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Alfalfa, also called lucerne (Medicago sativa) is an important forage crop in many countries throughout the world. Alfalfa belongs to the plant family Leguminosae, also known as Fabaceae and, like all legumes, it has the ability to fix nitrogen from the air. As a result, alfalfa is incredibly high in protein. Beyond its use in animal feed, the seeds of alfalfa can be sprouted and eaten by humans. 

Medicago sativa (alfalfa)

[KSP]

Kew Species Profiles

General Description

Alfalfa, also called lucerne (Medicago sativa) is an important forage crop in many countries throughout the world. Alfalfa belongs to the plant family Leguminosae, also known as Fabaceae and, like all legumes, it has the ability to fix nitrogen from the air. As a result, alfalfa is incredibly high in protein. Beyond its use in animal feed, the seeds of alfalfa can be sprouted and eaten by humans. 

Species Profile
Geography and distribution

Alfalfa is thought to have originated in Iran and it has been used as a fodder crop since Roman times.

The largest producer of alfalfa today is North America, followed by Europe, South America and Asia. Alfalfa is grown in many other parts of the world, from China to Spain, Sweden to North Africa. Outside of cultivation alfalfa occurs as a weed throughout Asia, Europe and America.

Description

Overview: Medicago sativa is a perennial herb living for several years. It has erect stems up to 60 cm tall with many branches. 

Leaves: The leaflets are 5-20 mm long and dentate (toothed) at the apex and sometimes at the base. 

Flowers: The flowers, which are violet to pale lavender, are clustered along an unbranched axis (known as a raceme). The flowers are papilionaceous, typical of species belonging to the subfamily Papilionoideae, and resemble, for example, the pea flower. The calyx, the outer whorl of floral organs, has teeth which are as long as the floral tube (corolla). The corolla is composed of petals fused into a tube which is 6-12 mm long. 

Fruit: A curved or loose spiral seed pod containing 10 to 20 seeds which are yellow to brown in colour. 

Uses

Alfalfa is one of the most nutritious forage crops available and in addition to its high protein content, is an important source of important vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin A and calcium. This multi-purpose forage crop is harvested mainly as hay but can also be processed into silage and meal, or grazed on. Pelleted alfalfa meal is used in mixed feeds for cattle, poultry and other animals.

Alfalfa is sometimes grown as a cover crop to reduce soil erosion and often increases yields of succeeding crops such as potatoes, rice and tomatoes.

The seeds of alfalfa can be sprouted and prepared in salads or sandwiches for human consumption. Care should be taken because when consumed raw, alfalfa seeds and sprouts contain the amino acid canavanine which can have a toxic effect in primates, including humans, and can result in lupus-like symptoms in susceptible individuals. The effects can be reversed by stopping the consumption of alfalfa. In parts of Russia and China tender alfalfa leaves serve as a vegetable.

Alfalfa can be used medicinally to treat a variety of ailments for example, in India and China the plant has been used for centuries to relieve fluid retention and to treat kidney stones.

In folklore, it is believed that alfalfa offers protection and the ashes of burnt alfalfa are scattered around a property to guard against negative influences. In pagan rituals alfalfa is used to protect the home from poverty and hunger.

Other uses include manufacturing paper from alfalfa fibre and extracting a yellow dye from the seeds.

Crop wild relatives of alfalfa

The Millennium Seed Bank and the Global Crop Diversity Trust are engaged in a ten-year project, called 'Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change'. The project aims to protect, collect and prepare the wild relatives of 29 key food crops, including alfalfa, so that they are available to pre-breeders for the development of new varieties that are more resilient to the effects of climate change.

Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

The  Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plants worldwide, focusing on those plants which are under threat and those which are of most use in the future. Once seeds have been collected they are dried, packaged and stored at -20°C in our seed bank vault.

Description of seeds: Average 1,000 seed weight = 2 g

Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: Three

Seed storage behaviour: Orthodox (the seeds of this plant can be dried to low moisture contents without significantly reducing their viability. This means they are suitable for long-term frozen storage such as at the MSB)

Germination testing: Successful

This species at Kew

Pressed and dried specimens of Medicago sativa are held in Kew's Herbarium, where they are available to researchers by appointment. Details and images, of some of these specimens can be seen online in Kew's Herbarium Catalogue.

Distribution
USA
Ecology
Alfalfa grows best in deep well-drained soils which are neutral to slightly alkaline. It is a relatively drought-tolerant crop. However, the crop's yield is reduced in times of water shortage. The optimum temperature range is 15-25°C.
Conservation
Widespread in cultivation.
Hazards

Raw alfalfa seeds and sprouts contain the amino acid canavanine which can have a toxic effect in primates, incl humans, and can result in lupus-like symptoms in susceptible individuals. The effects can be reversed by stopping the consumption of alfalfa.

