Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia) - Healthy or Holy

Ed's post about alfalfa just started a war on legumes!
More seriously, it reminded me of how sainfoin was one of the predominant legumes before horses gave way to tractors and alfalfa replaced it altogether in European countries such as France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Poland and most of Eastern Europe.

The name "sainfoin" comes from the French "sain" (healthy) and "foin" (hay), probably from the Latin name of the look-alike but smaller alfalfa, "medicago" (same root as medicate). Sainfoin makes the most palatable hay for livestock, is a non-bloating legume, and also fights intestinal nematode parasites, so the name gets confused at times with "saint foin", or holy hay.

Sainfoin is mostly pollinated by honey bees, although the whole range of pollinating bees and other insects will gather its nectar. Sainfoin honey is delicate, great for toast, herbal tea and baking, but is becoming rarer as growing sainfoin is also declining worldwide. Sainfoin honey is very clear and liquid on harvesting, and becomes white with yellowish strikes upon crystallizing.

There are two main kinds of sainfoin, the most common comes from the Middle East and is being grown as a biennial or triennial, allowing up to 2 crops of hay or even seeds (and honey) per year. The original species lasts up to 5-6 years but allows only one hay crop per year. So it is no wonder that the more productive alfalfa has replaced it in modern agriculture.

Sainfoin is planted at 35-45 pounds of husked seeds per acre on finely leveled ground in spring or end of autumn, or 125-145 pounds if using the one-seeded pods whole. The pivot roots grows as far as 15-20 feet deep, with numerous lateral roots. The seeds require a special inoculant. The rhizobia growing on sainfoin roots are much more diverse than the ones on cultivated alfalfa or clover, and have not been studied much to this day. Eventually it all resolves into producing more nitrogen, but I can't help comparing it to feeding the soil with whole wheat as opposed to white flour. Talking of wheat, sainfoin works great in a rotation with small grain cereals. Or, as was the usage for the common single crop variety, together with wheat, oats or barley planted in spring, so it could grow slowly under the protection of these cereals for the beginning of the season.

As hay, sainfoin is either grown alone, or mixed with other grasses such as fescue. It adapts to more types of soils (especially dry land)  than alfalfa or clover, except for stagnant water, and can be cut at different stages of growth, offering a longer harvesting period which can be helpful in case of detrimental weather. The finest hay should be harvested just before first flowering. The regrowth is harvested too but is usually a bit coarser, while still very palatable to horses and cattle or goats because of its sweetness. One acre of sainfoin produces 7,00 pounds of hay dry matter on non-irrigated, over 8,000 pounds on irrigated ground according to Montana MSU, about 80-90% of alfalfa yield over 2 crops per season. Cultivar WL320 reached over 11,000 pounds in Oregon with 3 crops per season. In Montana and the Western Plains, sainfoin is often harvested only once, the regrowth  is used for direct grazing. Some great pictures of 300 acres of sainfoin in Idaho here.

For seed production, as with wild rice, all seeds are not mature at the same time, so a middle point must be chosen to maximize the number of seeds harvested. The green seeds will continue maturing as they dry and will be just as viable as the mature ones. Until such a time as sainfoin becomes as important as the so-called cultivated "wild rice", which is now a GMO plant at 100%, with the gene that makes all its seeds mature simultaneously. In case you thought that the brown-black wild rice seeds in your rice mix were still harvested 3 times by shaking the uncut stems over the bottom of their kayaks by Native Americans... The seed must be kept very dry, especially at the beginning, as it has a strong tendency to ferment before it dries out. So, long flat beds work better than heaps. Yield reaches up to 1,000 pounds per irrigated acre.

Sainfoin has been cultivated in Europe since the Middle Ages, and after nearing extinction in the recent period, currently experiences a rebirth thanks to pelletization, which allows the more costly to grow sainfoin to be sold at higher valued prices. A lot of the original biodiversity of sainfoin, whose orchis-like flowers range from light pink to bright purple, has probably been lost already: Only 3 cultivars were (and are) still present on the seed catalogs in France when interest in sainfoin resurfaced, but new ones have started to be marketed in the U.S. after a break of over 25 years.

Its antiparasital role also contributed to the recent interest in sainfoin, and seems to be caused by the tannins present in its hay, which deters nematodes from reproducing in the guts of livestock. Regions traditionally known for their sainfoin honey have mostly moved since to rapeseed honey, but are trying to recover this sainfoin specificity setting up controlled flower origin labels for honey.
Dioscorides, Galen and Pliny mention sainfoin as a medicinal herb with leaves that are fortifying, resolutives, diaphoretic and diuretic, whatever the 2 middle ones mean! ;)

Another old French name for sainfoin is "esparcette", from the Provencal esparceto (meaning "spread out"), which gave the current German, Danish, Finnish and Spanish names for it. Still, not as funny as the Spanish "pipirigallo" (I assume because chickens love the seed) or the Hungarian "Takarmánybaltacim", or even the Latin name "Onobrychis" which basically means "assnip", making donkeys as raving mad for it as cats for catnip.

Chimel.

P.S. Had to remove quite a few anonymous spam posts, the ransom of Ed blog's success...  ;)

2 comments:

  1. Incredible story there. What occurred after? Take care!


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