RESEARCH OPINIONS IN ANIMAL & VETERINARY SCIENCES
ISSN 2221-1896 (PRINT) www.roavs.com ISSN 2223-0343 (ONLINE)
Medicago sativa: A historical ethnopharmacology and etymological study of
1Mikaili, P. and 2Shayegh, J.
1Department of Pharmacology, Faculty of Medicine, Urmia University of Medical Sciences, Urmia, Iran
2Department of Veterinary Medicine, Faculty of Agriculture and Veterinary, Shabestar branch, Islamic Azad
University, Shabestar, Iran
Alfalfa is an anciently well-known plant for animal fattening and nutrition and for the special usages, namely for
ethical and ethnical treatments. As it is evident from the historical documents, it is more likely from an oriental
origin and especially from Persia. The acquaintance of old Persians with this plant and usages are reflected in the
sources of their neighbors, from the heart of Persian realm to the east, far through China, and in the western
direction, from Mesopotamia in the ancient era to the Europe in the classical ages. The scientific name of this genus,
as Medicago, explicit evidence denoting a main tribe of Persian people, namely Medians. In this study, we have
conducted a refreshed study of nearly all principle historical and scientific studies about alfalfa from the beginning
up to now to give a more clearly historical, etymological and ethnopharmacological profile of this herb.
Keywords: Medicago sativa, Historical Study, Ethnopharmacology, Etymology, Alfalfa
In botanical and pharmacognotical studies of
alfalfa, encountering to a diverse set of names for
calling this plant, especially in different languages and
cultures, incited us to focus more on the history of the
appearance, original habitat and exact etymology of the
names of this herb in several languages. The old Persian
aspast, and in some Iranian dialects as būso, it is used
in neighbor lands as a loanword, including in Chinese
as musu, in Babylonian texts of ca. 700 B.C. as aspastu,
in Arabic as al-fisfisah, also in classical Greek texts it is
attributed to Medians, as mēdikē, and then as Latin
Medicago, and in English as Medick, Medicle and
Medic (Laufer, 1934). On the hand today in Farsi it is
not common in using, and in turn a Turkish word,
yonja, is used. It is said that this word sematically
corresponds to Persian aspast. We also have studied the
other names of this plant in English, namely Lucerne,
and in Arabic etc.
We reviewed the literature describing the alfalfa in
different aspects of history, botany, ethnopharmacology
and etymology. We collected the data and classified
them into ethnopharmacology of alfalfa, the synonyms
of alfalfa and etymologies, and the history of Medicago
sativa L. The historical data were collected from
internet sources and valuable historical references. In
any cases, the original inscriptions, e.g. Assyrian or Old
Persian, have been mentioned from the main related
texts. For etymologies, several major works have been
referred to. The etymologies have been mainly focused
on the scientific and English names and synonyms. The
pharmacological and also ethnopharmacological data
have been collected from different oriental and
occidental origins of ancient and modern sources, e.g.
Persian, Arabic, Indian and Chinese. The results of this
study may be useful for several disciplines of
agriculture, pharmacy and botany.
Ethnopharmacology of Alfalfa
Alfalfa is a plant from family Fabaceae. The
medicinal parts of this plant are the whole flowering
plant or the germinating seeds. The clover-like flowers
can be yellow to violet-blue. This is 9 to 10 mm long
and appears in oblong, many-blossomed racemes. The
fruit is a spiraled pod with 2 or 3 twists; the centre is
hollow and not thorny. The annual, succulent plant
grows from 45 to 100 cm high. The stems are erect,
smooth and sharply angled. The leaves are trifoliate,
petiolate, and alternate. The leaflets are thorny-tipped,
dentate toward the front, obovate and villous beneath.
The stipules are ovate, lanceolate, slightly dentate and
acuminate. The taste is unpleasantly salty, bitter and
dry. The plant is indigenous to the Mediterranean
region and has been widely cultivated elsewhere for
centuries (Fleming, 2000).
Peyman & Shayegh roavs, 2011, 1(9), 614-618.
The pharmacology and indications of this plant are
as follow: The saponin contents act on the
cardiovascular, nervous and digestive systems. In folk
medicine, the drug is used in the treatment of diabetes
and malfunctioning of the thyroid gland. Alfalfa has
isolated using as a diuretic and aromatic. It is also used
in Indian and Ayurvedic medicine. The Ayurvedic
names of this plant are Vilaayatigawuth, Lasunghaas
and Lusan. Its well-known properties include:
anticholesterolemic, rich in essential enzymes, minerals
and vitamins; a preventive of high blood pressure,
diabetes, peptic ulcer (McDowell, 2003). Alfalfa tea is
used to strengthen the digestive system. Sprouts (of
seeds) are used by diabetics. Alfalfa seed extracts
prevented hypercholesterolemia, triglyceridaemia and
atherogenesis in cholesterol-fed rabbits & cynomologus
monkeys. The saponins in the extract reduce intestinal
absorption of cholesterol in rabbits (Khare, 2007).
This plant also has been used in classical Persian
and Arabian medicine. In the first pharmacy book in the
classical literature of Persian medicine, called Al-
Abniah, Abu-Manasur, the author of this invaluable
book mentioned this medicinal plant as Ratbah and
describes it as a remedy for scorpion sting, backache,
and rectal pain. It has been considered as diuretic and
carminative, although it causes bloating. Alfalfa is a
legume that has been used medicinally for hundreds of
years. It has a long use in traditional Chinese and
Arabic medicine for humans and animals. The name
alfalfa has long been considered coming from Arabic
and means "the father of all foods."
Alfalfa is available as a supplement in various
forms. Pills, capsules and dry leaves are all available at
health food stores. There has only been a small number
of official animal and human studies on the effects and
benefits of alfalfa. The preliminary studies in humans
found that cholesterol and glucose levels were
decreased by using alfalfa as feed additive (Booth,
2006). Since these studies have been unorganized,
many doctors feel the evidence isn't conclusive or
reliable. However, holistic practitioners and herbalists
strongly rely on alfalfa for its medicinal properties.
Limited studies have shown that alfalfa supplements are
well tolerated. Also, there have been reports of lupus
flares, a lupus-like syndrome, low blood count, skin
inflammation and gastrointestinal upset by some users.
The Nutritional Health Supplement Guide states
that alfalfa sprouts and seeds have certain "amino acids
and other components that can be harmful for people
with autoimmune diseases." The guide recommends
that anyone with a serious illness or who takes
estrogens, immune-suppressing drugs, water pills or
diabetes medication should consult their doctors before
adding alfalfa supplements into the diet.
Digestive Benefits: The Alternative Health Ezine
reports that alfalfa has many digestive uses. It is often
used in tonic form for the digestive system. It is
believed to increase vitality, stimulate appetite and
promote weight gain in anorexics. It also reduces
constipation, treats chronic ulcers, cures anemia and
aids in the treatment of diabetes.
Bone Health: Alfalfa is high in mineral content,
and, because of this, it is ideal for bones, joints and
skin. It promotes both bone and teeth health. The high
chlorophyll content of alfalfa also supports the growth
of connective tissue and is beneficial for people
suffering from arthritis. It also aids in tissue repair. It is
useful to heal wounds, ulcers and abscesses.
Other Uses: Alfalfa is also believed to work in
lowering cholesterol. It has been used as an
antibacterial and to relieve sinus infections. Because
alfalfa is rich in anti-oxidants, it is useful for breaking
down toxins in the blood system (Xie, 2008). There
have even been reports that the alfalfa plant is useful for
prostate and urinary problems.
The synonyms of Alfalfa and etymologies
Lucerne (Medicago sativa) is defined as a fodder
plant, but large quantities may be poisonous to
livestock; it is known that it may cause jaundice in
horses, but owing to its vitamin and mineral content, it
has a reputation for increasing the speed and stamina of
race horses. It has long been used by Arabs to feed their
purebred horses and human athletes. It is a body-builder
and reduces acidity. In Morocco, when a newly
delivered mother has no milk, she is given a kind of
very liquid porridge made of pounded lucerne seeds, for
this is supposed to give milk to cows (Watts, 2007).