[UPB]

The Useful Plants of Boyacá project

Distribution
Cultivated in Colombia.
Ecology
Alt. 1150 - 2700 m.

[CPLC]

Bernal, R., Gradstein, S.R. & Celis, M. (eds.). 2015. Catálogo de plantas y líquenes de Colombia. Instituto de Ciencias Naturales, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá. http://catalogoplantasdecolombia.unal.edu.co

Distribution
Cultivada en Colombia; Alt. 1150 - 2700 m.; Andes.
Morphology General Habit
Hierba

[FSOM]

M. Thulin et al. Flora of Somalia, Vol. 1-4 [updated 2008] https://plants.jstor.org/collection/FLOS

Morphology General Habit
Perennial up to 80 cm tall, ± pubescent
Morphology Leaves Leaflets
Leaflets obovate to almost linear; stipules entire or dentate
Morphology Reproductive morphology Inflorescences
Racemes 5–40-flowered; corolla 7–11 mm long, blue to violet
Morphology Reproductive morphology Fruits
Pod in a spiral of 1–3 turns with a hole through the centre.
Distribution
N1; S2.
Ecology
Altitude up to 1530 m.

[ILDIS]

International Legume Database and Information Service

Conservation
Not Threatened
Ecology
Africa: Cultivated
Morphology General Habit
Perennial, Not climbing, Herb
Vernacular
Aidama Bede, Alfalfa, Alfalfa Rustica, Arvuit Tzanovi, Beda, Blalusern, Blaue Luzerne, Chveulebrivi Iondzha, Ekin Garayoncha, Erba Medica, Harilik Lutsern, Lasan, Lasunghas, Lucerna, Lucerna Siewna, Lucerne, Lucherne Albastre, Luzerna, Luzerne, Luzerne Cu

[UNAL]

Bernal, R., G. Galeano, A. Rodríguez, H. Sarmiento y M. Gutiérrez. 2017. Nombres Comunes de las Plantas de Colombia. http://www.biovirtual.unal.edu.co/nombrescomunes/

Vernacular
alfalfa, alfalfa peruana, alfileres, alfilerillo, cadillo de tierra, ojo de buey, ojovenao, trébol de carretilla

[KSP]
Use
Fodder, grazing, hay, human food, medicinal.

[UPB]
Use Gene Sources
Crop wild relatives which may possess beneficial traits of value in breeding programmes (State of the World's Plants 2016).
Use Medicines Unspecified Medicinal Disorders
Medicinal (Instituto Humboldt 2014).

[ILDIS]
Use
Chemical products, Environmental, Food and Drink, Forage, Medicine, Weed

Native to:

Algeria, East European Russia, France, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan, Krym, North Caucasus, Tadzhikistan, Transcaucasus, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Yugoslavia

Introduced into:

Afghanistan, Alabama, Albania, Altay, Amur, Angola, Argentina Northeast, Argentina South, Austria, Baleares, Baltic States, Bangladesh, Belarus, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil South, Bulgaria, Buryatiya, Canary Is., Cape Provinces, Central European Rus, Chad, Chatham Is., Chile Central, Chile North, Chile South, China North-Central, China South-Central, China Southeast, Chita, Colombia, Colorado, Corse, Crozet Is., Cuba, Cyprus, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Djibouti, Dominican Republic, East Aegean Is., East Himalaya, Ecuador, Egypt, Finland, Free State, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Hawaii, Hungary, Illinois, India, Ireland, Irkutsk, Japan, Jawa, Kentucky, Kerguelen, Kermadec Is., Khabarovsk, Korea, Krasnoyarsk, Kriti, KwaZulu-Natal, Labrador, Lebanon-Syria, Leeward Is., Libya, Madeira, Magadan, Marianas, Mauritius, Mexico Central, Mexico Northeast, Mexico Southwest, Minnesota, Mongolia, Morocco, Nepal, Netherlands, New Caledonia, New Guinea, New Mexico, New South Wales, New York, New Zealand North, New Zealand South, Newfoundland, North European Russi, Northern Provinces, Northern Territory, Northwest European R, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Primorye, Puerto Rico, Queensland, Romania, Sardegna, Saudi Arabia, Sicilia, Sinai, Somalia, South Australia, South European Russi, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Sweden, Switzerland, Tasmania, Tennessee, Tibet, Turkey-in-Europe, Tuva, Ukraine, Uruguay, Venezuela, Vermont, Victoria, West Himalaya, West Siberia, Western Australia, Wisconsin, Yakutskiya, Yemen

English
Alfalfa
Spanish
Alfalfa.

