By Megan Wannarka
About the Plant
Alfalfa (Latin name Medicago sativa) is a long-lived perennial legume. Flowers vary in color from purple to yellow and are borne in loose clusters. Typically grown as hay and cut before fully flowering for livestock or also used as green manure or cover crop to fix nitrogen. Introduced from Spanish colonizers to the Americas. Originating in warmer climates is the oldest grown crop for forage, so there are many cultivars. (USDA, 2002) (Wikipedia Contributors, 2020)
Figure 1 Flowering alfalfa Medicago sativa plant Photo by Temuri Balakhashvili
Alfalfa is also known as lusern in Afrikaans; jonxhë in Albanian; فصة [fisa] in Arabic; առվույտ in Armenian; yonca in Azerbaijani; люцэрна in Belarusian; lucerka in Bosian; люцерна in Bulgarian; alfals in Catalan; lucerka in Crotian; vojtěškain Czech; lucerne in Danish; luzerne in Dutch; lutsern in Estonian; sinimailanen in Finnish; luzerne in French; იონჯა in Georgian; αλφάλφα [alfálfa] or Μηδική in Greek; אַספֶּסֶת in Hebrew; अल्फाल्फा in Hindi; lucerna in Hungarian; Álfur in Icelandic; erba medica in Italian; lucerna in Latvian; アルファルファin Japanese; 알팔파 [alpalpa] in Korean; liucerna in Lithuanian; луцерка in Macedonian; царгас in Mongolian; یونجه in Persian; lucerna in Polish; lucernă in Romanian/Moldovan; люцерна [lyutserna] in Russian; луцерка [lucerka] in Serbian; lucerna in Slovak; lucerna in Slovenian; blålusern in Swedish; люцерна [lyutserna] in Ukrainian; beda in Uzbek; Cỏ linh lăng in Vietnamese; alffalffa in Welsh; respectively. (“Do You Know How to Say Alfalfa in Different Languages? “) (“alfalfa names – Encyclopedia of Life,”)
Seeding and yields
Alfalfa seed production requires the presence of pollinators. The most common to pollinate Alfalfa is European honey bee, Apis mellifera. The flower shape has 2 petals wide and upright while 2 laterals project forward and hide the small pool of nectar in the flower. The pollen carrying keel strikes the bee on the head when it reaches the nectar, annoying the bee and also depositing pollen on it to transfer to other plants. Also, most Alfalfa is cut before the full bloom of the flower when the plant has the most nutrition for hay to feed to ruminant animals.
Roundup Ready alfalfa, a genetically modified variety, was introduced in 2005 and caused issues with other farmers who don’t plant GMO varietals as the pollen is transferred readily from field to field causing cross-pollination with organic varieties making them unusable.
“About 20 million acres (8 million hectares) of Alfalfa were grown in the US, the fourth-biggest crop by acreage, of which about 1% were organic. Some biotechnology officials forecast that half of the US alfalfa acreage could eventually be planted with GM alfalfa.” (Wikipedia Contributors, 2020)
Figure 2 Variety of flower color from 1 field of alfalfa plants Photos by Temuri Balakhashvili
Alfalfa honey is typically lighter in color and thick viscosity, mostly because it is very likely to crystalize. Its light taste reminds me of vanilla in the best way. Because the flower are cut before it is fully bloomed, honey bees getting a little beat up from this flower, and the lack of seed saving due to GMOs makes this harder and harder to find honey. Here in Minnesota, I last tasted a good alfalfa honey maybe back in 2011? If you find it, buy it and buy lots. Hopefully, there a trend for it to come back in the United States. And if you know of someone that has it, please let me know.
