What is Alfalfa?
Also known as: lucerne
Medicago sativa L.
Plant Family: Fabaceae
Dried leaves and sprouted seeds.
This plant is well known as a feed plant for livestock yet has had a rich tradition of use as a healing herb as well. Utilized since ancient times for its high nutrient value, Arabs fed it to their horses to increase strength and stamina. In traditional folk medicine, it has been administered as a nutritive tonic and was found to be particularly useful in cases of malnutrition or during convalescence. The dried alfalfa leaf is widely available in herbal shops and health food stores as an herbal tea, tablet, powder or made into a liquid chlorophyll supplement. The seed is often sprouted and eaten in salads and sandwiches.
Alfalfa is a long-lived perennial in the Fabaceae (or is sometimes put in the Papilionaceae) family1 with leguminous flowers which vary in color from purple to yellow, trifoliate clover-like leaves, and a deep penetrating tap root2 (some sources say that taproots have been found reaching down 68 feet into the soil!).3 Alfalfa is native to southwest Asia with wild species occurring in the Caucasus, and in mountainous regions of Afghanistan and Iran, and is very widely cultivated throughout the world.4
CULTIVATION AND HARVESTING
The US is the leading producer of this plant, and within the country, California, Montana, and Idaho are the major producing states.5 Alfalfa is the fourth largest crop by acreage, grown on 23 million acres,6 and is third in value, after corn and soybeans. Its national value is more than $8 billion each year.6
Alfalfa is best harvested for medicinal purposes when in bloom.3
HISTORY AND FOLKLORE
Alfalfa remains more than 6000 years old were found in Iran6 and it is believed that the domestication of alfalfa first began in the Bronze Age most likely somewhere between 1000 and 2000 BCE (probably near the countries of Turkmenistan, Iran, Turkey, and the Caucasus mountains).6,7 Alfalfa was important to the early Babylonian cultures, the Arabs, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans as it was used for feeding the warrior’s horses (which were domesticated in Central Asia at about 2500 BCE).7 Accordingly, the name ‘alfalfa’ is derived from the Arabic al-fisfisaand means ‘a green (or fresh) fodder’.8 By 400 BCE, Lucerne was being grown in Europe.7
In the U.S, the early colonists, with such esteemed members including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, grew alfalfa.6 However, it was not widely cultivated across the country until the California Gold Rush of 1849 because, at this time, much of the equipment used to directly or indirectly support the mining efforts was animal-powered thus requiring large amounts of livestock feed.6 Alfalfa is considered the foremost forage plant for dairy cows as it increases their milk production.6,9 Not only does it provide nutrient dense hay, it is also a source of leaf meal used to fortify baby foods and a variety of other foods that are prepared to support weight gain and supply vitamins and minerals.2,10 It is fed to chickens and rabbits and utilized in gardening and large scale agriculture. It is a “nitrogen fixer” like many legumes.3,11 Alfalfa not only provides healing nutrients for humans, but it helps to “heal” soil as well and makes an effective “green manure” for providing nutrients to poor soil.3
Alfalfa was used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), making its first appearance around 200 CE during the Han Dynasty, for digestive system support and to stimulate the appetite.3 Alfalfa was revered for its soothing and strengthening properties. It became available around the 1850’s to the Native Americans who adopted it into their healing system and referred to it as ‘Buffalo grass’. They would grind up the seed into flour and put in gruels and bread and also ate the young leaves and shoots.3 In India, alfalfa seeds have been applied topically as a cooling poultice.4 The leaves are a source for the dietary supplement chlorophyll,10 and the seeds are used to make a yellow dye.4,11 In parts of China and Russia young alfalfa leaves have been served as a vegetable.4 In traditional medicine of Europe and the U.S., alfalfa20 has been used to stimulate appetite10,11,12 support urinary and bowel function,10,12 and as a diuretic.12 Further, due to alfalfa21‘s nutrient density10,13 it has been utilized for providing easy to assimilate nutrients during convalescence.11 Additionally, it has been administered for not only increasing milk production in dairy cows but in lactating woman as well.10 It is recommended for use as a tonic after blood loss or in cases of insufficient levels of iron in the blood.14 In Mathew Wood’s book, the Earthwise Herbal, alfalfa22 is portrayed as a soothing herb for calming the nervous system that is particularly useful for the type of person that is really busy, always on the go, and is very time conscious.15 Alfalfa23 is an alkalizing plant that has complex and seemingly opposite flavors of bitter and sweet and therefore both stimulates and regulates stomach secretion.15 Alfalfa24 aids in healthy digestion due to its fiber content which gives this herb a slightly laxative effect and also supports the structure of the intestinal walls.15
It has been used in money spells, as it is believed to combat poverty and attract financial abundance. Further, placing it in the home in a jar or sprinkling its ashes around the house was thought to protect the inhabitants from hunger.16
FLAVOR NOTES AND ENERGETICS
The tastes are sweet, bitter, and earthy. It is energetically cooling.15
Appetite stimulant, diuretic, tonic,4,14 nutritive,14 laxative14,15 estrogenic.15
USES AND PREPARATIONS
Dried leaves as tablets, teas, tinctures or encapsulated.
Alfalfa25 is one of the most studied plants due to its usefulness as livestock feed, however human clinical studies are sparse.10
Specific: No known precautions.
General: We recommend that you consult with a qualified healthcare practitioner before using herbal products, particularly if you are pregnant, nursing, or on any medications.
- United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service, Beltsville Area Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN). Accessed at http://www.ars-grin.gov on October 29, 2014.
- Alfalfa26. Medicago sativa. Accessed on October 31, 2014.
- Weiss, G., & Weiss, S. (1985). Growing & Using the Healing Herbs. Rodale Press.
- Duke. J. Purdue University website. Handbook of Energy Crops. Accessed at:http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/duke_energy/Medicago_sativa.html on October 31, 2014.
- Crop Production: 2012 Summary. United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service. January 2013.
- Commodity Fact Sheet. Alfalfa27. Information compiled by the California Alfalfa28 and Forage Association. Accessed at: http://alfalfa29.ucdavis.edu/-files/pdf/alfalfa30FactSheet.pdf on October 30, 2014.
- Iziko Museums of Cape Town website. Medicago sativa. Accessed at: http://www.biodiversityexplorer.org/plants/fabaceae/medicago_sativa.htm on October 30th, 2014.
- Online Etymology Dictionary. Accessed at: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php on October 28, 2014.
- Grieve M. A Modern Herbal. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. Accessed at http://botanical.com/botanical on October 28, 2014.
- Khan, I. A., & Abourashed, E. A. (2011). Leung’s encyclopedia of common natural ingredients: used in food, drugs and cosmetics. John Wiley & Sons.
- Bremness L. Herbs: The Visual Guide to More than 700 Herb Species From Around the World. New York; DK Publishing; 1994.
- Lust, J. (2014). The Herb Book: The Most Complete Catalog of Herbs Ever Published. Courier Dover Publications.
- Alfalfa31. MedlinePlus Trusted Health Information for you. A service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine. From the National Institutes of Health. Accessed at: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/19.html on October 30, 2014.
- Mills, S. (1988). The dictionary of modern herbalism. Healing Arts Press.
- Wood, M. (2009). The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Books.
- Cunningham, S. Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. Woodbury: Llewellyn Publications; 2000.
This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.