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Alfalfa - Medicago sativa L.
Photo: Amédée Masclef - Atlas des plantes de France. 1891 (PD)
Alfalfa - Other Names, Past and Present
Chinese: zihua muxu
Japanese: arufa-rufa(transliteration and onomatopoeia of "alfalfa")
Korean: jaju gaejali
Hindi: wilayati gawuth / lusan
French: feuille de Luzerne / grand trefle / herbe aux bisons / Lucerne / sanfoin
Arabic: al-fisfisa / al-fasfasa (lit. "fresh fodder", often erroneously translated as "Father of all food")
Persian: espest / aspest / aspast
Spanish alfalfez (adopted from Arabic "al-fisfisa")
Dutch / German: Luzerne
Italian: erba medica
English: alfalfa / purple medic / Lucerne (adopted from Dutch Luzerne)
Latin (scientific nomenclature): Medicago sativa
Background and History
Alfalfa is a relatively ancient perennial plant of the legume family which has been employed since early antiquity as a source of food for both human societies and their foraging animals. A typically longlived plant consisting of around five or more closely related subspecies, alfalfas were thought to have been a native of Greece, where it was first believed to have been cultivated for sustenance, although conflicting sources suggest that alfalfa may have originated somewhere in the Cradle of Civilization with candidates for its 'true' place of origin ranging from Ur, Mesopotamia, Tunisia, Iran, India, and even China. With such a wide range of possible places of origin, it is more reasonable to assume that, like most other ancient plants, the range of its growth was vast, as alfalfas were quite commonplace in many countries having been employed as either food for humans or livestock in various periods throughout history.
While it is commonly mistaken as a sort of grain (similar to rice, wheat, or corn), alfalfas are actually legumes (similar to the peanut and the mung bean), which explains why they have been consumed (typically by humans, but also by livestock) as sprouts. Alfalfas typically measure (at the most) some three feet in length upon full maturity and are notable for its very deep root system which is well-adapted to dry, often arid landscapes. Despite its preference for dry soils, alfalfa is also able to thrive in moist, nutritionally dense settings, where its growth would undoubtedly be less hampered than it would be in more 'native' settings. While alfalfa has been cultivated by several cultures since ancient times, it was not strictly speaking a true 'staple' food in the fullest meaning of the word, since alfalfa exhibits a trait known as autotoxicity - a condition wherein the plant itself produces toxins that prevent its own strains alongside those of other similar strains to grow in a plot of land currently occupied by the first strain. Because of this, fallowing land or rotating the type of crops sown and harvested on the land was necessary, although it often dramatically reduced the supply of alfalfa, making it more of a selected food than a true staple.
Alfalfas are notable for their trifling resemblance to the clover (genus Trifolium) from which it shares a number of slightly similar characteristics such as small clustered inflorescence (typically of a deep bluish, lavender, to purple hue) which branch out alternately from a thin yet sturdy stem. Prior to blossoming, the flowers appear similar to juvenile leaves which can be pin-like to slightly thin and ovoid in appearance, possessing an emerald-green to dark-green hue. Alfalfa is also notable for its yellow or olive-hued fruits which grow at the basal stem of the flower. The tiny fruits may typically house some ten to twenty seeds which are collected by picking the fruits and extracting the seeds. From these, sprouts can be made using a time-tested process of maceration in tepid water until germination occurs. While the health conscious world now tends to focus solely on alfalfa sprouts as a primary means of nutrition for both humans and livestock, in olden times, the flowers and even the immature leaves of the alfalfa were also consumed, with the former being used for both human and animal consumption, and the latter (after having been dried or baled along with alfalfa's other constituent parts), being chiefly relegated to livestock, poultry, and even some domesticated game. 
Since ancient times, alfalfa was considered the most prolific of all fodder material, able to yield extremely large amounts of highly nutritive food that was fit for both human and animal consumption. In spite of the fact that alfalfa cultivation existed in a number of different cultures, the consumption of alfalfa was soon relegated solely to animals with the introduction of other types of less finicky, albeit slightly less nutritive staple foods (i. e. wheat, quinoa, spelt, rye, corn, etc.). Prior to its having been recast as solely fit for animal consumption, alfalfa was partaken of by many established societies and even a handful of nomadic tribes.
Common / Popular Uses Of Alfalfa
Alfalfa has long been cultivated since the time of the Ancient Greeks as a secondary source of animal fodder and human sustenance. Being a hardy and long-lived plant, it too was generously cultivated by other agrarian-based cultures and employed for similar purposes, usually in conjunction with grains and other types of produce, but only rarely used by itself for livestock. Because it often yielded very large amounts of consumable and highly nutritious constituent parts, alfalfa was a perfect food for the then predominantly agrarian cultures that comprised most of the early civilizations that broke off from the old hunter-gatherer lifestyles. Alfalfa was naturally wholly useful and entirely edible with sprouts being obtained from its seeds being employed as a type of staple food for humans while the largesse of what was left after harvesting would be employed as hay or made into silage.  Due to its high protein content and equally high nutritional profile, it became a prime choice for livestock fodder, especially for working horses (drays), dairy cows, and cattle or game that were reared for eventual sale, trade, or consumption.
