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Possumhaw: World's most expensive substances


Shannon Bardwell



"There are some four million different kinds of animals and plants in the world. Four million different solutions to the problems of staying alive." 


Sir David Attenborough, broadcaster and naturalist 




The Daily Telegraph, a British newspaper, published an article on some of the most expensive substances in the world. Saffron, the spice, comes from a plant in the iris family, a crocus. Saffron is planted in fall or early spring. Dry, temperate temperatures are recommended. Here in the Prairie we are certainly dry, maybe not so temperate. According to planting charts, saffron will grow in zones 6-10, which includes our area. The plants are also well-suited for containers.  


Saffron plants can be ordered on the internet if you hurry. One company offered 15 bulbs at a sale price of $8.49. To harvest the saffron, there are bright red stigmas in the center of the purplish flower. Pluck the stigma, and the saffron can be used as is. 


Commercially saffron is sold for $65 a gram, or $29,510 per pound. The cost is rather staggering if you think about it; more expensive than gold. It's a wonder more folks don't grow saffron. And I might add, it's legal. 


Beluga caviar comes in at $34,000 per 2.2 pounds. Forty-one pounds of white truffles sold for $60,000 in 2014 at auction. It's unlikely we'd have access to beluga sturgeon or the subterranean fungus, but then there were substances like snake venom at $370 a gram, spider venom up to $1,342 a gram, and scorpion venom $596 a gram.  


You could make some real money extracting snake venom if your heart could stand it and you were extremely patient. We haven't seen many snakes this summer, but I was kind of curious as to how exactly venom was extracted.  


Across the globe there are antivenom institutes. In those institutes are "milking rooms," just like a dairy. The professional snake handler -- I cannot emphasize enough the word professional -- places his/her thumb and index finger behind the snake's head just at the jaw line where the venom glands are located.  


The snake handler then applies pressure to the gland where a small amount of venom is excreted. In theory, the snake cannot bite the handler, however most professional snake handlers have been bitten many times. In order to get coral snake venom, it takes one snake three years and 69,000 milkings to produce one pint of venom. By the way, there's a snake venom shortage right now. 


So venom has been collected, but it's the antivenom that's needed. So the venom is injected in very small amounts to animals so their immune systems will produce the antivenom. Most often the animals used are horses because they are large, easy to control and they like humans. Other animals can be used, like rabbits, sheep and goats. 


The animals are monitored closely for optimum health as the immune system produces the antivenom. After about eight to 10 weeks, blood is drawn from the animals, then purified. It's a complicated and expensive procedure with little yield. 


As interesting as all that is, perhaps raising a little saffron in a pot would be safer and more enjoyable.  


Shannon Bardwell's column usually appears in The Dispatch on Mondays. Email reaches her at [email protected]


Shannon Rule Bardwell is a Southern writer living quietly in the Prairie.


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