Safflower cultivation: a real alternative to sunflower

The Asteraceae family brings together a wide group of plants with different uses by humans. In the case of this plant, safflower ( Carthamus tinctorius ), has been used both as a colorant and for the production of oil, competing in quality even with that of sunflower.

In this plant sheet we are going to tell the main qualities of safflower or safflower, as it is commonly known. We will address the millenary history of this plant, which dates back to ancient Egypt, as well as the main uses and characteristics of its cultivation.


Safflower is likely one of the first species cultivated by mankind. Along with cereals, there is documentation that records the presence of this plant in Ancient Egypt.

One of the main uses of Carthamus tinctorius at that time was its use as a colorant for the manufacture of dresses, providing bright colors such as yellow, orange or red, depending on its concentration.

Currently, the main use, more than as an industrial dye, is its use for the production of oil. However, its cultivation worldwide is quite small, with less than 700,000 tons produced worldwide, spread over more than 50 countries, including Spain.


  • Order:  Asterales
  • Familia: Asteraceae
  • Género: Carthamus
  • Especie: Carthamus tinctorius
Common names: safflower, safflower.

Visually, there is a certain resemblance between safflower and sunflower , with a yellow flower head. And they both belong to the Asteraceae family .

Safflower is an oil plant that has also been credited with medicinal properties. It is erect with many branches and dark green leaves and shoots. In its final growth period, the plant exceeds one meter in height and can reach 1.5 meters.

Its leaves are pointed and can hurt when brushed against them. This quality is positive against predators, a fact that means that in many areas sunflower cultivation is stopped and this species is preferred, less attractive to animals.

One of the greatest qualities that makes farmers choose safflower over other species is its superb drought resistance .

However, it must be taken into account that it stops its growth at low temperatures and can suffer frost damage, since it is a sensitive species.


Although it was formerly cultivated for its excellent qualities as a dye, today it has more effective substitutes. In rural areas of developing countries, it is still used.

The greatest importance of its cultivation is based on the use of the oil, as we will see below.


Many, many years ago, the cultivation of safflower was intended for the production of a reddish or yellowish dye or colorant, extracted from the flowers.

In fact, it was also used as a cheaper substitute for saffron , but with different results in terms of taste.

Traditionally, the cultivation was destined to the dye industry (yellow and red), spices, especially before the cheapness and availability of aniline, and in medicines.1 Since 1950, the plant has been cultivated for vegetable oil extracted from its seeds . The countries with the highest production of safflower oil in the world are Mexico, India and the United States. Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, China, Argentina and Australia follow.

Safflower flowers are occasionally used in gastronomy as a cheap substitute for saffron (Crocus sativus), then referred to as “bastard saffron.” Also its seeds are commonly used as an alternative to sunflower seeds (marigold) in the feeding of birds and mammals since squirrels do not like it. Safflower is called kardi in Hindi (India).


It was some years after World War II, in 1950, when safflower began to be cultivated for the use of oil, since it is considered an oleaginous plant. This oil is not only used in gastronomy, but also for industrial use in the manufacture of paints.

In this case, it is used as an inexpensive substitute for linseed oil, because it can achieve a texture and color in the paint that is not obtained with linseed.

At the gastronomic level , the oil can be used for human consumption, and in fact it has quite a presence as a crop for this use in countries such as Mexico, India, China and Ethiopia.

To highlight its high concentration in oleic acid (monounsaturated fatty acid), and a positive balance with polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as linoleic acid .

At the level of flavor and in terms of its nutritional qualities, it is directly compared to sunflower oil .


Its content of monunsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids means that safflower has been studied as a nutritional source in humans.

A fact to highlight is that its consumption increases the content of adiponectin , a type of protein that favors the balance of blood sugar levels and the metabolism of fatty acids.

This makes it possible to distinguish the origin of linoleic acid, finding a greater positive response in safflower compared to other oilseed plants, as demonstrated by Ohio State University.


Safflower is grown in extensive areas and soils of medium quality, with a high density of plantation, as is the case with sunflower cultivation.

Next we are going to see which are the main cultivation techniques and references in terms of planting time, land preparation, fertilization and harvesting.


The ideal safflower sowing is carried out at the beginning of March onwards, with a maximum date until May. With this we ensure that there will be no risk of frost, since this plant is quite sensitive to low temperatures.

In the North of Spain, with lower temperatures, it is usually grown from mid-March. However, in the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula, planting can be advanced until the middle of February.

  • Planting frame: 10 cm x 30 cm between rows.
  • Sowing dose:  20 kg / ha of seeds.


Before planting, in late winter, deep soil work is done , using a moldboard plow. This guarantees a good oxygenation of the environment and distribution of fertilizers or organic matter.

It is important to leave a homogeneous grain size over the entire surface, since the safflower seed is usually planted at a depth of 2 to 3 cm.

Safflower competes with weeds for growth, so the plow will remove weed debris. Post-emergence herbicides can then be used.


When choosing fertilization, special formulas are usually chosen for oilseed plants, such as sunflower.

For every ton produced, the nutritional requirements are usually the following:

N2 O 5K2O

It is very important to provide sulfur, since it is a necessary element for the formation of lipids and increases the production of oil in the seeds.

As a micronutrient , although it is necessary to provide all those required in plant nutrition, boron plays an important role in safflower cultivation, since it favors root development and the biosynthesis of lignin and pectic substances.

Background fertilization

Medium fertility soil200 kg / ha NPK 9-18-27
Soil poor in phosphorus250 kg / ha NPK 8-24-24
Potassium-poor soil250 kg / ha NPK 8-10-30

Covert fertilization

  • 200 kg / ha NAC 27


The plant shows indications of completion by drying its leaves and showing a dry, yellow appearance.

When practically all the safflower plants are like this, it will be time to harvest for the maximum use of the oil.

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