaten as salad greens and the seeds are both edible and nutritious, eaten roasted or fried, and commonly used in chutney.
The plant is believed to have originated in southern Asia, and has been cultivated in China, India, Persia and Egypt almost from prehistoric times. During the Middle Ages it was introduced in Europe, then to the U.S. in 1925.
Growing and Propagation
Safflower is cultivated as an annual plant. It needs full sun and does best with about 14 hours of light a day. It is shade and weed intolerant and does not spread in the wild because other plants overshadow it before it can become established. The plant grows well in ordinary garden soil but does best in heavy clay that holds water. It needs to be watered well throughout its entire growing cycle until the flowers bloom and are harvested.
Propagation is by seed sown in winter or early spring in a greenhouse, or directly in the garden when temperatures do not fall below 59 degrees F. The plants require a long growing season, so seeds should be started as early as possible. Flowers appear in mid-summer, gradually turning from yellow to orange, then red when they are in full bloom.
Harvesting and Preparation
When the flower petals turn red, they are collected daily and dried in the sun. Safflower is very light and a half ounce of the herb may include the petals of hundreds of flowers. For medicinal use, good quality dried Hong Hua consists of flower petals that are fresh, soft, and dark red in color, with a strong fragrance.