Some primitive cultures have also employed alfalfa shoots as a secondary staple, alongside the more well-known grain staples (i. e. maize, wheat) due to its easy digestibility and nutritional density, although the practice somewhat declined sometime during the latter part of the Early Middle Ages due to the complicacy that comes from planting and eventually preparing alfalfa for human consumption. The shoots are typically grown by steeping alfalfa seeds in lukewarm in a warm environment that has access to light. Germination usually takes two to four days, depending upon the climate and chosen area for germination. While the rest of the world soon came to favour grains over the small nutritional powerhouse legume, its use did not thoroughly dissipate as it still played a major role in the livestock industry, being among the primary sources of cattle feed to this very day.
When employed for the consumption of cattle, sprouting is typically done on a massive scale, but due to the time and difficulty involved in sprouting alfalfa seeds (in spite of its nutritional density), this process only rank second to the more commonplace method of creating haylage. When creating hay, freshly harvested alfalfa plants are arranged in rows and allowed to dry, often being threshed manually or otherwise crushed with the help of machinery to facilitate faster drying. The dry fodder material is then collected, finely chopped, and housed in silos or otherwise encased in a container to allow for fermentation. The resulting haylage, a nutritionally dense, cheap, protein-rich fodder, is then fed as is to one's livestock, or, if desired, 'cut' or adulterated with one's choice of dry hay, animal feed, or unfermented alfalfa cuttings for practical or economical purposes. 
The earliest record of the medicinal usage of alfalfa is credited to early Chinese physicians, who have employed the whole plant for various medicinal applications (almost solely of an internal sort) for over a thousand years. Traditional Chinese Medicine usually prescribed immature alfalfa leaves or shoots as a remedy for various digestive complaints, while they largely employed decoctions of mature leaves as diuretics.  The consumption of shoots was not lost on the Chinese, who used the food chiefly for the creation of recuperative meals. A mixture of alfalfa leaves and crushed seeds have even been employed in poultice-form (with dubious efficiency) by the Chinese as a remedy for arthritic aches and pains.
Nowadays, the production of alfalfa has even reverted to catering to human consumption as the interest in organic and wholesome, all-natural foods are experiencing an all-time high. The most commonly produced alfalfa products for sale for human consumption are alfalfa sprouts, which are sold typically in their whole (dehydrated) state, usually in zip-lock bags. Some local suppliers (especially country farms) may also sell whole fresh alfalfa sprouts, although the dehydrated bagged types are more readily available in nearly every grocery and in specialty health food stores. Alfalfa sprouts may be consumed in its raw state, or otherwise sautéed or incorporated into soups, stews, and a number of other common foodstuffs. Consuming alfalfa sprouts or integrating into one's daily diet is not only said to effectively lower LDL cholesterol levels, but it may also help to regulate blood sugar levels, alleviate depression, reduce stress, improve bowel movement, and improve skin-tone and muscle mass. Due to its high protein content, alfalfa sprouts are also very filling. Backed up by its relative nutritional density, alfalfa sprouts are a perfect addition for breakfasts, quick-fix snacks, and wholesome, home-cooked meals provided that they are consumed in moderation. 
Beyond the popularity of alfalfa sprouts, its leaves may also be consumed. While there has yet been no reliable evidence of any culture employing mature leaves as a type of vegetable or spice, immature ones may have been used for food purposes during ancient times. Nowadays, both mature and immature alfalfa leaves (and nearly all of its constituent parts, discounting the seeds and roots) are powdered, encapsulated, and take as daily nutritional supplements. Somewhat coarser cuts have even been employed as tisanes, although encapsulated alfalfa is more popular. In most cases, the sprouts are predominantly used as a foodstuff while the leaves and stems are employed as choice material nutritional supplements or herbal 'teas'. There are instances however where powdered and encapsulated shoots are also available, typically without (but sometimes with) the addition of equally fine, powdered leaves.
The moderate consumption of alfalfa has been linked to a number of amazing health benefits by modern nutritionists and even old-school herbalists. Among the many 'goodies' that one may reap from occasional alfalfa consumption is a marked reduction in blood cholesterol levels, resulting in improved heart health, the possibility of its being useful for the management and prevention of certain types of cancer, and its immuno-boosting, and anti-diabetic properties. 
