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: Introduced

Duration: Annual or perennial.

Size: Up to 2 feet or more.

Growth Form: Forb/herb; stems decumbent to erect, glabrous or puberulous.

Leaves: Green; compound, trifoliate, leaflets up to ½ inch long, narrowly lanceolate to obovate.

Flower Color: Purple or multicolored; flowering inflorescence spike-like with up to 25 flowers, fruit a legume.

Flowering Season: April to October

Elevation: Below 4,500 feet

Habitat Preferences: Disturbed areas, agricultural areas, roadsides.

Recorded Range: Alfalfa 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.

U.S. Weed Information: Medicago sativa is listed in: Weeds of the United States and Canada. Plants included here may become weedy or invasive.

Invasive/Noxious Weed Information: No information available.

Wetland Indicator: In North America Medicago sativa has the following wetland designations; Alaska, UPL; Arid West, UPL; Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plain, UPL; Eastern Mountains and Piedmont, UPL; Great Plains, UPL; Midwest, FACU; Northcentral & Northeast, UPL Western Mountains, Valleys, and Coast, UPL.
UPL, Obligate Upland, Nonhydrophyte, Almost never occur in wetlands
FACU, Facultative Upland, Nonhydrophyte, Usually occur in non-wetlands, but may occur in wetlands.

Threatened/Endangered Information: No information available.

Genus Information: In North America there are 38 species for Medicago. Worldwide, The Plant List includes 103 accepted species names and a further 152 scientific names of infraspecific rank for Medicago polymorpha.

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

In the United States there are 2 recorded sub-species in Medicago sativa.
Medicago sativa ssp. falcata, yellow alfalfa, (throughout North America);
Medicago sativa ssp. sativa, alfalfa, (throughout North America).

3 more sub-species that may occur in North America:
Medicago sativa ssp. caerulea
Medicago sativa ssp. glomerata
Medicago sativa ssp. x tunetana

Comments: In Arizona and elsewhere Medicago has become naturalized. The plants in the photos above were taken at 2,500 feet along the road up to Mount Ord, Maricopa County, Arizona. Alfalfa is heavily utilized by wildlife including birds and mammals. It is an excellent food source for most herbivores and omnivores. It is important as a rehabilitation species of overgrazed areas.

In Southwest Desert Flora also see Burclover, Medicago polymorpha.

Importance to Wildlife and Livestock
As food Medicago sativa has a minor to low value for mammals and birds, both water and terrestrial birds. It might be moderate for terrestrial birds as an occasional source of cover.

The genus Medicago is from the Greek word "Medlick" or "medick" meaning alfalfa and the species epithet sativa means "that which is sown" meaning that this is a cultivated plant.
The genus Medicago was first published in 1753 by Carl Linnaeus.

Medicago sativa has been used for as medicine and food and fodder by southwestern United States indigenous peoples.
  • 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 10/24/2019
    U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service on-line database and USGS ITIS search (accessed 10/23/2019)
    Wildlife Uses:
    Arizona Flora, Kearney, Thomas H., Peebles, Robert H., 1960, University of California Press, Berkley and Los Angeles, California.
    1993, The Jepson Manual, Citation: (accessed 08/30/2015)
    Martin F. Wojciechowski & Duane Isely 2012, Medicago sativa, in Jepson Flora Project (eds.) Jepson eFlora,, accessed on October 23, 2019.
    USDA Forest Service Fire Effects Information System (MEOF);; (accessed 08/30/2015)
    Wikipedia contributors, 'Alfalfa', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 28 August 2015, 20:04 UTC, [accessed 30 August 2015]
    Graham, Edward H. 1941. Legumes for erosion control and wildlife. Misc., Publ. 412. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture. 153 p. 10234
    SEINet for synonyms, scientific names, recorded geographic locations and general information
    ETYMOLOGY: Michael L. Charters; California Plant Names: Latin and Greek Meanings and Derivations; A Dictionary of Botanical and Biographical Etymology; (accessed 10/23/2019)