Name: Alfalfa: (Medicago sativa)
Otherwise known as: Lucerne
Habitat: A perennial member of the Leguminosae, and a very deep-rooted herb, growing to about 80cm in meadows and chalky soils in Europe, Asia and the USA. It has tri-lobed leaves and displays racemes of flowers ranging from pale yellow to deep purple, which develop into green spiral seed-pods.
What does it do: This is a most unusual and under-researched herb. Known principally as a cattle feed it has a long history of medical use. Pliny records the plant was brought to Europe by Darius, King of the Persians, in 6th century BC during his Greek campaigns. The seeds, which taste like fresh peas, were given to his troops to improve their stamina and ward off illness. The Arabs valued it highly and fed it to their horses to improve their performance.
Alfalfa contains alkaloids, isoflavones, coumarins, and sterols, there are eight essential enzymes, which include amylase that digests starches; invertase which converts sugar into dextrose and lipase that splits fats. In addition, the plant yields vitamins A, B, C, D, E, K and P and the minerals Calcium, Magnesium, Phosphorus and Potassium. It is not surprising that it enhances performance in man and beast. The sprouts, which feature in health shops, contain 150 per cent more protein than wheat or corn sprouts.
The herb is anti-cholesterol, anti-coagulant and displays anti-diabetic activity. Traditionally used to restore health and weight to post-surgical cases, it is thought to promote strong bone growth and restore decaying teeth in post-natal women. Herbalists recommend it to treat lumbago, rheumatism, chronic ulcers and infections of the respiratory system. Being rich in chlorophyll, it stimulates growth of connective tissue. As a diuretic it is said to relieve dropsy and disorders of the urinary system. Currently, clinicians are experimenting with it in cases of anorexia nervosa. In view of the plant’s sterol activity it is believed that it may have value in dealing with problems arising from the menopause.
Apart from its value as an animal feed, the plant is an excellent green manure for enriching poor quality soil.
Alexander McCowan is author of The World’s Most Dangerous Plants