Medicago sativa L. appears in other Kew resources:

Date Reference Identified As Barcode Type Status
Jan 1, 2015 Brummitt, R.K. [20296], Mexico K001041103
Reid, D.J. [49236], Iran 32860.000
Reid, D.J. [49236], Iran 32870.000
s.coll. [Cat. no. 5945], India K001122607
s.coll. [Cat. no. 5945], India K001122608
Usteri, P.A. [98b], Brazil K000931820
Parry, C.C. [245] K001294264
s.coll. [Cat. no. 5945], India K001122609
Stiffers [68], Spain K001294478
s.coll. [Cat. no. 5945] K001122610
Rico, L. [1204], Bolivia K000295120
Graham, G.J. [175], Mexico K001294262
Edwards (Dr.) [B], Mexico K001294477
Botteri, M. [709], Mexico K001294265
Moorcroft, W. [Cat. no. 5945], India K001122616

First published in Sp. Pl.: 778 (1753)

Accepted by

  • Acevedo-Rodríguez, P. & Strong, M.T. (2012). Catalogue of seed plants of the West Indies Smithsonian Contributions to Botany 98: 1-1192.
  • Ackerfield, J. (2015). Flora of Colorado: 1-818. BRIT Press.
  • Aistova, E. (2009). Check-list of adventive flora of Amur region Turczaninowia 12(1-2): 17-40.
  • Allred, K.W. (2012). Flora Neomexicana, ed. 2, 1: 1-599. Range Science Herbarium, Las Cruces, New Mexico.
  • Bailey, C. & al. (2015). Guide to the Vascular Plants of Tennessee: 1-813. University of Tennessee press.
  • Baliousis, E. (2014). Recent data from the flora of the island of Limnos (NE Aegean, Greece): new alien invasive species affecting the agricultural economy of the island Edinburgh Journal of Botany 71: 275-285.
  • Balkrishna, A. (2018). Flora of Morni Hills (Research & Possibilities): 1-581. Divya Yoga Mandir Trust.
  • Boulos, L. (1999). Flora of Egypt 1: 1-419. Al Hadara Publishing, Cairo.
  • Brako, L. & Zarucchi, J.L. (1993). Catalogue of the Flowering Plants and Gymnosperms of Peru Monographs in Systematic Botany from the Missouri Botanical Garden 45: i-xl, 1-1286. Missouri Botanical Garden.
  • Chadde, S.W. (2019). Minnesota Flora. An illustrated guide to the vascular plants of Minnesota ed. 2: 1-776. Steve W. Chadde.
  • Chadde, S.W. (2019). Wisconsin Flora ed. 2: 1-818. Steve W. Chadde.
  • Chang, C.S., Kim, H. & Chang, K.S. (2014). Provisional checklist of vascular plants for the Korea peninsula flora (KPF): 1-660. DESIGNPOST.
  • Cossu, T.A, Camarda, I. & Brundu, G. (2014). A catalogue of non-native weeds in irrigated crops in Sardinia (Italy) Webbia; Raccolta de Scritti Botanici 69: 145-156.
  • Darbyshire, I., Kordofani, M., Farag, I., Candiga, R. & Pickering, H. (eds.) (2015). The Plants of Sudan and South Sudan: 1-400. Kew publishing, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
  • Dobignard, A. & Chatelain, C. (2012). Index synonymique de la flore d'Afrique du nord 4: 1-431. Éditions des conservatoire et jardin botaniques, Genève.
  • Figueiredo, E. & Smith, G.F. (2008). Plants of Angola Strelitzia 22: 1-279. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
  • Fosberg, F.R., Sachet, M.-H., Oliver, R. (1979). A geographical checklist of the Micronesian Dicotyledonae Micronesica; Journal of the College of Guam 15: 41-295.
