I cannot recall why I found myself deep into the 1892 issue of the Almanaque de la ilustracion, a publication of Bohemian learning for well-read Spaniards, but it was with great interest that I found the poetry of one José Velarde. I must confess, I was not drawn to Velarde's writing because of its beauty or charm. The poems are typical of the pre-modernist style; traditional meter and rhyme occasionally broken for effect and to introduce other voices and characters, all very standard fare for the time. It was by chance that my eyes struck a strange allusion in Velarde's work:
Sembré alazor y me salió anapelo,
Y con la fe, perdida de esperanza,
No querer consolarme es mi consuelo.
"I sowed saffron and reaped wolfsbane, And with faith, lost hope, Not wanting to console myself is my comfort." (translation my own)
Sowing saffron and reaping wolfsbane. Where had I heard that before? The poem was published without a title, though the table of contents list it as Alegria, poema, canto V. Modern resources were of no use. None of them even hinted as to a reference. I had to dig deeper.
Then I remembered a very unusual dictionary by John Stevens, published in 1726, a dictionary known of decidedly archaic spellings. Words like abuelo, are spelled aguélo. Under aguélo we find "Ay, aguélo, sembráste alaçor, naciónos anapélo," which Stevens says is a proverb when something expectedly good proves unexpectedly misfortunate. The origin, he recounts, is of
...a grandfather who marry'd a granddaughter to one he had great conceit of, and he proved a meer rake; whereupon another granddaughter cry'd, "Grandfather, you sow'd saffron (which is rich and cordial, meaning he thought he had got an excellent son-in-law) and there came up poisonous wolfsbane;" that is, he proved a vile husband.
Stevens probably relied upon Covarrubias' 1611 dictionary, Tesoro de la lengua castellana o espanola or Franciosini's 1620 Spanish vocabulary (written in Italian). In both, the proverb, listed under anapelo, is defined as hoping for good correspondence but returned in kind with ingratitude. Both lack Stevens' etymology. Stevens' popular etymology is echoed in Caro y Cejudo's 1792 dictionary, under abuelo, though does not reference Stevens. Del Hierro's 1726 dictionary lists the phrase as popular, this time under avuelo, but does not trace its origins.
The phrase made its way into English, albeit briefly. Thiselton's 1889 The Folk-lore of Plants records it in use in Devonshire, "You set saffron and there came up wolfsbane." Thiselton believed the phrase to native to England, relating its origin to Exeter farmers. But Exeter folk love to take visitors for rides and Thiselton may have been taken on one himself. The fact that the oldest attestations of the phrase occur in continental Europe discount's Thiselton's theory.
Thiselton's aside, the phrase seems to have died before the 19th century. I could find no mention of the phrase in writing after the 1790s. Velarde's reference was patently obscure even in his time. Velarde wrote Alegria at the end of his literary career. Most of his works came out in the 1870s and 1880s. Velarde was evidently a low-key polymath in addition to being a poet. In the 1892 publication of the Almanac for example, Velarde translated the Sanskrit Ramayana into Spanish. Velarde died on the 22nd of February, 1892.
You can find more about José Velarde here (Spanish only).