24 | 09 | 2017

 

Introduction PDF Print E-mail

Lucerne, or alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.) is recognised as the plant which has been longest grown specifically for animal feed. Before recorded history, lucerne was already cultivated as well as growing wild from Spain to China and from Sweden to North Africa. It has also become established during modern times in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and in North and South America.

It is generally accepted that the genetic/evolutionary origin of lucerne is in the near east centre of Vavilof and that the species developed in Asia Minor, Iran and the highlands of Turkmenistan. All these areas have cold winters and hot dry summers. The soil is well drained with an approximately neutral pH and has subsoils with deposits of calcium (lime).

Sinskaya, a Russian, asserts that lucerne originated in two areas and that there was a second development in central Asia. Her reasons are that for many centuries there has been irrigation in these areas and that this is the possible origin of the resistance to fungal diseases of lucerne as well as the reason for the poor drought resistance of lucerne collections from these areas. At the same time they are resistant to bacterial wilt and stem nematodes.

Medicago falcata L. or yellow-flowered lucerne has a wider distribution than ordinary lucerne and, through interspecies hybridisation, has contributed considerably to the greater adaptability of modern lucerne types.

It is considered that when lucerne was introduced into Germany, as early as the 16th century, hybridisation had already occurred with M. falcata and that characteristics such as cold tolerance, drought tolerance, resistance to disease and decum-bent rhizomes were established in lucerne. This hybrid species, which was described as Medicago media, was the origin of many types such as German "Franconian" and, of great im-portance for South Africa, the French type known as "Provence".

We can thus see that natural hybridisation between the naturally occurring yellow lucerne and the "true" lucerne, which was spread by humans, led to many valuable types which were well adapted worldwide.

The development or use of lucerne as fodder led to a highly successful cultivated crop. This success is probably due to the efficient root system of the plant and, coupled with this, its symbiosis with the nitrogen-fixing Rhizobium bacteria which reduce the plant's dependence on soil nitrogen.

The strongly developed taproot makes it possible to access water reserves as deep as six metres down, so that the plant can survive long droughts.

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