Carnegiea gigantea, Giant Saguaro

Southwest Desert Flora

Home to the plants of the Sonoran, Chihuahuan and Mojave Deserts

Cirsium ochrocentrum, Yellowspine Thistle

Medicago sativa, Alfalfa

Alfalfa has showy purple flowers that bloom from April to October. Medicago sativa Alfalfa has a spike-like flowering inflorescence with up to 25 purple flowers. Fruits are a legume. Medicago sativa Alfalfa is a forb with decumbent to erect stems. Plants may be smooth or slightly hairy. Medicago sativa Alfalfa has compound green leaves, trifoliate with leaflets up to ½ inch long, narrowly lanceolate to obovate. Medicago sativa

Scientific Name: Medicago sativa
Common Name: Alfalfa

Also Called: Lucerne, Spanish: Alfalfa

Family: Fabaceae or Leguminosae Family

Synonyms: (Medicago tunetana)

Status: Alfalfa is an introduced species in North America; it was originally thought to be from south-central or south-western Asia.

Duration: Perennial or annual.

Size: Up to 2 feet (.61 m) or more.

Growth Form: Alfalfa is a forb/herb; stems with several branches, generally growing horizontally and turning upward (decumbent) or upright (erect); the stems are mostly without hairs or with small soft hairs.

Leaves: Alfalfa has green leaves that are pinnately compound and the leaflets are trifoliate and serrated at the tip.

Flower Color: Alfalfa has greenish-yellow, purple or multicolored flowers; the fruits are a coiled pod with several seeds.

Flowering Season: April to October

Elevation: Below 4,500 feet (1,372 m); grows below 2,450 feet (747 m) in California.

Habitat Preferences: Disturbed areas, agricultural areas, roadsides.

Recorded Range: Alfalfa is an introduced plant that has found its way through most of North America, including Canada and Mexico. In Arizona it is found in the northern, central and southeast parts of the states.

North America & US County Distribution Map for Medicago sativa.

North America species range map for Alfalfa, Medicago sativa:

North America species range map for Alfalfa, Medicago sativa:
Click image for full size map.

U.S. Weed Information: Medicago sativa is listed in:

  • Weeds of the United States and Canada
  • Plants included here may become weedy or invasive.

    U.S. Wetland Indicator: In North America Medicago sativa has the following wetland designations:
  • Alaska, UPL;
  • Arid West, UPL;
  • Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plain, UPL;
  • Caribbean, UPL;
  • Eastern Mountains and Piedmont, UPL;
  • Great Plains, UPL;
  • Hawaii, UPL
  • Midwest, FACU;
  • Northcentral & Northeast, UPL;
  • Western Mountains, Valleys, and Coast, UPL.

  • FACU = Facultative Upland, usually occur in non-wetlands, but may occur in wetlands
    UPL = Obligate Upland, almost never occur in wetlands

    Invasive/Noxious Weed Information: Unknown
    Threatened/Endangered Information: Unknown.

    Genus Information: In North America, USDA Plants Database lists 39 species for Medicago. Worldwide, World Flora Online includes 134 accepted names and The Plant List has 121 records for Medicago which includes sub-species and varieties.
    The genus Medicago was first published in 1753 by Carl Linnaeus, (1707-1778).

    In the Southwestern United States: Arizona has 4 species of genus, California has 7 species, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah each have 3 species and Texas has 6 species. Data approximate, subject to revision.

    In the United States there are 5 recorded sub-species in Medicago sativa.
  • Medicago sativa ssp. falcata, yellow alfalfa, (throughout North America);
  • Medicago sativa ssp. sativa, alfalfa, (throughout North America).
  • Medicago sativa ssp. caerulea
  • Medicago sativa ssp. glomerata
  • Medicago sativa ssp. x tunetana
  • Comments: In Arizona and elsewhere Medicago sativa has become naturalized. The plants in the photos above were taken at 2,500 feet (762 m) along the road up to Mount Ord, Maricopa County, Arizona.

    Alfalfa is grown as an important crop in many countries throughout the world where it was first grown in ancient Iran. In many parts of the world it is called "Lucerne", particularly in the United Kingdom, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. In the United States, Alfalfa was first introduced in 1736 in Georgia and now is planted in most states. It is naturalized in some states.

    In Southwest Desert Flora also see Burclover, Medicago polymorpha.

