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Safflower is a multi-purpose crop species for oil, medicinal and industrial uses. Safflower flowers have been used in preparations of ayurvedic medicines in India since a long back.
Safflower is native to the Old World, and the genus occurs naturally in the Mediterranean region, northeastern Africa, and southwestern Asia to India. There are positively identified archaeological records of safflower from 4000-year-old Egyptian tombs, including a find of single safflower flowers wrapped in willow leaves that were placed with a mummy from the 18th Dynasty (ca. 1600 B.C.).
Safflower oil is a drying oil that is used in white and light-colored oil-based paints instead of linseed oil, because it does not yellow with age like similar oils rich in linoleic or oleic acid (depending on cultivar). Safflower was used as a substitute for more precious oils. Likewise, safflower pigment was used as a substitute for or an adulterant of saffron, e.g., as a coloring agent in cheeses. Safflower was particularly important as an oil and pigment in southern Asia (Iran, Afghanistan, and India), and early carpets from these regions used safflower dye. Safflower arrived in China relatively late (200-300 A.D. according to current records), and the dyes became important there.
In China safflower oil was considered inferior to sesame oil but nonetheless is mixed with sesame and cottonseed oil in the preparation of Japanese tempura. The Japanese cosmetic beni is also made from safflower, and French chalk was mixed with safflower to make a cosmetic. In India and Afghanistan, saffron rice is made with safflower, which gives it an interesting orange color. Moreover, over the centuries safflower has been used commonly in potions and folk medicines throughout the Old World.
Safflower cultivation is now widespread, and one can see many fields of these plants in dry areas of the southwestern United States, such as in California and Arizona, because this species is fairly drought resistant and salt tolerant. Each plant forms one to two dozen heads of flowers, which are quickly converted into full heads of fruits (again, achenes), because the flowers are self-compatible and self-pollinated. Presence of honey bees can increase production. Oil content of the achenes is frequently 30-45%, and protein content can be as high as 24%. After the oil is expressed, safflower seedcake can often be used for livestock feed, and the remaining plant, if not too spiny, can be used for green fodder or silage.
Safflower is a highly branched, herbaceous, thistle-like annual, usually with many long sharp spines on the leaves. Plants are 30 to 150 cm tall with globular flower heads (capitula) and commonly, brilliant yellow, orange or red flowers which bloom in July. Each branch will usually have from one to five flower heads containing 15 to 20 seeds per head. Safflower has a strong taproot which enables it to thrive in dry climates, but the plant is very susceptible to frost injury from stem elongation to maturity.
Traditionally, the crop was grown for its flowers, used for colouring and flavouring foods and making red and yellow dyes, especially before cheaper aniline dyes became available, and in medicines. For the last fifty years or so, the plant has been cultivated mainly for the vegetable oil extracted from its seeds.
Safflower oil is flavorless and colorless, and nutritionally similar to sunflower oil. It is used mainly as a cooking oil, in salad dressing, and for the production of margarine. It may also be taken as a nutritional supplement. INCI nomenclature is Carthamus tinctorius.
Indian safflower seed is used in bird feeds in the US. However, because of its high price in India the exports are limited. The world prices of safflower oil are less than half of Indian price.