AskDefine | Define alfalfa

Dictionary Definition



1 important European leguminous forage plant with trifoliate leaves and blue-violet flowers grown widely as a pasture and hay crop [syn: lucerne, Medicago sativa]
2 leguminous plant grown for hay or forage

User Contributed Dictionary



from Arabic al-fisfisa , al-fasfasah, "fresh fodder".


  • /ælˈfælfə/


  1. A plant, Medicago sativa, grown as a pasture crop.
  2. A type or breed of this plant.


Medicago sativa

Extensive Definition

Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) is a flowering plant in the pea family Fabaceae cultivated as an important forage crop. In the UK it is known as lucerne and Lucerne grass in India.
Alfalfa is a cool season perennial legume living from three to twelve years, depending on variety and climate. It resembles clover with clusters of small purple flowers. The plant grows to a height of up to 1 metre, and has a deep root system sometimes stretching to 4.5 metres. This makes it very resilient, especially to droughts. It has a tetraploid genome. The plant exhibits autotoxicity, which means that it is difficult for alfalfa seed to grow in existing stands of alfalfa. Therefore, it is recommended that alfalfa fields be rotated with other species (e.g. corn, wheat) before reseeding.
Like other legumes, its root nodules contain bacteria, Sinorhizobium meliloti, with the ability to fix nitrogen, producing a high-protein feed regardless of available nitrogen in the soil. Its nitrogen-fixing abilities (which increases soil nitrogen) and use as animal feed greatly improved agricultural efficiency. (The nitrogen comes from the air, which is 78 percent molecular nitrogen.)
Alfalfa is widely grown throughout the world as forage for cattle, and is most often harvested as hay, but can also be made into silage, grazed, or fed as greenchop. Alfalfa has the highest feeding value of all common hay crops, being used less frequently as pasture. When grown on soils where it is well-adapted, alfalfa is the highest yielding forage plant.
Alfalfa is one of the most important legumes used in agriculture. The US is the largest alfalfa producer in the world, but considerable acreage is found in Argentina (primarily grazed), Australia, South Africa, and the Middle East. Known as Kuthirai Masal in Tamil, alfalfa is mostly grown in the Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu, southern India.
The leading alfalfa growing states (within the U.S.A.) are California, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. The upper Midwestern states account for about 50% of US production, the Northeastern states 10%, the Western states 40% and the Southeastern states almost none. Alfalfa has a wide range of adaptation and can be grown from very cold northern plains to high mountain valleys, from rich temperate agricultural regions to Mediterranean climates and searing hot deserts.
Its primary use is as feed for dairy cattle, and secondarily for beef cattle, horses, sheep, and goats. Humans also eat alfalfa sprouts, in salads and sandwiches, for example. Tender shoots are eaten in some places as a leaf vegetable. Human consumption of fresh mature plant parts is rare and limited primarily by alfalfa's high fiber content. Dehydrated alfalfa leaf is commercially available as a dietary supplement in several forms, such as tablets, powders and tea. Alfalfa is believed by some to be a galactagogue, a substance that induces lactation.


Alfalfa can be sown in spring or fall, and does best on well-drained soils with a neutral pH of 6.8 – 7.5. Alfalfa requires a great deal of potash. Alfalfa is moderately sensitive to salt levels in both the soil and irrigation water, although it continues to be grown in the arid southwest, where salinity is an emerging issue. Soils low in fertility should be fertilized with manure or a chemical fertilizer, but correction of pH is particularly important. Usually a seeding rate of 13 – 20 kg/hectare (12 – 25 lb/acre) is recommended, with differences based upon region, soil type, and seeding method. A nurse crop is sometimes used, particularly for spring plantings, to reduce weed problems. Herbicides are sometimes used instead, particularly in Western production.
In most climates, alfalfa is cut three to four times a year but is harvested up to 12 times per year in Arizona and Southern California. Total yields are typically around 8 tonnes per hectare (4 short tons per acre) but yields have been recorded up to 20 t/ha (16 short tons per acre). Yields vary with region, weather, and the crop's stage of maturity when cut. Later cuttings improve yield but reduce nutritional content.
Alfalfa is considered an 'insectary' due to the large number of insects it attracts. Some pests such as Alfalfa weevil, aphids, armyworms, and the potato leafhopper can reduce alfalfa yields dramatically, particularly with the second cutting when weather is warmest. Chemical controls are sometimes used to prevent this. Alfalfa is also susceptible to root rots including phytophora, rhizoctonia, and Texas Root Rot.
Alfalfa seed production requires the presence of pollinators when the fields of alfalfa are in bloom. Alfalfa pollination is somewhat problematic, however, because the pollen-carrying keel of the flower trips and strikes pollinating bees on the head to help transfer the pollen to the foraging bee. Western honey bees do not like being struck in the head repeatedly and learn to defeat this action by drawing nectar from the side of the flower. The bees thus collect the nectar but carry no pollen and so do not pollenate the next flower they visit. Because older, experienced bees don't pollinate alfalfa well, most pollination is accomplished by young bees that have not yet learned the trick of robbing the flower without tripping the head-knocking keel. When western honey bees are used to pollinate alfalfa, the beekeeper stocks the field at a very high rate to maximize the number of young bees.
Today the alfalfa leafcutter bee is increasingly used to circumvent this problem. As a solitary but gregarious bee species, it does not build colonies or store honey, but is a very efficient pollinator of alfalfa flowers. Nesting is in individual tunnels in wooden or plastic material, supplied by the alfalfa seed growers. Grazing on alfalfa has been suspected as a cause of reduced fertility in sheep.

Medical Uses

Alfalfa has been used as an herbal medicine for over 1,500 years. Alfalfa is high in protein, calcium, plus other minerals, vitamin A, vitamins in the B group, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, and vitamin K.

Traditional Uses

In early Chinese medicines, physicians used young alfalfa leaves to treat disorders related to the digestive tract and the kidneys. In India, ayurvedic physicians used the leaves for treating poor digestion. They made a cooling poultice from the seeds for boils. At the time, alfalfa was also believed to be helpful towards people suffering from arthritis and water retention.

Modern Use

It is majorly used in homeopathic medicines worldwide. Today, alfalfa is suggested for treating anemia, diabetes, to extend appetite and contribute towards weight gain, as a diuretic for increased urination, for indigestion and bladder disorders, alfalfa can also be used as an estrogen replacement in order to increase breast milk and to mitigate premenstrual syndrome, a dietary supplement, and to lower blood cholestrol levels.


  • In Of Mice and Men, the popular novella authored by John Steinbeck, Lenny becomes increasingly obsessed with growing Alfalfa for his rabbits for if he ever gets a farm with George.


alfalfa in Arabic: برسيم حجازي
alfalfa in Aragonese: Alfalz
alfalfa in Catalan: Alfals
alfalfa in German: Luzerne
alfalfa in Spanish: Alfalfa
alfalfa in Persian: یونجه
alfalfa in French: Luzerne cultivée
alfalfa in Icelandic: Refasmári
alfalfa in Italian: Medicago sativa
alfalfa in Latin: Medica
alfalfa in Dutch: Luzerne
alfalfa in Japanese: アルファルファ
alfalfa in Norwegian: Alfalfa
alfalfa in Polish: Lucerna siewna
alfalfa in Portuguese: Alfafa
alfalfa in Finnish: Alfalfa
alfalfa in Swedish: Blålusern
alfalfa in Turkish: Alfalfa
alfalfa in Chinese: 紫花苜蓿
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