  • Frenot, Y., Chown, S.L., Whinam, J., Selkirk, P.M., Convey, P., Skotnicki, M. & Bergstrom,D.M. (2005). Biological invasions in the Antarctic: extent, impacts and implications Biological Reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society 80: 45-72.
  • Garcia-Mendoza, A.J. & Meave, J.A. (eds.) (2012). Diversidad florística de Oaxaca: de musgos a angiospermas (colecciones y listas de especies), ed. 2: 1-351. Instituto de Biología, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
  • Germishuizen, G. & Meyer, N.L. (eds.) (2003). Plants of Southern Africa an annotated checklist Strelitzia 14: 1-1231. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
  • Ghazanfar, S.A. (2007). Flora of the Sultanate of Oman. volume 2. Crassulaceae - Apiaceae Scripta Botanica Belgica 36: 1-220.
  • Gilman, A.V. (2015). New flora of Vermont Memoirs of the New York Botanical Garden 110: 1-614.
  • Greuter, W., Burdet, H.M. & Long, G. (eds.) (1989). Med-checklist 4: 1-458. Conservatoire et Jardin Botaniques de la Ville de Genève.
  • Gutiérrez, J. & Solano, E. (2014). Afinidades florísticas y fitogeográficas de la vegetación del municipio de San José Iturbide, Guanajuato, México Acta Botanica Mexicana 107: 27-65. Instituto de Ecología A.C.
  • Hong, D.Y. (ed.) (2019). Flora of Pan-Himalaya 19(6): 1-130. Science Press, Beijing. Cambridge University Press.
  • Iwatsuki, K., Boufford, D.E. & Ohba, H. (eds.) (2001). Flora of Japan IIb: 1-550. Kodansha Ltd., Tokyo.
  • Jones, R.L. (2005). Plant life of Kentucky. An illustrated guide to the vascular flora: 1-833. The universitry press of Kentucky.
  • Jørgensen, P.M. & León-Yánes, S. (eds.) (1999). Catalogue of the Vascular Plants of Ecuador: 1-1181. Missouri Botanical Garden Press, St. Louis.
  • Jørgensen, P.M., Nee, M.H. & Beck., S.G. (eds.) (2013). Catálogo de las plantas vasculares de Bolivia Monographs in Systematic Botany from the Missouri Botanical Garden 127: 1-1741. Missouri Botanical Garden.
  • Kral, R., Diamond, A.R., Ginzbarg, S.L., Hansen, C.J., Haynes, R.R., Keener, B.R., Lelong, M.G., Spaulding, D.D. & Woods, M. (2011). Annotated checklist of the vascular plants of Alabama: 1-112. Botanical reseach institute of Texas.
  • Kumar, S. & Sane, P.V. (2003). Legumes of South Asia. A Checklist: 1-536. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
  • Larson, J., Reif, B., Nelson, B.E. & Hartman, R.L. (2014). Floristic studies in North Central New Mexico, U.S.A. the Sange de Cristo mountains Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas 8: 271-303.
  • Lazkov, G.A. & Sultanova, B.A. (2011). Checklist of vascular plants of Kyrgyzstan Norrlinia 24: 1-166.
  • Lee, W.T. (1996). Lineamenta Florae Koreae: 1-1688. Soul T'ukpyolsi: Ak'ademi Sojok.
  • Lepschi, B. & Monro, A. (Project Coordinators) (2014). Australian Plant Census (APC) Council of Heads of Australian Herbaria. http://www.anbg.gov.au/chah/apc/index.html.
  • Lock, J.M. & Ford, C.S. (2004). Legumes of Malesia a Check-List: 1-295. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
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Literature

