Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Origin, Distribution and Naming of Alfalfa

This is especially for my friend Bill.  I found this in my old college notes of 1969.  Dr. Paul Henderlong was my Forages 412 instructor.


Alfishfisah, probably close to the Arabic word for "mother of crops," can arguably be called the world's most important forage crop.  This crop was the first to be and is the most widely domesticated, with references tracing back to the first attempts of man to sustain himself with agriculture.  The reference we have dated back to the Hittite tablets, 3,300 years ago.  It is by chance that alfa is the Number One letter in the Greek alphabet?  Many countries in West Asia still call the crop alfa-alfa.

In an evolutionary sense, alfalfa is almost indestructible, making it well adapted to extremely varying climates and usages.  Its origins are thought be in in ancient Media, which is in the NW corner of modern day Iran or Persia.  A second center of diversity is probably Turkestan, in Central Asia.  The Media types evolved under pronounced continental conditions, hot and dry summers with cold  winters.  This is how it got its persistence.  Several types currently found in North America are most likely derived from these, having gained adaptability to arid and hot climates or non-dormant.

The Turkestan types evolved under milder winter conditions.  Because agriculture, and especially irrigated agriculture, has been practiced here for as long as history records go, the types evolved with their own characteristics and resistance to diseases and insects.  A third origin of modern day alfalfa is from a hybrid between Medicago Sativa and the yellow flowered M. falcata, called M. varia.  The M. falcata types evolved under extreme cold conditions in the area from Siberia to the Black Sea and the Himalayas(winter hardiness.)

The Persian origin of alfalfa also explains the taxonomic identification as Medicago or plant from Media.  The word medicine most likely derived from the plants of Media, used by the ancient Persians, and other tribes who gathered on the Mesopotamian Plains to cure illnesses.  In Italy, alfalfa is still widely called "erba medica," almost literally "medicinal herb."  The species name of Sativa is perhaps derived from the Latin for overabundance, for its ability to provide fantastic yields of green forage.  Perhaps this explanation is wishful thinking.

When the Persian Empire extended its influence into Greece around 500 BC, alfalfa was brought along as fodder or forage for horses.  From here it was taken through Italy into central Switzerland.  Alfalfa was particularly adapted to the calcareous soils around Lake Lucerne, thus the name lucerne for this crop in Europe, except Spain and Portugal.  The biggest expansion of the crop was the the Moors, travelling from present day Turkey through Northern Africa into Spain and Portugal around 700-800 AD.  When the early Spanish explorers ventured with their horses in to the New World, they brought the crop called alfalfa with them.  Alfalfa proliferated in Argentina, Chile and Peru, and was brought into Northern Mexico and California by the Jesuit Priests and Conquistadors around 1800.

About the same time alfalfa was moving westward into Italy at the beginning of the Christian Era, alfalfa was also establishing itself in the east.  Early Chinese Emperors found the crop well suited for fodder and forage for their herds in Northern China.

About 100 years before alfalfa was brought to the United States via the Spanish South American route, the crop was brought into the New World by early British and French explorers.  They introduced it to the East Coast of the US and Australia and New Zealand.  It was called Lucerne here because of its European introduction.

I will finish this story in the future.

Ed Winkle

P.S. by Chimel: I think I finished the story already by publishing Part II before noticing this Part I was not published yet...  ;)
P.P.S. Lucerne or luzerne in French comes from the Provencal luzerno for the glow-worm, because of the shiny seeds.

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