Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) is a leguminous perennial plant from the family Fabaceae. We also sometimes call it lucerne or purple medic, and especially farmers use it heavily for hay, pasture, and silage.
The plant is often called the “Queen of Forages” due to its high yield, high protein content, and because livestock animals can easily digest it. It also contributes to soil improvement projects and is often grown by gardeners as green manure and cover crop.
Besides the excellent yields, it’s a very hardy crop, tolerating drought and temperature changes without compromising its productivity or quality. It’s grown across almost all states of the U.S., and according to USDA, alfalfa is the fourth most widely grown crop of the country, with an estimated annual worth of 11.7 billion dollars! So, what is the alfalfa plant, and what makes it so important? Continue reading, and you’ll find out everything about this remarkable species.
Believe it or not, but other than using it as feed for livestock, alfalfa is also very nutritious for humans. People often consume it as a supplement or in the form of sprouted seeds. There is evidence proving that alfalfa helps lower cholesterol, improve blood sugar levels, and help with kidney problems, bladder problems, asthma, upset stomach, etc. Let’s learn more about this plant that both humans and animals value.
|Common Name||Alfalfa, Lucerne, Purple Medic|
|Botanical Name||Medicago Sativa|
|Plant Type||A Perennial Legume|
|Size (Fully Grown)||3,3 Feet (About 1 Meter) High|
|Sun Exposure||Loves The Sun So, Full Sun|
|Soil Type||A Soil Containing Potassium And Phosphorus And Drains Well|
|Soil pH||From 6.5 To 7.0|
|U.S. Hardiness Zones||4, 5, 6, 7, And 8|
What Are The Different Alfalfa Varieties?
There are several different cultivars under the same species. Growers select among the different alfalfa varieties based on the yield, quality, pest and disease resistance, longevity, and seed price. Depending on the climate you will grow it in, you’ll also have to consider the variety’s fall dormancy and winter survival.
Here’s a list of some popular alfalfa varieties cultivated by farmers across the United States.
- Spredor 5
- Hi-Gest 360
- RR Presteez
- HVX Tundra II
- LegenDairy AA
- Graze N Hay 3.10RR
- AmeriStand 433T RR
The lignin content in alfa is not digestible. It also lowers the benefits of the digestible fibers in alfalfa for livestock. Recent advances have led to the breeding of reduced lignin varieties, including “Hi-Gest by Alforex Seeds” and “HarvXtra by Forage Genetics International.” Hi-Gest alfalfa is bred conventionally for a 7 to 10% reduction in lignin content, while HarvXtra manages to achieve a 10 to 15% reduction through genetic modifications.
Where Does Alfalfa Originate From?
Six thousand years old remains of alfalfa found in Iran suggest that the species was first cultivated around this region. The plant was domesticated in areas of Asia Minor, including Turkmenistan, Iran, and Turkey, and the oldest written text about alfalfa is a Turkish script that dates back to 1300 BC.
With the Persian invasion of Greece in 490BC, the species also made its way into Greece. It soon became an important crop for the Greeks and Romans for feeding horses used in war. Even the name ‘alfalfa’ comes from Persian and Arabic origins, meaning, ‘best horse fodder.’
When Did Alfalfa Come To America?
The plant was introduced to the Americas by Spanish colonizers in the 16th century for feeding their horses. Experiments for cultivating alfalfa were carried out across North American colonies during the 18th century, but the results weren’t very successful.
Alfalfa did not gain popularity in the nation until the California Gold Rush in 1849. After California imported alfalfa seeds from Chile somewhere in the 1850s, massive crop cultivation began throughout the U.S.’s western states. Besides California, Nevada, Utah, Nebraska, and Kansas also started growing it.
Today, people grow alfalfa across the United States, over 23 million acres (about 9,3 million hectares) of the country’s land. Worldwide, it covers over 79 million acres (about 32 million hectares) of cultivated land, with the United States, Russia, and Argentina contributing to 70% of the world’s alfalfa production.
What Does The Alfalfa Plant Look Like?
The alfalfa plant is a herbaceous perennial with an erect growth, growing up to 3,3 feet (1 meter) tall at maturity. When young, the leaflets are predominantly round, and the plant closely resembles the clover plant from the same family, Fabaceae. Several stems extend from the crown buds, partially embedded in the soil surface. These stems bear trifoliate leaves and small purple flowers on the tips.
