Herb: Alfalfa


Latin name: Medicago sativa


Family: Leguminosae



Medicinal use of Alfalfa:

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. Some caution is advised in the use of this plant, however. It should not be prescribed to people with auto-immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. See also the notes above on toxicity. The plant is antiscorbutic, aperient, diuretic, oxytocic, haemostatic, nutritive, stimulant and tonic. The expressed juice is emetic and is also anodyne in the treatment of gravel. The plant is taken internally for debility in convalescence or anaemia, haemorrhage, menopausal complaints, pre-menstrual tension, fibroids etc. 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. The leaves are rich in vitamin K which is used medicinally to encourage the clotting of blood. This is valuable in the treatment of jaundice. The plant is grown commercially as a source of chlorophyll and carotene, both of which have proven health benefits. The leaves also contain the anti-oxidant tricin. The root is febrifuge and is also prescribed in cases of highly coloured urine. Extracts of the plant are antibacterial.

Description of the plant:



Plant:
Perennial


Height:
100 cm
(3 1/4 foot)

Flovering:
June
to July

Habitat of the herb:

Waste ground, avoiding acid soils.

Edible parts of Alfalfa:

Leaves and young shoots - raw or cooked. The leaves can also be dried for later use. Very rich in vitamins, especially A, B and C, they are also a good source of protein. The leaves are a rich source of vitamin K. A very nutritious food in moderation, though it can trigger attacks in patients with systemic lupus erythematosus and large quantities can affect liver function and cause photosensitization. A nutritional analysis is available. The seed is commonly used as a sprouted seed which is added to salads, used in sandwiches etc or cooked in soups. The seed is soaked in warm water for 12 hours, then kept moist in a container in a warm place to sprout. It is ready in about 4 - 6 days. The seeds can also be ground into a powder and used as a mush, or mixed with cereal flours for making a nutritionally improved bread etc. Seed yields average around 186 - 280 kilos per hectare. An appetite-stimulating tea is made from the leaves, it has a flavour somewhat reminiscent of boiled socks and is slightly laxative.

Other uses of the herb:

Often grown as a green manure. It is a bit slow to establish in its first year so is generally only recommended for positions where it can remain for 2 or more years. Alfalfa is very vigorous from its second year, producing a huge bulk of material that can be cut down 2 or 3 times during the season. Plants are very deep rooting, descending 6 metres or more into the soil, and are able to fix large quantities of atmospheric nitrogen, this makes them one of the very best green manures. Plants are rather intolerant of competition from grass etc, however, and there is the drawback of needing to leave them in the soil for more than 2 years to fully achieve their potential. Alfalfa is a potenially excellent source of biomass. It is possible to produce more than 2 tonnes of protein from the leaves (suitable for human use) per hectare per year. In addition, the plant residues remaining could be used to produce the equivalent of about 10 barrels of oil per year. A yellow dye is obtained from the seed. The fibre of the plant has been used in making paper. The seed yields about 8.5 - 11% of a drying oil. It is used in paints, varnish etc. The plant can be grown as a low dividing hedge in the vegetable garden.

Propagation of Alfalfa:

Pre-soak the seed for 12 hours in warm water and then sow in spring in situ. The seed can also be sown in situ in autumn. Seed can be obtained that has been inoculated with Rhizobium bacteria, enabling the plant to succeed in soils where the bacteria is not already present.

Cultivation of the herb:

Waste ground, avoiding acid soils.

Known hazards of Medicago sativa:

The plant contains saponin-like substances. Eating large quantities of the leaves may cause the breakdown of red blood cells. However, although they are potentially harmful, saponins are poorly absorbed by the human body and so most pass through without harm. Saponins are quite bitter and can be found in many common foods such as some beans. Thorough cooking, and perhaps changing the cooking water once, will normally remove most of them from the food. Saponins are much more toxic to some creatures, such as fish, and hunting tribes have traditionally put large quantities of them in streams, lakes etc in order to stupefy or kill the fish. Alfalfa sprouts (and especially the seeds) contain canavanine. Recent reports suggest that ingestion of this substance can cause the recurrence of systemic lupus erythematosus (an ulcerous disease of the skin) in patients where the disease had become dormant.

Plant information taken from the Plants For A Future.