Photo © Steven Foster
Alfalfa is a perennial legume that grows up to 3 feet in height and produces blue-violet flowers from July to September.1 It was cultivated from a species which originated in southwestern Iran, the Caucasus, and eastern Anatolia.2 Alfalfa was domesticated for feeding animals in the Near East during the Bronze Age between 1000 and 2000 BCE and was being grown in Europe by 400 BCE.2 It is now cultivated throughout the world.3
History and Cultural Significance
Due in part to its high protein content, alfalfa is regarded by many as the best crop for feeding livestock.4 It was used in horse feed by Arabs who claimed that the plant made the horses swift and strong.1 Arabs gave the legume the name alfalfa which means “father of all foods”. They used alfalfa medicinally in the belief that the leaves possessed a diuretic effect that was useful in the treatment of kidney, bladder, and prostate disorders. Historically preparations of alfalfa leaves have been used to treat arthritis, diabetes, upset stomach, and asthma. The leaves are used as a nutritional supplement as they are high in protein, vitamins, and minerals.1 In India, the seeds of alfalfa have been used historically in a cooling poultice for boils.4 The mucilaginous (moist and slimy) fruits are utilized for coughs in Colombia. The seeds contain alkaloids that are believed to stimulate menstrual flow and lactation.4
One study suggests that alfalfa seeds in the diet may help support cardiovascular health in certain populations.5
Information concerning the market statistics and sustainability of alfalfa pertains to its use as a livestock food crop. Aside from being considered an invasive weed in some areas and sometimes becoming contaminated with bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli, there are no issues affecting the future of alfalfa.
1 DerMarderosian A, Beutler J, eds. The Review of Natural Products. 3rd ed. St. Louis, MO: Facts and Comparisons; 2002.
2 Iziko Museums of Cape Town website. Medicago sativa. Available at:http://www.museums.org.za/bio/plants/fabaceae/medicago_sativa.htm. Accessed on December 7, 2004.
3 University of Massachusetts website. Available at: http://www.umass.edu/cdl/publications/Alfadapt.htm. Accessed on December 7, 2004.
4 Purdue University website. Handbook of Energy Crops. Available at: http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/duke_energy/Medicago_sativa.html. Accessed December 7, 2004.
5 Molgaard J, et al. Alfalfa seeds lower low density lipoprotein cholesterol and apolipoprotein B concentrations in patients with type II hyperlipoproteinemia. Atherosclerosis 1987;65(1-2):173-179. Cited in DerMarderosian A, Beutler J, eds. The Review of Natural Products. 3rd ed. St. Louis, MO: Facts and Comparisons; 2002.