According to the etymological dictionaries, alfalfa
(lucerne, Medicago sativa) an English word derives
from Spanish alfalfa (originally alfalfez), and it comes
from Arabic al-faṣfaṣah (Klein, 1983). Additionally,
English word Lucerne and also lucern, a forage herb,
derives from French luzerne: Provincial luzerno, with
sense transferred from luzerno, a glow-worm, lucerne
having shiny grains, from Old Provencial luzerna, a
lamp, from vernacular Ltin *lūcerna, hence Latin
lŭcerna, (oil-)lamp, from lūcēre, to shine (Partridge,
2006; Klein, 1967). About the Arabic origin of alfalfa,
there are other believes. Arabs discovered the herb and
named it al-facl-facah, or “father of all foods,” which
the Spanish changed to “alfalfa.” It is rich in nutrients
and minerals, including calcium, potassium, iron,
magnesium, and zinc, see Table 1, for the nutrients in
alfalfa (Ohman, 1964; Koenig, 2009). A type of alfalfa
with eight essential amino acids is used in China to treat
fever, in India to treat ulcers, in Iraq and Turkey to treat
arthritis and in the U.S. in some natural therapies for
cancer. It has also been employed for urinary infections,
menopause, fatigue and as an antibiotic and an
antiasthmatic (Ebadi, 2007).
Peyman & Shayegh roavs, 2011, 1(9), 614-618.
Table 1: Interpretations of tissue tests for nutrient
concentrations in alfalfa sampled at first
Source: Ohman (1964); Koenig (2009)
The history of Medicago sativa
The earliest extant literary allusion to alfalfa is
made in 424 B.C. by Aristophanes, who says:
"The horses ate the crabs of Corinth as a substitute
for the Medic", (Aristophanes, 424 B.C.).
The term Mēdikē (or exactly ) or
Medicago sativa is derived from the name of the
country Media (cf. Median) (Liddell & Scott,
In his description of Media, Strabo, a famous
historian states that the plant constituting the chief food
of the horses is called by the Greeks Mēdikē ( )
from its growing in Media in great abundance. He also
mentions as a product of Media silphion, from which is
obtained the medic juice. Pliny, famous classical
physician intimates that Medica is by nature foreign to
Greece, and that it was first introduced there from
Media in consequence of the Persian wars under King
Darius (Laufer, 1934).
Dioscorides, Greek medical herbalist, describes
the plant without referring to a locality, and added that
it is used as forage by the cattle-breeders. In Italy, the
plant was disseminated from the middle of the second
century B.C. to the middle of the first century Anno
Domini (A.D.) (Hehn, Kulturpflanzen, 8th ed., p. 412).
The Assyriologists claim that aspasti or aspastu,
the Iranian designation of alfalfa, is mentioned in a
Babylonian text of nearly 700 B.C. and it would not be
impossible that its favourite fodder followed the horse
at the time of its introduction from Iran into
Mesopotamia. A historian called A. de Candolle states
that Medicago sativa has been found wild, with every
appearance of an indigenous plant, in several provinces
of Anatolia, to the south of the Caucasus, in several
parts of Persia, in Afghanistan, Baluchistan, and in
Kashmir.1 Hence the Greeks, he concludes, may have
introduced the plant from Asia Minor as well as from
India, which extended from the north of Persia. This
theory seems to me inadmissible and superfluous, for
the Greeks allude solely to Media in this connection,
not to India. Moreover, the cultivation of the plant is
not ancient in India, but is of recent date, and hardly
plays any ro1e in Indian agriculture and economy. In
ancient Iran, alfalfa was a highly important crop closely
associated with the breeding of superior races of horses.
Pahlavi aspast or aspist, New Persian aspust, uspust,
aspist, ispist, or isfist, is traceable to an Avestan or Old-
Iranian *aspo-asti (from the root ad, “to eat”), and
literally means “horse-fodder”. This word has
penetrated into Syriac in the form aspesta or pespesta
(the latter in the Geoponica). The king of ancient
Persia, Khosrau I (A.D. 531-578) of the Sasanian
dynasty included alfalfa in his new organization of the
land-tax:3, the tax laid on alfalfa was seven times as
high as that on wheat and barley, which gives an idea of
the high valuation of that forage-plant. It was also
employed in the pharmacopoeia, being dealt with by
Abu Mansur in his book on pharmacology.
