Alfalfa

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A sketch of Alfalfa leaves
Known by the Latin name Medicago sativa, as well as Buffalo Herb, Purple Medic and Chilean Clover, Alfalfa is one of the world’s best source for fodder. Its properties allow it to grow and adapt to a multitude of locations -- from cold, high-altitude areas to drought-prone arid zones to lush, temperate farming fields. A rich source of proteins, minerals and vitamins, Alfalfa is used as a food source as well as in medicines. It also works as a nutrient for grazing cattle and is considered an important ingredient for hay.

Contents

History and Growth

Alfalfa has been used for thousands of years for its many advantages. It is said to have its origins in Persia, now known as Iran, from where it spread to Greece and then via Europe to the continents of South and North Americas.

Today, Alfalfa grows throughout the world under varying conditions. A perennial herb, its leaves are categorized as trifoliate dentate with a woody underground stem. The lifespan of an Alfalfa plant ranges from three to 12 years and it generally grows to a height of around 1m. It has a bluish-violet flower that blooms between July and September and is cut around four times a year. The plant requires pollinators when in bloom, and most of that job is done by young bees. How well it grows depends on the region, soil conditions and the weather, among other factors.

High-yielding species of Alfalfa require deep soil, which can retain large quantities of water. Normally, almost any soil is suitable for Alfalfa growth — be it loamy, clay or sandy. It is a widely adapted crop and is an important source of biological nitrogen fixation due to its symbiotic relationship with nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Its easy adptibility allows it to grow in the wild and be cultivated on plantations.

Composition

Research has shown that Alfalfa contains minerals such as phosphorous, calcium, potassium, sodium, chlorine, sulphur, magnesium, copper, manganese, iron, cobalt and boron, and trace elements such as nickel, lead, palladium and beta carotene. Its vitamin composition includes vitamins C, E, K and B, as well as bioflavonoids. It is little wonder that Alfalfa is considered one of the world’s healthiest natural food sources.

Traditional Uses

Besides being used as fodder, the medicinal uses of Alfalfa have also been well-recorded down the ages. The plant has been used as folk remedy and food by both indigenous tribes as well as medicinal experts. Different civilizations have used this versatile plant in many different ways. The Chinese, for example, since the 6th century, have used Alfalfa to treat kidney stones and to relieve water retention. Among many Native American tribes, Alfalfa was a rich source of food, as flour from ground seeds to boiling its leaves and consuming them as greens. In Ayurveda, Alfalfa has been used to cure anaemia and to increase breast milk production. In Persia, Alfalfa was used widely as fodder for horses, to give them strength and stamina. In fact, in the Middle East, Alfalfa has always been known as the ‘Father of all Herbs’.

Modern-day Uses

Owing to its anti-carcinogenic properties and high nutritive value, Alfalfa is today used by many industries in a variety of ways. The food industry uses its extracts as a source of carotene and chlorophyll in food supplements, while its leaves and seeds, which are rich in many essential amino acids, are used to make tablets, capsules, powders and liquids by the pharmaceutical industry.

It serves as a good laxative and is also used to treat many diseases, including kidney and bladder disorders. It works as a tonic in the digestive system and increases vitality. Alfalfa is also said to have an anti-fungal agent and is used to cure arthritis and diabetes. The fluoride content allows it to be used as a preventive tool to stop tooth decay. Its properties are also known to help in tissue repair and are useful in the healing of wounds. Both Alfalfa sprouts and leaf preparations help lower blood cholesterol. Herbalists often recommend Alfalfa preparations as an important nutritive in cases of malnutrition and sustained illness.

But besides its medicinal and nutritive uses, Alfalfa’s primary use is as cattle feed, not just for cows and horses, but also for chicken and other farm animals. In the industrial sector, it is used to produce industrial enzymes and is now beginning to be used as a bio-fuel.

Precautions

Though it has its many uses, excessive consumption of Alfalfa can cause a few problems, such as the breakdown of red blood cells. Also, it is advised to avoid consuming Alfalfa, in all its forms, when pregnant because of the adverse effects of canavanine, an amino acid in it. All in all, its best to consume Alfalfa in moderation.

Pests

Alfalfa, like most plants, is vulnerable to attack by insects. A crucial problem is the Alfalfa Weevil, which is a leaf-feeding pest. When present, the use of insecticide is often required to keep the yield from decreasing. If not controlled, the entire crop can die as a result of Alfalfa Weevil feeding—for they “continuously eat” until the roots are depleted. Another prominent disease in Alfalfa is Aphanomyces root rot, which is caused by a fungal-like pathogen that results in poor growth, low yields and, sometimes, even death. Plants affected by Aphanomyces root rot are usually stunted before they wilt and die. This can be controlled only by using Aphanomyces-resistant Alfalfa varieties or by avoiding slowly drained soils as fungicides are not available for its control. The crown and root disease, which occurs due to a plant’s inability to withstand severe winter, acid soil, poor drainage and/or nutrient deficiencies, is also common in Alfalfa. Symptoms are not seen easily as the damage occurs under the soil and is found only when the leaves start yellowing and wilting. The important thing to remember is that the soil must be drained to avoid the crown and root disease.

Research and Development

Considerable research and development has been done on this important plant, with different strains being developed to suit different weather conditions so as to ensure higher yields. Over the last decade, Alfalfa breeders have created new strains that have increased resistance to both disease and harsh winter climate. Today, improved Alfalfa yields are being reported owing to these stronger varieties, adequate moisture and good management.

Did You Know?

  • Alfalfa leaves, either fresh or dried, have traditionally been used as a nutritive tonic to stimulate the appetite and promote weight gain.
  • The plant has an oestrogenic action and could prove useful in treating problems related to menstruation and the menopause.
  • A poultice of the heated leaves has been applied to the ear in the treatment of earache.
  • The leaves can be used fresh or dried.
  • Alfalfa leaves are rich in vitamin K which is used medicinally to encourage the clotting of blood.
  • It is valuable in the treatment of jaundice.

References

  • Herbal Information Center
  • Alternative Medicine
  • Alfalfa