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the web of life in southern Africa

Medicago sativa (Alfalfa, Lucerne, Medic)

Life > eukaryotes > Archaeoplastida > Chloroplastida > Charophyta > Streptophytina > Plantae (land plants) > Tracheophyta (vascular plants) > Euphyllophyta > Lignophyta (woody plants) > Spermatophyta (seed plants) > Angiospermae (flowering plants) > Eudicotyledons > Core Eudicots > Rosids > Eurosid I > Fabales > Fabaceae > Subfamily: Papilionoideae

Medicago sativa (Alfalfa, Lucerne, Medic)
Medicago sativa (Alfalfa, Lucerne, Medic) Medicago sativa (Alfalfa, Lucerne, Medic)

Medicago sativa, Vienna Botanical Garden, Austria. [photos H.G. Robertson, Iziko ]

Lucerne is the most important of the world's forage crops and was domesticated for feeding animals rather than for direct human consumption.

Medicago sativa is a cultigen species derived mainly from M. coerulea which is native to southwestern Iran, the Caucasus and eastern Anatolia. Domestication appears to have started in the Bronze Age probably somewhere between 1000 and 2000 BC in the Near East. The initial cultivation of Lucerne is thought to have been stimulated by the need to feed horses. Horses started being domesticated in Central Asia at about 2500 BC and were brought into the Near East by invaders from Central Asia. By 400 BC, Lucern was being grown in Europe.

There are a wide variety of Medicago sativa cultivars some of which are the product of hybridisation with other wild Medicago species in Europe and Asia. There are different cultivars for handling different climatic extremes. The wide climatic tolerance of Lucerne is also because it has an extensive root system which in some soils can extend 7 metres below ground surface, thus making the most of available soil moisture at a wide range of depths. Lucerne grows best in unleached, non-acid soils, particularly those rich in calcium carbonate. It there grows particularly well in limestone derived soils. 

Seed production by Lucerne can be detrimentally affected by poor pollination, often because honeybees Apis mellifera when extracting nectar, learn to avoid triggering the anthers and releasing pollen. Solitary bees such as bumblebees Bombus (not found in South Africa) are the best pollinators...\fabaceae


  • Sauer, J.D. 1993. Historical geography of crop plants - a select roster. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida.

Text by Hamish G. Robertson