The seeds are still used medicinally. The Arabs
derived from the Persians the word isfist, Arabicized
into fisfisa; Arabic designations being ratba and qatt,
the former for the plant in its natural state, the latter for
the dried plant. The mere fact that the Greeks received
Medicago from the Persians, and christened it “Medic
grass”, by no means signifies or proves at the outset
that Medicago represents a genuinely Iranian
However, the case of alfalfa presents a different
problem. The Chinese, who cultivate alfalfa to a great
extent, do not claim it as an element of their agriculture,
but have a circumstantial tradition as to when and how
it was received by them from Iranian quarters in the
second century B.C. As any antiquity for this plant is
lacking in India or any other Asiatic country, the verdict
as to the centre of its primeval cultivation is decidedly
in favour of Iran. The contribution which the Chinese
have to make to the history of Medicago is of
fundamental importance and sheds new light on the
whole subject; in fact, the history of no cultivated plant
is so well authenticated and so solidly founded.
Peyman & Shayegh roavs, 2011, 1(9), 614-618.
In the inscription of Persepolis, King Darius says,
“This land Persia which Auramazda has bestowed on
me, being beautiful, populous, and abundant in horses,
according to the will of Auramazda and my own, King
Darius, it does not tremble before any enemy.”
Thus he obtained the seeds of alfalfa in Fergana,
and presented them in 126 B.C. to his imperial master,
who had wide tracts of land near his palaces covered
with this novel plant, and enjoyed the possession of
large numbers of celestial horses. From the palaces, this
fodder-plant soon spread to the people, and was rapidly
diffused throughout northern China (Laufer, 1934).
In Chicago Assyrian dictionary we raed under
Assyrian word of aspastu: a noun meaning an edible
garden plant or an herb, a Neo-Babylonian word. It is a
foreign word and is transcribed as as-pa-as-ti in
cuneiform script. According to Zimmem’s Fremdwörter
(p: 56), it is derived from Old Persian asp-ast “fodder
for horses”, hence he assumes that aspastu is a type of
lucerne (alfalfa), and thus not only supposes that as
early as the time of Merodachbaladan a plant with a
Persian name appears in a list which contains,
otherwise, only Akkadian plant names, but also that
lucerne had more than a utilitarian appeal so that it was
grown in a royal garden. For similar sounding words
with a possible Old Persian etymology, see aspastua,
asupasāti (Gelb, 1996, Vol. 2:338f).
For esparto, we read track the etymology as
follows: The related Greek spartos, the shrub we call
‘broom’, has, in Aristotle, the var sparton, whence
Latin spartum, whence both English spart, the Spanish
broom, and Spanish esparto, a tough grass of which
cordage and baskets are made, a term adopted by
English from Latin spartum comes Sicilian Latin
Spartium which is used in botany. Additionally, for
English alfa, compare Arabic ḥalfā ءﺎﻔﻠَﺣ meaning
esparto, alfa. Clauson also confirms this comparison
saying: al-ḥalfā normally means alfalfa or esparto
grass (Clauson, 1972).
This discussion mainly is based on the article titles
Optimal Health Systems (Optimal Health Systems,
2010). According to the literature, it is reasonable for
most people to think of horses when they drive by a
lush green field of alfalfa (Medicago sativa). According
to the Global Healing Center, the name alfalfa comes
from ancient Arabic, Persian and Kashmiri words, al-
fac-facah, relating to energy-rich food for warhorses.
Scholars say the term specifically means “father of all
foods,” but it can also be translated as “best horse food”
or “horse power.”
The use of alfalfa for human food and medicinal
purposes extends back through the annals of history
right alongside its life-giving value as animal forage,
however, it is less well-known. The ancient Chinese
used it to treat digestive and arthritic problems and it is
believed that Chinese physicians prescribed alfalfa
sprouts for treating many disorders as long as 5000
years ago. Alfalfa seeds survived for millennia in
Egyptian tombs and still sprouted Ayurvedic physicians
in ancient India prescribed alfalfa leaves for ulcers,
fluid retention and arthritis pain. Remains of alfalfa leaf
have been found in Persian ruins dating to 6,000 B.C.,
and early writings from Turkey describe the benefits of
alfalfa starting at 1300 B.C. Its medical use is recorded
in Roman records from about 500 B.C. onward.
In more modern history, alfalfa began to be
cultivated in England in the sixteenth century where it
was used as a food for strength and digestive problems.