Catálogo de Plantas y Líquenes de Colombia

  • ColPlantA (2021). "ColPlantA. Facilitated by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Published on the Internet; http://www.colplanta.org/"

Kew Species Profiles

  • Beentje, H. (2010). The Kew Plant Glossary: an Illustrated Dictionary of Plant Terms. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
  • Duke, J. A. (1981). Handbook of Legumes of World Economic Importance. New York: Plenum Press.
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Useful Plants of Boyacá Project

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Kew Backbone Distributions

  • Acevedo-Rodríguez, P. & Strong, M.T. (2012). Catalogue of seed plants of the West Indies Smithsonian Contributions to Botany 98: 1-1192.
  • Ackerfield, J. (2015). Flora of Colorado: 1-818. BRIT Press.
  • Aistova, E. (2009). Check-list of adventive flora of Amur region Turczaninowia 12(1-2): 17-40.
  • Audru, J., Cesar, J. & Lebrun, J.-P. (1994). Les Plantes Vasculaires de la République de Djibouti. Flore Illustrée 1: 1-336. CIRAD, Départerment d'Elevage et de Médecine vétérinaire, Djibouti.
  • Bailey, C. & al. (2015). Guide to the Vascular Plants of Tennessee: 1-813. University of Tennessee press.
  • Boulos, L. (1999). Flora of Egypt 1: 1-419. Al Hadara Publishing, Cairo.
  • Brako, L. & Zarucchi, J.L. (1993). Catalogue of the Flowering Plants and Gymnosperms of Peru Monographs in Systematic Botany from the Missouri Botanical Garden 45: i-xl, 1-1286. Missouri Botanical Garden.
  • Chadde, S.W. (2019). Minnesota Flora. An illustrated guide to the vascular plants of Minnesota ed. 2: 1-776. Steve W. Chadde.
  • Chadde, S.W. (2019). Wisconsin Flora ed. 2: 1-818. Steve W. Chadde.
  • Darbyshire, I., Kordofani, M., Farag, I., Candiga, R. & Pickering, H. (eds.) (2015). The Plants of Sudan and South Sudan: 1-400. Kew publishing, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
  • Dobignard, A. & Chatelain, C. (2012). Index synonymique de la flore d'Afrique du nord 4: 1-431. Éditions des conservatoire et jardin botaniques, Genève.
  • Figueiredo, E. & Smith, G.F. (2008). Plants of Angola Strelitzia 22: 1-279. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
  • Fosberg, F.R., Sachet, M.-H., Oliver, R. (1979). A geographical checklist of the Micronesian Dicotyledonae Micronesica; Journal of the College of Guam 15: 41-295.
  • Frenot, Y., Chown, S.L., Whinam, J., Selkirk, P.M., Convey, P., Skotnicki, M. & Bergstrom,D.M. (2005). Biological invasions in the Antarctic: extent, impacts and implications Biological Reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society 80: 45-72.
  • Garcia-Mendoza, A.J. & Meave, J.A. (eds.) (2012). Diversidad florística de Oaxaca: de musgos a angiospermas (colecciones y listas de especies), ed. 2: 1-351. Instituto de Biología, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
  • Germishuizen, G. & Meyer, N.L. (eds.) (2003). Plants of Southern Africa an annotated checklist Strelitzia 14: 1-1231. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
  • Ghazanfar, S.A. (2007). Flora of the Sultanate of Oman. volume 2. Crassulaceae - Apiaceae Scripta Botanica Belgica 36: 1-220.
  • Gilman, A.V. (2015). New flora of Vermont Memoirs of the New York Botanical Garden 110: 1-614.
  • Greuter, W., Burdet, H.M. & Long, G. (eds.) (1989). Med-checklist 4: 1-458. Conservatoire et Jardin Botaniques de la Ville de Genève.
  • Gutiérrez, J. & Solano, E. (2014). Afinidades florísticas y fitogeográficas de la vegetación del municipio de San José Iturbide, Guanajuato, México Acta Botanica Mexicana 107: 27-65. Instituto de Ecología A.C.
  • Hokche, O., Berry, P.E. & Huber, O. (eds.) (2008). Nuevo Catálogo de la Flora Vascular de Venezuela: 1-859. Fundación Instituto Botánico de Venezuela.
  • Hong, D.Y. (ed.) (2019). Flora of Pan-Himalaya 19(6): 1-130. Science Press, Beijing. Cambridge University Press.
  • Iwatsuki, K., Boufford, D.E. & Ohba, H. (eds.) (2001). Flora of Japan IIb: 1-550. Kodansha Ltd., Tokyo.
  • Jones, R.L. (2005). Plant life of Kentucky. An illustrated guide to the vascular flora: 1-833. The universitry press of Kentucky.
  • Jørgensen, P.M. & León-Yánes, S. (eds.) (1999). Catalogue of the Vascular Plants of Ecuador: 1-1181. Missouri Botanical Garden Press, St. Louis.
  • Jørgensen, P.M., Nee, M.H. & Beck., S.G. (eds.) (2013). Catálogo de las plantas vasculares de Bolivia Monographs in Systematic Botany from the Missouri Botanical Garden 127: 1-1741. Missouri Botanical Garden.
  • Kral, R., Diamond, A.R., Ginzbarg, S.L., Hansen, C.J., Haynes, R.R., Keener, B.R., Lelong, M.G., Spaulding, D.D. & Woods, M. (2011). Annotated checklist of the vascular plants of Alabama: 1-112. Botanical reseach institute of Texas.
  • Kumar, S. & Sane, P.V. (2003). Legumes of South Asia. A Checklist: 1-536. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
  • Larson, J., Reif, B., Nelson, B.E. & Hartman, R.L. (2014). Floristic studies in North Central New Mexico, U.S.A. the Sange de Cristo mountains Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas 8: 271-303.
  • Lazkov, G.A. & Sultanova, B.A. (2011). Checklist of vascular plants of Kyrgyzstan Norrlinia 24: 1-166.
  • Lee, W.T. (1996). Lineamenta Florae Koreae: 1-1688. Soul T'ukpyolsi: Ak'ademi Sojok.
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