Safflower, Carthamus tinctorius, is a highly branched, herbaceous, thistle-like annual plant. It is commercially cultivated for vegetable oil extracted from the seeds and was used by the early Spanish colonies along the Rio Grande as a substitute for saffron. Plants are 30 to 150 cm (12 to 59 in) tall with globular flower heads having yellow, orange, or red flowers. Each branch will usually have from one to five flower heads containing 15 to 20 seeds per head. Safflower is native to arid environments having seasonal rain. It grows a deep taproot which enables it to thrive in such environments.
For the last fifty years or so, the plant has been cultivated mainly for the vegetable oil extracted from its seeds. Safflower seed oil is flavorless and colorless, and nutritionally similar to sunflower oil. It is used mainly in cosmetics and as a cooking oil, in salad dressing, and for the production of margarine. INCI nomenclature is Carthamus tinctorius.
There are two types of safflower that produce different kinds of oil: one high in monounsaturated fatty acid (oleic acid) and the other high in polyunsaturated fatty acid (linoleic acid). Currently the predominant edible oil market is for the former, which is lower in saturated fats than olive oil. The latter is used in painting in the place of linseed oil, particularly with white paints, as it does not have the yellow tint which linseed oil possesses.