Beekeeping notes (growing season, soil preference, nectar, and honey yields)
“Alfalfa is a perennial, European, much-branched herb…Among about a dozen other medicks introduced to Hawaii are several annuals…established as weeds or planted for ground cover and forage…” (Neal, 1965)
Nectar and pollen annually. Rapid to crystalize. Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) became an important forage crop in North Europe at the same time. According to archaeological evidence dating to 4000 BC, Alfalfa originated in Iran; it was brought to Spin by the Moors, spread northward in Europe slowly, and was taken to America by the early Spanish colonists. As well as providing food for animals, Alfalfa and other legumes are valuable as soil builders, since their roots attract nitrogen-fixing bacteria of the genus Rhizobium.” (Brockway, 2002)
“Nectar flows are best following wet springs, and average sugar concentrations commonly range between 41 and 44%. Up to 300 pounds of honey per hive are reported when alfalfa fields are stocked at two hives per acre. Although alfalfa pollen has high average protein levels, it lacks the essential protein isoleucine, thus contributing to nutritional stress and colony declines in honey bees with restricted forage.” (The Xerces Society, 2016)
“Perennial; Mainly in Central and Eastern and Klamath areas; Grown as seed and hay crop. A source of water white, fine quality honey. Little pollen collected. Nectar sugar concentration 40-45%. Unreliable producer at high elevations.” (Burgett, Stringer, & Johnston, 1989)
“[Blooms] May to September. Mackenzie District, NWT; Newfoundland, west to British Columbia. A species extensively cultivated for hay and forage, escaped and now found along roadsides, in old fields, and in waste places. Introduced; a native of central and western Asia, it has now become naturalized.” (Crompton & Wojtas, 1993)
“It is most valuable to beekeeping on irrigated land on the western plains above an altitude of 2000 ft. The honey is white or extra-light amber with a fine flavor and good body, an outstanding table honey. Alfalfa blooms throughout the summer because it is usually cut several times for hay. It is ranked as first in importance as a honey plant in UT, NV, ID, OR and is very important in most of the western states. When a hot dry spell comes during the blooming period, Alfalfa often yields well in many eastern states. The flowers are explosive and only a large strong insect can degrees the keel sufficiently to trip the mechanism of the plant. However, they find this so difficult that they soon to learn to “steal” the nectar through the slits in the sides of the floral tube without pollinating the flower. Surpluses of 100-150 are common. [Please note the date of writing for the surplus quoted]” (Lovell, 1966)
“This widely important perennial fodder crop provides hay and silage, as well as grazing pasture, in many temperate and subtropical areas, and in tropical Africa and Asia. Floretes are borne in racemes, and may open at any time of day. After pollination they wither within a few hours, but otherwise, they remain open for about a week…The bee carries with it pollen from a previously visited flower, and this accidentally rubbed on the stigma, resulting in cross-pollination; Florets at the base of raceme open first and those at the top last, usually about a week later…Since 1946 honeybees have been regarded as the primary pollinator, and 70,000 colonies are used annually in a single seed-growing area in California. Recommendations include USA 5-10; 4-8 hives/ha for Queensland, AUS, and 2-4/ha for USSR…” (Crane & Walker, 1984)
“Planted extensively throughout South Africa for grazing, hay, and seed production. The honey is light-colored, milk-tasting, and slow-granulating. It is obtained from areas where the rainfall during summer is low, both winter and summer rainfall regions…Flowers are less attractive to bees after rain, presumably because of the lower nectar sugar and more difficult flower tripping. Pollen is only available from tripped flowers. In tripping, the staminal columns strike the ventral side of the forager with considerable force. Bees then try to steal nectar from the sides of the flowers. Tripping is essential for seed production; therefore, more than one batch of bees is recommended. Pellets are olive coloured or light brownish-yellow. Pollen crude protein 19-24% (Australia)” (Johannsmeier, 2016)
References and Additional Resources
alfalfa names – Encyclopedia of Life. Retrieved August 19, 2020, from https://eol.org/pages/703652/names
Brockway, L. H. (2002). Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens. Yale University Press.
Burgett, D. M., Stringer, B. A., & Johnston, L. R. D. (1989). Nectar and Pollen Plants of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest : an illustrated dictionary of plants used by honey bees. Blodgett: Honeystone Press.
Crane, E., & Walker, P. (1984). Pollination Directory for World Crops. London: International Bee Research Association.
Crompton, C. W., & Wojtas, W. A. (1993). Pollen grains of Canadian honey plants. Ottawa, Ontario: Canada Communications Group.
Do You Know How to Say Alfalfa in Different Languages? Retrieved August 19, 2020, from In Different Languages website: https://www.indifferentlanguages.com/words/alfalfa
Johannsmeier, M. F. (2016). Beeplants of South Africa: Sources of Nectar, Pollen, Honeydew, and Propolis for Honeybees (Vol. 37). Pretoria: South African National Biodiversity Institute.
Lovell, H. B. (1966). Honey Plants Manual: A Practical Field Handbook for Identifying Honey Flora (2nd ed.). Louisville: A. I. Root Company.
Neal, M. C. (1965). In gardens of Hawaii. In Bernice P. Bishop Museum. Special publication 50; Bernice P. Bishop Museum special publication. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press.
The Xerces Society. (2016). 100 Plants to Feed the Bees: Provide a Healthy Habitat to Help Pollinators Thrive. Storey Publishing, LLC.
USDA. (2002). Plant Fact Sheet-Alfalfa Medicago sativa. Retrieved from http://npdc.usda.gov
Wikipedia Contributors. (2020). Alfalfa. Retrieved August 19, 2020, from Wikipedia website: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfalfa