Medicago sativa 

Scope: Global
Language: English

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Taxonomy [top]

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family
Plantae Tracheophyta Magnoliopsida Fabales Fabaceae

Scientific Name: Medicago sativa L.
Regional Assessments:
Common Name(s):
English Alfalfa, Lucerne
Medicago afganica (Bordere) Vassilcz.
Medicago grandiflora (Grossh.) Vassilcz.
Medicago ladak Vassilcz.
Medicago mesopotamica Vassilcz.
Medicago orientalis Vassilcz.
Medicago polia (Brand) Vassilcz.
Medicago praesativa Sinskaya
Medicago sogdiana (Brand) Vassilcz.
Trigonella upendrae H.J.Chowdhery & R.R.Rao
Taxonomic Notes: The species Medicago sativa L. belongs to the section Medicago, and is a primary wild relative of the cultivated crop Alfalfa, M. sativa L. subsp. sativa (USDA, ARS, National Genetic Resources Program 2010). There are five subspecies of M. sativa recognized by Small (2011): M. sativa subsp. caerulea (Less. ex Ledeb.) Schmalh., M. sativa subsp. falcata (L.) Arcang. var. falcataM. sativa subsp. falcata var. viscosa (Rchb.) Posp., M. sativa subsp. glomerata (Balbis) Rouy and M. sativa subsp. xvaria (T. Martyn) Arcang. M. sativa L. subsp. sativa is also recognized but its native range cannot be determined due to the extent of its naturalized occurrence.

Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Least Concern ver 3.1
Year Published: 2016
Date Assessed: 2014-07-01
Assessor(s): Rhodes, L.
Reviewer(s): Fielder, H. & Maxted, N.
Contributor(s): Osborne, J.
This species is globally assessed as Least Concern as its wild subspecies are widespread across Eurasia with no major threats and stable populations. They are also well conserved in ex situ gene bank collections. This species would benefit from a gap analysis to ensure that the likely range of in situ genetic diversity is fully represented in gene bank collections.

Geographic Range [top]

Range Description:Medicago sativa subsp. sativa is rare in the wild, except in the Caucasus, the Iberian Peninsula, and Turkey, but is widely naturalized via escapes from cultivation and is now cultivated throughout the world (Al-Atawneh et al. 2009, USDA, ARS, National Genetic Resources 2010).

However, M. sativa has five other subspecies as outlined by Small (2011): M. sativa subsp. caerulea (Less. ex Ledeb.) Schmalh., M. sativa subsp. falcata (L.) Arcang. var. falcataM. sativa subsp. falcata var. viscosa (Rchb.) Posp., M. sativa subsp. glomerata (Balbis) Rouy and M. sativa subsp. xvaria (T. Martyn) Arcang.

M. sativa 
subsp. caerulea is native to eastern Turkey, Iran, Russia, Crimea and the Caucasus as well as two areas in Kazakhstan. M. sativa subsp. glomerata is native to Algeria, Tunisia and Italy and M. sativa subsp. falcata var. viscosa shares a largely similar native range. M. sativa subsp. falcata var. falcata is particularly widespread, with a native range that spans Asia from the middle east, through India to China and Korea as well as being native to the majority of Europe. Finally, M. sativa subsp. xvaria is also widespread across Eurasia (Small 2011).

In the UK Medicago sativa subsp. falcata is confined to East Anglia in England, however it also has a sparse and patchy distribution throughout the rest of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but these occurrences are recorded as alien (Preston et al. 2002). In Ireland Medicago sativa subsp. falcata occurs in only two localities in the west of the country and both of these occurrences are recorded as alien (Preston et al. 2002). This subspecies has been recorded from below sea level in Israel to approximately 2,500 m a.s.l. in Afghanistan (Small 2011).
Countries occurrence:
Afghanistan; Albania; Algeria; Armenia; Austria; Azerbaijan; Belarus; Belgium; Bosnia and Herzegovina; Bulgaria; China; Croatia; Czech Republic; Denmark; Estonia; France (Corsica, France (mainland)); Georgia; Germany; Greece (East Aegean Is., Greece (mainland), Kriti); Hungary; India; Iran, Islamic Republic of; Iraq; Ireland; Israel; Italy (Italy (mainland), Sardegna, Sicilia); Jordan; Kazakhstan; Korea, Democratic People's Republic of; Korea, Republic of; Kyrgyzstan; Latvia; Lebanon; Libya; Liechtenstein; Lithuania; Luxembourg; Macedonia, the former Yugoslav Republic of; Malta; Moldova; Mongolia; Montenegro; Morocco; Nepal; Netherlands; Norway; Pakistan; Palestinian Territory, Occupied; Poland; Portugal; Romania; Russian Federation; Serbia (Kosovo, Serbia); Slovakia; Slovenia; Spain; Sweden; Switzerland; Syrian Arab Republic; Tajikistan; Tunisia; Turkey (Turkey-in-Asia, Turkey-in-Europe); Turkmenistan; Ukraine (Krym, Ukraine (main part)); United Kingdom (Great Britain); Uzbekistan
Present - origin uncertain:
Additional data:
Upper elevation limit (metres):2500
Range Map:Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.