The Spanish brought alfalfa to the American colonies in
the 1700s where early settlers consumed it for the
treatment of arthritis, cancers, bowel and urinary
afflictions, menstrual pain and to increase breast milk
production in women who had trouble breastfeeding
their infants. As a poultice, it was used for boils and
other skin inflammations. Herbalists of the 1800s used
a tonic made from alfalfa to treat indigestion, anemia
and dyspepsia and for those suffering from a lack of
appetite or who assimilated nutrients poorly.
After the Civil War, human use of alfalfa tapered
off and it was not until the 1970s that this widely-grown
legume of the pea family was again embraced as a
nutritional food with many health benefits for humans
as well as livestock. Modern analyses over the last
several decades have shown that alfalfa is an extremely
nutrient-rich food source, containing vitamins A, B6,
B12, C, D, E, and K. It is also especially rich in minerals
such as magnesium, calcium, iron, phosphorus and
potassium, all in easily digestible forms. It is an
excellent natural source of fibre and antioxidants,
phytonutrients and bioflavanoids. It is said to contain
over 300 nutrients and phytonutrients and has eight of
the essential amino acids and the highest concentration
of chlorophyll of any plant.
Alfalfa supplements today are easily available in
various forms, such as powdered, capsules, teas and
nutritional drinks. They are taken for a wide range of
conditions, including allergies, morning sickness,
arthritis, digestion, gout, anemia, rheumatism, blood
clotting agent, blood purifier, tooth decay, bone
strengthener and urinary problems.
Nearly more than sixty studies have been
conducted in Italy, Japan and Hungary on Iproflavone,
a substance found in alfalfa which is highly effective in
maintaining bone density and preventing osteoporosis.
The positive outcomes of these studies show great
promise in the use of alfalfa to slow the growth of
osteoporosis which plagues western nations.
The seed is the foundation of living foods. It is
filled with the nutrients needed by the growing plant
and is the very core of life. Each seed holds enzymes,
Peyman & Shayegh roavs, 2011, 1(9), 614-618.
vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats and carbohydrates in
reserve, awaiting the appropriate time to begin growing.
Homegrown sprouts are very inexpensive when
compared pound for pound in terms of nutrition.
Vitamin content increases three to twelve times during
the sprouting process. Enzymes are activated. Proteins
convert to free amino acids. Minerals in sprouts are
chelated, or in their natural state, chemically bound to
amino acids so that they are easily assimilated by the
human body. Starches change to fuel sugar.
Chlorophyll and carotene content increase dramatically
when exposed to sunlight in a kitchen window.
Sprouting seeds, beans and peas can be stored for many
years, making them an excellent storage or survival
Some major organizations, including the National
Institutes of Health, American Cancer Society and
Johns Hopkins University have reinforced the benefits
of sprouts with ongoing studies that explore various
sprout varieties for their nutritional properties and to
validate health claims. Learn how easy it is to sprout at
PgOrganics or at your local health food store.
Alfalfa is one of the planet’s most widely foraged
plants. The word Medicago refers to the region in
northern Africa where it is thought to have originated.
Today, the United States is the world’s leading
producer of alfalfa—the largest crop acreage used for
maintaining the health and vital productivity of the
marvelous honeybee! It is grown in almost every state
on approximately 25 million acres and is often referred
to as the ‘Queen of the Forages.’ Alfalfa is the nation’s
fourth largest crop, behind corn, soy and wheat. Only a
small portion of alfalfa acreage is organic (under two
million acres), used for human consumption and by
some livestock owners, but the amount is growing as
more consumers learn about the toxic, cumulative effect
of chemicals in the human and animal food chain.
The pervasiveness of synthetic chemicals was a
non-issue for traditional users of alfalfa, the “father of
all foods,” but it is very much an issue for discerning
consumers today. So make sure you consult reputable
health professionals, producers and retailers to ensure
you obtain the best and most unadulterated quality of
alfalfa in whatever form you choose to use this valuable
food (Optimal Health Systems, 2010).
In this study, we tried to describe the history of
alfalfa. As it is evident from the historical documents, it
is more likely from an oriental origin and especially
from Persia. The acquaintance of old Persians with this
plant and usages are reflected in the sources of their
neighbors, from the heart of Persian realm to the east,
far through China, and in the western direction, from
Mesopotamia in the ancient era to the Europe in the
classical ages. The scientific name of this genus, as
Medicago, an explicit evidence denoting a main tribe of
Persian people, namely Medians.
Aristophanes, Equites (“The Knights”). 424 B.C. Vol.
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