Online Encyclopedia


Online Encyclopedia
Originally appearing in Volume V17, Page 98 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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PURPLE MEDICK LUCERNE Or ALFALFA, known botanically as Medicago saliva, a plant of the natural order Leguminosae. In England it is still commonly called " lucerne," but in America " alfalfa," an Arabic term (" the best fodder "), which, owing to its increasing cultivation in the western hemisphere, has come into widening usage since the introduction of the plant by the Spaniards. It is an erect perennial herb with a branched hollow stem 1 to 2 ft. high, trifoliolate leaves, short dense racemes of small yellow, blue or purple flowers, and downy pods coiled two or three times in a loose spiral. It has a characteristic long tap-root, often extending 15 ft. or more into the soil. It is a native of the eastern Mediterranean region, but was introduced into Italy in the 1st century A.D., and has become more widely naturalized in Europe; it occurs wild in hedges and fields in Britain, where it was first cultivated about 165o. It seems to have been taken from Spain to Mexico and South America in the 16th century, but the extension of its cultivation in the Western States of the American Union practically dates from the middle of the 19th century, and in Argentina its development as a staple crop is more recent. It is much cultivated as a forage crop in France and other parts of the continent of Europe, but has not come into such general use in Britain, where, however, it is frequently met with in small patches in districts where the soil is very light, with a dry subsoil. Its thick tap-roots penetrate very deeply into the soil; and, if a good cover is once obtained, the plants will yield abundant cut- tings of herbage for eight or ten years, provided they are properly top-dressed and kept free from perennial weeds. The time to cut it is, as with clover and sainfoin, when it is in early flowtr. In the United States alfalfa has become the staple leguminous forage crop throughout the western half of the country. Some idea of the increase in its cultivation may be obtained from the figures for Kansas, where in 1891 alfalfa was cultivated over 34,384 acres, while in 1907 the number was 743,050. The progress of irrigation has been an important factor in many districts. The plant requires a well-drained soil (deep and permeable as possible), rich in lime and reasonably free from weeds. See, for practical directions as to cultivation, Farmers' Bulletin 339 of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, by J. M. Westgate (Washington, December 1908).

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