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Alfalfa: Definition, Uses & Benefits

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda has taught high school science for over 10 years. She has a Master's Degree in Cellular and Molecular Physiology from Tufts Medical School and a Master's of Teaching from Simmons College. She is also certified in secondary special education, biology, and physics in Massachusetts.

This lesson is on the plant alfalfa. In this lesson, we'll go over what alfalfa is, how people use it, and some of the benefits to both other plants and humans.

What Is Alfalfa?

Walking through your local health foods store, you might find a small, sprouted plant called alfalfa in the cooler. Wondering what this is, you whip our your smart phone and take a look. When searching for alfalfa, many health-oriented blogs and websites pop up, expounding on the benefits of this super food. Are these benefits for real? Well, prepare to be informed about the health benefits for humans, as well as other uses for alfalfa. The answer to your grocery store conundrum awaits!

Many people top salads with alfalfa sprouts to reap the nutritional benefits.
alfalfa salad

Alfalfa, or technically known as Medicago sativa, is a flowering plant resembling clover, but a member of the legume family. It grows close to the ground, with deep roots that can reach over 15 feet in length below the surface. Although the seeds are incredibly tiny and need to be planted close to the surface during farming, alfalfa is a perennial plant, meaning it will grow for many years before needing to be replanted. The beautiful purple flowers are pollinated by honey bees, both propagating the crop and producing one of the largest varieties of honey made in the United States.

Flowering alfalfa plants
flowering alfalfa

Growing Alfalfa

Farmers have been growing alfalfa for thousands of years. Although originating in South Central Asia, alfalfa is grown all over the world and is a major crop in the United States. In 2014, over 60 million tons of alfalfa were grown in the United States. Alfalfa is grown not only for human consumption, but also for animals. Alfalfa means 'best fodder' in Arabic, and has been used as a feed crop for livestock for thousands of years. Alfalfa can either be cut and dried as hay or fermented into silage while it is still moist.

Alfalfa farmed for hay
Alfalfa hay barrels

Alfalfa is also good for other crops. Alfalfa can incorporate nitrogen into the soil in a form that other plants can use, a process called nitrogen fixation. Warding off unwanted weeds and pests can also be a benefit of planting alfalfa with mixed crops.

Benefits of Alfalfa

Humans have come to love alfalfa too! Touted as a super food, alfalfa appears as a staple in most grocery stores, especially specialty health food stores. Alfalfa is eaten only as the sprout form, not the entire plant.

Alfalfa sprouts ready to be eaten
alfalfa sprouts

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