A decoction of alfalfa leaves is used by some homeopaths and traditional healers as a remedy for digestive problems such as diarrhea, loose-bowel-movement, and indigestion. Very potent decoctions of the leaves or significantly large portions of the sprouts may also be taken to regulate hormonal levels and to help induce menstruation as well as remedy the discomforts associated with the phase thanks to its emmenagogue properties. Folkloric medicine has traditionally ascribed galactagogue properties to alfalfa, and it was given in small amounts to lactating women to help increase the production of milk as well as to improve its overall nutritional quality. 
The moderate use or consumption of alfalfa and products containing significantly viable amounts of it have even been employed by homeopathic healers in the treatment of kidney disorders, problems with the digestive tract, and (as gleaned from folkloric medicine) as a cure for various urinary troubles thanks to its attributed diuretic properties. Ayurvedic medicine still continues to employ alfalfa leaves and sprouts as a remedy for indigestion, with the sprouts typically being prepared and given to sick and convalescent individuals to fortify their immune system's resistance, provide adequate yet easily assimilated nutrition, and to facilitate in faster healing. It has even been suggested that alfalfa sprouts may even prove to be a good source of bodily available vitamin D2, although the association has yet to be verified as entirely feasible. Further Ayurvedic use of the plant involved employing crushed alfalfa seeds (used by itself or mixed with crushed fresh sprouts) as a curative poultice for boils, carbuncles, and a wide assortment of other topical disorders. 
Some individuals who follow strict diet rules (i. e. diabetics, gluten-sensitive individuals, individuals who practice a set religious dietary code) may find ample and readily accessible nutrition in the consumption of alfalfa sprouts, which are teeming with calcium protein, and essential B-vitamins necessary for the proper functioning of the human body. Because alfalfa is a legume, people who suffer from coeliac disease may benefit from this nutritional powerhouse as an alternative to, or an accompaniment to the consumption of gluten-free foods. The sprouts may be thoroughly dried and ground up into flour which can then be integrated into other gluten-free grains, or used by itself in the creation of delightful meals.
Unlike other, more versatile herbal remedies, the usage of alfalfa is chiefly relegated to the internal consumption of the plant, with very little recorded evidence of its topical use.
Esoteric / Magickal Uses
When employed for magickal purposes, alfalfa has been (and in some cases, still is) employed as an offertory plant to deities associated with the harvest and the production of grain. It has long been associated with abundance, and is employed by sympathetic magicians as a bolster against hunger and poverty. While there is very little evidence which points out to a strong ceremonial usage, alfalfa has been suggested as a talisman against poverty, hunger, privation, and discord by some branches of ceremonial magick, perhaps taking a cue from the early shamanic employment of the herb.
Modern magick typically employs alfalfa as a sort of fortune magnet, often placing offertory amounts of the plant in home altars or personal Sacred spaces to help counteract poverty and hunger in a household. Folkloric magick advises keeping a jar of dried sprouts in the kitchen or the pantry cabinet to protect a house and home from privation and hardships.  Creating a wreath of alfalfa leaves is also believed to protect from financial losses as well as to improve the harmony of a home. 
In Voodoo and Hoodoo practices, alfalfa is thought of as a powerful amulet for attracting profit, luck, and wealth and was commonly employed or integrated into talismans that involved money, business, or personal financial improvement. More traditional shamanic practices typically burnt alfalfa leaves as an incense of thanksgiving, as well as an offertory prayer for blessings. The smoke exuded by alfalfa incense was also believed to fortify a person's health and protect him from misfortunes. Due to its protective associations, alfalfa ashes may be scattered around the perimetres of one's property to protect it against possible loss due to ill-luck or unwise investments. 
Alfalfa - Safety Notes
While the occasional moderate consumption of alfalfa is generally deemed safe, individuals who partake of immuno-suppressants or whose immune systems are in some way compromised due to illness should steer clear of raw alfalfa sprouts as these may contain microbes that may be detrimental to their delicate medical state. Likewise, children below six years old should not be fed raw alfalfa sprouts for similar reasons. Pregnant women should also avoid the consumption of sprouts and any products containing alfalfa, as its emmenagogue properties may elicit an accidental miscarriage.
Individuals with distinct medical conditions such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis should also moderate their consumption of alfalfa as it may aggravate the medical condition. Alfalfa should only be consumed in moderate doses, and only on an occasional basis, since individuals who consume large amounts of alfalfa may result in anaemia and an impaired immune system (the exact reverse of its benefit when consumed only in trifling amounts).  Due to the high phytoesterogen content found in alfalfa, excessive consumption of the plant may result in erratic menstrual cycles and a disrupted reproductive rhythm, so moderation is the key to reaping its benefits without succumbing to its sideeffects.
Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt. © herbs-info.com 2013
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