    Importance to Wildlife, Birds and Livestock
    Alfalfa, Medicago sativa has attractive flowers, the flowers and their seeds may be visited by hummingbirds and/or small mammals including rodents and granivorous birds in search of nectar or food.

    Alfalfa is used as forage by game mammals including Elk, White-tailed and Mule Deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn and moose. It is also, of course relished by livestock. In addition, its seeds or leaves are known to be eaten by many species of mammals and birds. Mammals feeding on Alfalfa seeds include rodents, rabbits, squirrels and gophers. Birds known to utilize Alfalfa include grouse, pheasant, quail and waterfowl including Canadian Geese.

    Alfalfa is also an important cover for nesting and loafing small mammals and birds.

    Because of its' early spring growth, Alfalfa is important for use in the rehabilitation of over-grazed ranges.

    Beneficial Value to Butterflies, Honey Bees and Insects
    Alfalfa, Medicago sativa has attractive flowers, the flowers and their plants may be visited by butterflies, moths, flies, honeybees, Native Bees and other insects in search of food and nectar. Alfalfa is an important pollen source for insects.

    U.S.D.A. Natural Resources Conservation Center, Plant Guide;
    The U.S.D.A., U.S. Forest Service; Fire Effects Information System (FEIS) has published a comprehensive review regarding the natural history and ecology in the United States, of Medicago sativa. The information is available on-line here.

    The genus Medicago is from the Greek word "Medlick" or "medick" meaning alfalfa.

    The genus Medicago was first published in 1753 by Carl Linnaeus, (1707-1778).

    The species epithet sativa means "that which is sown" meaning that this is a cultivated plant.

    The common name Alfalfa is from an 1845 Spanish modification of the Arabic word "alfalfez", Arabic meaning "fresh fodder".

    Ethnobotany - Native American Ethnobotany; University of Michigan - Dearborn
    Burclover, Medicago sativa is used by southwestern United States indigenous peoples for such purposes as described below.
  • Costanoan Drug, Ear Medicine, Poultice of heated leaves applied to the ear for earaches.
  • Keres, Western Other, Unspecified, Taxon known and named but no use was specified.
  • Navajo, Ramah Food, Fodder, Plant cultivated, harvested, dried, stacked or stored in hogans and fed to livestock in winter.
  • Okanagan-Colville Food, Spice, Plants placed above and below black tree lichen and camas in cooking pits for the sweet flavor.
  • Shuswap Food, Fodder, Used for horse feed.

  • See complete listing of ethno-botanical uses at Native American Ethnobotany, University of Michigan, Dearborn.

    Date Profile Completed: 08/30/2015, updated 02/14/2022
    References and additional information:
    Arizona Flora, Kearney, Thomas H., Peebles, Robert H., 1960, University of California Press, Berkley and Los Angeles, California.; Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service on-line database and USGS ITIS search; accessed on-line; 02/11/2022.
    World Flora Online; A Project of the World Flora Online Consortium; An Online Flora of All Known Plants - (accessed on-line; 02/11/2022)
    The Plant List (2013). Version 1.1. Published on the Internet; (accessed on-line; 02/19/2022).
    Sullivan, Janet. 1992. Medicago sativa. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). - (accessed on-line; 02/14/2022) - Available: [2022, February 14].
    Kearney and Peebles 1969, McDougal 1973: Editor: L.Crumbacher 2011; from SEINet Field Guide, on-line; accessed 02/14/2022.
    Martin F. Wojciechowski & Duane Isely 2012, Medicago sativa, in Jepson Flora Project (eds.) Jepson eFlora,, accessed on February 14, 2022. - (accessed on-line; 02/14/2022)
    Wikipedia contributors. "Alfalfa." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 27 Jan. 2022. Web. 14 Feb. 2022.
    Graham, Edward H. 1941. Legumes for erosion control and wildlife. Misc., Publ. 412. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture. 153 p. 10234
    Seiler, John, Peterson, John, North American species range map courtesy of Virginia Tech, Dept. of Forest Resources & Environmental Conservation
    SEINet synonyms, scientific names, geographic locations, general information.
    Online Etymology Dictionary - (accessed on-line; 02/14/2022)
    ETYMOLOGY: Michael L. Charters; California Plant Names: Latin and Greek Meanings and Derivations; A Dictionary of Botanical and Biographical Etymology; (accessed 10/23/2019)
    IPNI (2020). International Plant Names Index. Published on the Internet, The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Harvard University Herbaria & Libraries and Australian National Botanic Gardens. [Retrieved on-line; 12 February 2022].