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‘Lorenzo Trussoni Heirloom’ safflower brings beauty, history to any garden.

In July 2015, a few Seed Savers Exchange preservation staff members drove about an hour-and-a-half from Decorah, Iowa, to Genoa, Wisconsin. Their mission? To meet Marilyn Leum, longtime steward of the ‘Lorenzo Trussoni Heirloom’ safflower, at an annual picnic held on the Fourth of July at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church. 

The roadtrip did not disappoint. Not only did Marilyn give those staff members some of her treasured safflower seeds to add to the SSE collectionseeds she saved from her garden in Westby, Wisconsinbut she also recounted the “roots” of the variety (traced all the way back to the late 1800s in Italy) and passed along a delicious risotto recipe that features it. 

It was Marilyn’s grandfather, Lorenzo Trussoni, who brought seeds of the flower with him when he emigrated in November 1889 from Fraciscio, Italy“about five miles from the Campodolcino region as the goats walked” near the Italian/Swiss border, according to family lore. Marilyn noted that Lorenzo left Italy at age 20 because there was “no work and no money to live on.”

Lorenzo Trussoni, safflower steward

Lorenzo came to the United States through New York on his way to northern Wisconsin, where he did logging work to earn money to buy a farm near Genoa, a small town in which other Italians from the Campodolcino region of Italy had previously settled. Lorenzo and his family lived on that farm until about 1932, when Annie, Marilyn’s mother and the youngest of his children, was 16. The safflower was a mainstay of first Lorenzo’s Wisconsin gardens and then Annie’s. 

Marilyn still recalls picking the safflower as a child. It was, she says, “a nasty job as far as I was concerned, since the inner leaves surrounding the flowers had hard barbs that really hurt.” That didn’t, however, stop Marilyn from enjoying it as an adult—after receiving seeds from her mother, she has grown it for about 35 years near Westby. 

“It has always been a part of our lives,” says Marilyn, who notes the variety is popular among members of her immediate and extended family. “People in the Genoa region hold it very dear, as it’s a link to Italy and relatives there; it’s part of our heritage that we don’t want to lose.”

The mother of Marilyn Leum, seed donor, made this risotto recipe for major holidays like Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas as well as special occasions throughout the year. She used long-grain rice  because the typical short-grain rice used in risottos was unavailable in Wisconsin in the early 20th century. Long-grain rice doesn’t release starch as it cooks, so cheddar cheese was added to the recipe to give it the creamy richness and body of a typical risotto.

‘Lorenzo Trussoni Heirloom’ Saffron/Safflower Rice

1 large can chicken broth
2 cups long-grain rice
¾ pound cheddar cheese, diced (three-year-old cheddar is ideal)
5 cups water
1 small can chicken broth
1 tablespoon saffron/safflower threads

Rinse the rice in the water before cooking. In a small saucepan, heat the small can of chicken broth on the stove. (You will use this broth to bleed the saffron/safflower into the rice as it cooks.) Heat the larger can of chicken broth in a bigger pot and add rice, cooking slowly. Do not boil; just simmer—it takes a long time—and don’t leave the stove, as you have to stir it very frequently so that it doesn’t burn. Stir rice with a large wooden spoon. 

Put the saffron/safflower threads in a small steel-mesh strainer and put the strainer into the larger pot of broth and rice. You may have to bend the strainer handle so that the threads sit in the broth without losing them in the liquid. Pour the smaller heated can of broth a bit at a time over the threads. This “bleeds” the saffron/safflower. Use a small wooden utensil to push the threads against the sides of the strainer to let out the flavor and yellow color. Continue to do this until there is little to no more yellow color coming from the threads. This takes a while. (There is no part of this recipe that can be hurried—everyone who eats it knows that making it is a real act of love, just because it takes so long in the kitchen to do it.) Continue to stir frequently throughout this process as the rice cooks.

When the rice is almost done (you really do have to taste small samples to make sure that the rice is cooked well), put the cubed cheese into the rice/broth mixture. Let the cheese melt as the rice mixture rests (10-15 minutes, but watch the heat and turn it down if it seems to be too hot). Stir the cheese very gently into the rice and then serve.

About the ‘Lorenzo Trussoni Heirloom’ safflower
This safflower is easy to grow, a garden standout, and truly versatile. Plants typically grow 2.5 to 3 feet tall and produce about eight flowers per stalk. The flower threads range in color from yellow to yellow-red and can be picked as soon as they appear for about 10 days.

Safflower can be directly sown and grows quickly. Thanks to its deep taproot, plants do not mind dryness in summer. Sowing the seeds in a row about six inches wide helps the plants support one another if there is strong wind. Flower petals are surrounded by very sharp “leaves” so take care when picking threads. Each flower produces numerous threads, which are picked, dried, and used much like saffron in risotto and other recipes.

Threads are harvested from ‘Lorenzo Trussoni Heirloom’ safflower plants grown at SSE’s Heritage Farm.