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After an 8,000-year journey, the "Queen of Forages" stands poised to enjoy renewed popularity

Michael Russelle

Alfalfa holds the distinction of being the oldest forage crop for which we have a name, yet the etymology of the word is uncertain. It may have arisen from modifications of the Persian aspo-asti (horse fodder), the Arabic al-fasfasa or the Kashmiri ashwa-bal (both meaning horse power). Some have speculated that the name most commonly used in Europe, "lucerne," may derive from the Persian word läjwärd for lapis lazuli, the ultramarine blue mineral lazurite, in reference to the blue flowers of Medicago sativa—one of the two species, with M. falcata, known as alfalfa. Early French writers referred to it as sain foin (healthy hay), although this is now the common name of a different legume species. Today, alfalfa also is known as medic, named—according to the Greek geographer and historian Strabo, who called it mhdich—for the location of its origin, the ancient empire of Media. That root clearly persists in the Latin medica, the Italian herba medica, the Spanish mielga, the Old English medick and the scientific genus, Medicago.

Figure 1. Alfalfa not only holdsClick to Enlarge Image

What most of the proposed derivations for the word alfalfa have in common, however, is acknowledgement of the plant's merits. From the beginnings of Western Civilization, farmers have recognized that alfalfa provides excellent animal feed, improves the soil, increases yields of other crops and can be used as food or medication for people. Today, despite the widespread use of nitrogen-based fertilizers, alfalfa continues to play a vital role in agriculture, and the development of new uses for this ancient legume promises to ensure a bright future.

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