Alfalfa Medicago sativa, is a perennial flowering plant in the pea family Fabaceae cultivated as an important forage crop in the US, Canada, Argentina, France, Australia, the Middle East, South Africa, and many other countries. The English name is adopted from the Spanish, originally alfalfez, which in turn is derived from the Arabic al-fisfisa “fresh fodder”. The Spanish name is widely used, particularly in the US but it is also known as lucerne in the UK, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, erba medica in Italy, meaning medical herb, luzerne in France, and lucerne grass in South Asian English. It superficially resembles clover, with clusters of small purple flowers followed by fruits spiralled in 2 to 3 turns containing 10-20 seeds. Alfalfa has been cultivated by humans since at least the 4th century CE and has some use in herbal medicine.
Alfalfa is the most cultivated forage legume in the world. Worldwide production was around 436 million tons in 2006.The US is the largest alfalfa producer in the world, but considerable production is found in Canada, Argentina (primarily grazed), Southern Europe, Australia, South Africa, and the Middle East.
Traditional Ethnic Uses
Alfalfa has been used as an herbal medicine for over 1,500 years. Alfalfa is high in protein, calcium, plus other minerals, vitamins in the B group, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, and vitamin K.
In early Chinese medicines, physicians used young alfalfa leaves to treat disorders related to the digestive tract and the kidneys. In Ayurvedic medicine, physicians used the leaves for treating poor digestion. They made a cooling poultice from the seeds for boils. At the time, alfalfa was also believed to be beneficial to people suffering from arthritis and water retention.
Taste and Aroma Description
Alfalfa is generally used for medicinal purposes and rarely as a spice in cookery. Powdered, it has a strong herbal flavor, with a mildly bitter taste.
History/Region of Origin
A book on agriculture by the Roman writer Palladius, dated 4th century AD, includes a section about alfalfa. Palladius says: “One sow-down lasts ten years. The crop may be cut four or six times a year…. An [Roman] acre of it is abundantly sufficient for three horses all the year…. It may be given to cattle, but new provender is at first to be administered very sparingly, because it bloats up the cattle.” Palladius called alfalfa “medica”, a name that referred to the Medes, a people who lived in ancient Iran. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed, probably correctly, that the alfalfa plant came from the Medes land (in today’s Iran). (The ancient Greeks and Romans also used the name medica to mean a citron fruit, once again because it was believed to have come from the Medes land). The ancient Roman name medica is the root of the modern scientific name for the alfalfa genus, Medicago. Despite the report in Palladius and in some other Roman and ancient Greek writers, there is little evidence that alfalfa was in widespread use in the Mediterranean region in those days.
The 13th century Arabic dictionary Lisan al-Arab says that “al-fiṣfiṣa” (alfalfa) is cultivated as an animal feed and consumed in both fresh and dried form. In medieval Spain, the Arabic name “al-fisfisa” mutated into the Spanish name “alfalfa”. Alfalfa in medieval Spain was cultivated as fodder for horses and had a reputation as the best fodder for them. In the 16th century, Spanish colonizers introduced alfalfa to the Americas as fodder for their horses. The English name “alfalfa” dates from mid-19th century far-west USA, from the Spanish. Alfalfa seeds were imported to California from Chile in the 1850s. That was the beginning of a rapid and extensive introduction of the crop over the western US States. In the North American colonies of the eastern US back in the 18th century it was called “lucerne” and lots of trials at growing it were made, but generally without getting satisfactory results. Relatively very little alfalfa is grown in the eastern US still today. Today in France and Germany, and also in Britain and Australia, alfalfa is usually called “lucerne” | “luzerne”, a word that arose in French in the 16th century. Since North and South America now produce a large part of the world’s output, the word “alfalfa” has been slowly entering into other languages besides English and Spanish.
Store in cool, dark, dry places.
A Few Ideas to Get You Started
Its primary use is as feed for high producing dairy cows—because of its high protein content and highly digestible fiber—and secondarily for beef cattle, horses, sheep, and goats. Humans also eat alfalfa sprouts in salads and sandwiches. Dehydrated alfalfa leaf is commercially available as a dietary supplement in several forms, such as tablets, powders and tea. Alfalfa is believed by some to be a galactagogue, a substance that induces lactation. Alfalfa can cause bloating in livestock, care must be taken with livestock grazing on alfalfa because of its high bloat hazard.