The alfalfa plant has a deep taproot extending more than 49 feet (about 15 meters) into the ground! The deep roots make it tolerant to drought, which is especially helpful in warmer climates.
Like other legume crops, alfalfa harbors nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the root nodules, adding nitrogen to the soil for your future crops. Growers often grow it as a cover crop to improve soil nutrients, lowering the use of needed fertilizers.
The alfalfa plant produces trifoliate leaves, where each leaf is segmented into three leaflets, like those on the clover plant. The leaflets are more circular while the plant is still young, but they grow longer as it reaches maturity. These leaves are arranged alternately on the heavily branched stems.
The leaves and young shoots are edible, and you can consume them raw or cook them. You can add those dried leaves to soups and gravy. When consumed in moderation, alfalfa can be very nutritious to us humans too.
Alfalfa blooms in clusters of tiny purple flowers on the axillary buds of the stems. Each set can carry ten to 20 flowers. They’re usually purple but can also exist in varying white and yellow shades, depending on the variety.
In warm, dry climates, the flowers bear abundant legumes, each containing over eight seeds. The seeds are a great addition to flours because they improve their nutritional content. The sprouted seeds you might be familiar with are a healthy and delicious addition to salads, soups, and sandwiches.
In What Conditions Does Alfalfa Grow Best In?
Alfalfa is a very resilient crop and grows with remarkable productivity in a variety of different conditions. No wonder it’s such a vital fodder crop in many regions across the globe.
The plant also improves the land by preventing erosion and fixing nitrogen in the soil for future crops. Whether you’re growing it as a cover crop, as a natural soil conditioner during crop rotations, as fodder, or for consumption, it’s easy to plant and care for it. But, if you’re growing alfalfa for the first time, here are some tips you might find helpful.
At What Temperature Does Alfalfa Germinate And Grow Best In?
Alfalfa seeds germinate best when the soil temperatures are between 65 and 85°F (about 18 to 30°C). Mature plants are more resilient, but air temperatures of 24°F (about -4,4°C) or lower can kill the seedlings. Temperatures of 60 to 75°F (about 15,5 to 24°C) are ideal for seedling development.
Soil And Sun
Alfalfa will appreciate a spot with plenty of sunlight but can also tolerate partial shade. Well-draining soil with a pH level between 6.5 and 7.0 is best for the plant, but it can handle a range of different soil conditions. Sandy loam, clay loam, and silt loam soils are generally preferred soil types for establishing an alfalfa crop.
Heavy clay is often avoided since the plant doesn’t like wet feet, but it can improve the soil because it has an extensive root system.
Psst, don’t forget the fact that it can do nitrogen fixation!
Water And Fertilizer
With its extensive root system, mature alfalfa crops are very drought tolerant, going for extended periods without adequate water. But, seedlings will need regular watering to develop faster.
Different soils have their fertilization needs based on their nutrient content. A soil test will clarify the kind of fertilization that will benefit your alfalfa crop. Generally, nitrogen fertilizers aren’t needed since the plant can fix its nitrogen into the soil.
Is It Safe To Eat / Consume Alfalfa?
Humans consume alfalfa leaves, sprouts, and seeds. Alfalfa supplements are also available for treating a variety of health conditions. But is regular consumption safe for everyone? Let’s find out.
Pregnant And Breastfeeding Women
Consuming alfalfa in large amounts may be unsafe for pregnant and breastfeeding women. It’s recommended that it should only be used in moderation.
It’s generally considered safe for children but should only be offered in moderation and not regularly. Alfalfa seeds shouldn’t be consumed long-term. Avoid offering alfalfa sprouts to young children as they can be contaminated by the bacteria in them.
People With Allergies
Although alfalfa allergies aren’t common, they may occur. Symptoms range from congestion, irritation in the eyes, and gastric distress.
People With Diabetes
Alfalfa lowers blood sugar levels. Consult your doctor about alfalfa consumption if you are on medications.
The plant isn’t toxic. It’s one of the healthiest food crops for animals. You can safely grow it in your garden, even if you have pets.
Featured image credit – Michael G McKinne/Shutterstock.com