Population [top]

Population:The exact population size of wild Medicago sativa is unknown, but the species is considered common throughout its range and populations are stable (Osborne 2011). However, in the UK according to Preston et al. (2002), Medicago sativa subsp. falcata has declined in coastal areas due to habitat loss. It is also unable to cope with animal grazing and it can hybridize with M. sativa subsp. sativa – these factors also play a role in its decline (Preston et al. 2002).
Current Population Trend:Stable
Additional data:
Population severely fragmented:No

Habitat and Ecology [top]

Habitat and Ecology:Medicago sativa is a perennial herb which flowers between May and July. It grows on many different soil types, but favours well-drained loamy soil and does not tolerate waterlogging or acid soils; it can tolerate an average annual rainfall of 1,030 mm, temperatures between 4.3ºC and 28.5ºC, and soil pH between 4.3 and 8.7 (Duke 1981).

M. sativa subsp. sativa is rare in the wild, but specimens are generally found on moderately fertile calcareous soils, commonly in open habitats and from dry semi-desert to agricultural land and less frequently in scrub and woodland, however, these are frequently plants which have escaped from agriculture (Al-Atawneh et al. 2009, Small 2011). Small (2011) also suggests it occurs in steppes, rocky and grassy slopes, thickets, meadows, sand dunes, agricultural land and roadsides. M. sativa subsp. caerulea occurs in semi-deserts and is often tolerant to drought and saline soils (Small 2011). M. sativa subsp. glomerata grows in montane areas such as sub-alpine meadows, scrub, forest glades and river valleys in calcareous soils with at least 500 mm of precipitation (Al-Atawneh et al. 2009, Small 2011). Small (2011) reports that M. sativa subsp. falcata var. falcata occupies a very diverse range of habitats, particularly dry boreal, steppe conditions e.g. in Siberia. M. sativa subsp. falcata var. viscosa is largely associated with lower areas of montane regions (Small 2011). Finally, M. sativa subsp. xvaria is found in agricultural habitats (Al-Atawneh et al. 2009).

When growing in coastal areas, M. sativa occurs on sandy and sandy-loam soil types, whereas in mountainous regions it tends to grow on clay and heavier clay-loam soil types; generally Medicago species grow best on alkaline soils which are well drained (Bennett et al. 1998).

In the UK Medicago sativa subsp. falcata is a lowland species with a preference for calcareous soils and sands; it grows on grassy heaths, sea-walls, roadsides and tracks (Preston et al. 2002).

Use and Trade [top]

Use and Trade: Cultivated Medicago sativa subsp. sativa (Alfalfa) is primarily grown as animal feed, either as high quality fodder or for direct grazing; it is often dehydrated to form pellets, which are then used as a nitrogen supplement for dairy animals and non-ruminants (Prosperi et al. 2001). However, it has a number of beneficial uses in soil which could potentially be improved using wild types, such as nitrogen fixation, soil stabilization and soil enhancement; it can also aid in lowering water tables, reducing the salinity of drylands and reducing nitrate leaching, as well as providing a disease or weed break in the process of crop rotation (Prosperi et al. 2001). Furthermore, wild subspecies of M. sativa could be potential gene donors for crop improvement of cultivated Alfalfa (USDA, ARS, National Genetic Resources Program 2014).

Threats [top]

Major Threat(s): There do not appear to be any specific or major threats to the wild subspecies of Medicago sativa. However, there is evidence of hybridization/introgression between the crop and wild populations and the extent and likely consequences of this are unknown but may result in genetic erosion (Small 2011). Al-Atawneh et al. (2009) suggests that M. sativa subspecies are not threatened.

Conservation Actions [top]

Conservation Actions: Medicago sativa, as well as the majority of Mediterranean species of Medicago, has germplasm stored in numerous genebanks, notably the Australian Medicago Genetic Resources Centre (AMGRC) in Adelaide, Australia, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in the USA, and the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Syria (Prosperi et al. 2001). EURISCO reports 7,611 accessions held in European genebanks, 410 of which are reported to be of wild or weedy origin, and 5,719 of which have no reported information regarding their origin (EURISCO Catalogue 2013). No accessions recorded under the species name are held in the National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS, in the USA), however 3,677 accessions are documented for the various subordinate taxa of M. sativa, 1,028 of which are of wild origin and 984 of those are backed up at a second site (USDA, ARS, National Genetic Resources Program 2014). Furthermore, 4,962 accessions (7,513,794 seeds) are already duplicated and conserved ex situ in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, originating from 11 gene banks (SGSV Data Portal 2013). According to Botanical Garden Conservation International (BGCI 2013) this species has living collections in 60 botanical gardens worldwide, although the size, state, origin and location of the collections are not detailed in this resource (garden locations are undisclosed to protect rare and valuable plant species).

Small (2011) highlights concerns over the risk of genetic erosion of wild M. sativa populations. Savova et al. (1996) suggest that keeping cultivated alfalfa and wild subspecies at a minimum distance apart can help to conserve the range of genetic diversity in wild populations.

M. sativa subsp. falcata is classified as Least Concern (LC) in Denmark (Wind and Pihl 2010); it is also classified as Least Concern across Europe (Osborne 2011).

Citation: Rhodes, L. 2016. Medicago sativa. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T174725A19402449. . Downloaded on 26 September 2018.
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