"Lucerne" is another name by which this won derful clover-like plant is called in Europe, but in America we call it by the Arabic name, "alfalfa," which means "the best fodder." That name describes it exactly, for no other plant yields as much and as good hay.
All the western half of the United States grows alfalfa. The plant has brought under cultivation land supposed to be too dry to grow any farm crop. No matter if the region has scant rainfall. The farmer cultivates the land carefully, prepara tory to seeding. He may scatter soil from another alfalfa field on his own to inoculate the soil. He will scatter plaster on the land to sweeten any sour patches. Then he sows the alfalfa, and may mow it when the plants are several inches high to get rid of the weeds and to induce the alfalfa plants to "stool." They send up a good many supple mentary branches, which choke out weeds, and cover the ground, producing an abundance of leaves.
The root does the most wonderful thing. It is a strong tap root, and it goes down for water. Its many branches penetrate the soil, loosening it, and making it spongy, and able to hold the moisture it receives whenever rain falls. T It is not unusual for single plants of alfalfa to have roots fifteen to twenty-five feet long, burrowing down to stores of moisture that no shallow-rooted plant could get at.
Alfalfa is one of those nitrogen-gathering plants, extracting the most precious of all the elements of plant food from the air, and storing it in nodules on the roots. When a plant dies its root decays, and the soil is enriched by the nitrogen the nodules set free. The fibre of the roots makes humus. The roots have mellowed the deeper subsoil, and brought up plant food to enrich the surface soil for other plants. If the plant is left to rot, it, too, adds fertilizer. But usually it is taken off in the form of hay. The alfalfa plant gives back valuable elements to the soil, and leaves it in better condi tion for the growing of such exacting crops as corn and wheat.
Another wonderful fact about alfalfa is that it is perennial: once established, it continues to grow in the same field, without "running out," for ten to thirty years. And each year two to seven cuttings of hay are made from the same field. An average cutting yields between one and two tons of dry hay. The average yearly yield is four or five tons of dry alfalfa hay per acre. In all regions it goes far ahead of grass. In southern California some irrigated fields yield ten tons to the acre, where grass, with the same care, yields two to four tons only.
Nothing is more beautiful than a field of alfalfa ready for cutting. The plants stand less than two feet high, covering the ground with a velvet carpet of dark green, tinged with the deep blue or purple of the dense flower clusters, just beginning to show their color. The plants branch thickly, and the
abundant foliage is made of clover-like, three branched leaves. A single flower is like a pea blossom, and each ripens, if it gets a chance, an interesting flat pod that coils itself as tight as a watch spring.
Alfalfa hay is cut when the flowers bud, and before fibre hardens the succulent leaves. Care fully dried, the leaves make hay that is at its best. The leaves are very rich in protein, the nitrogenous element that builds flesh. The stems and flower clusters are nutritious, too, but at haying time it is the leaves, which shed badly if not properly dried, that the farmer is most concerned about.
Alfalfa fields make rich pastures, but hungry cattle eat too much and get sick, if they have their own way. Cattle-raisers feed the hay ground up and added to corn and bran. Such a balanced ration is an exact way of feeding, which is most satisfactory. Bags of this alfalfa meal are shipped more economically than the same hay baled.
I have eaten very palatable bread and cakes made of alfalfa flour — the ground seed. It is nutritious, but too dark colored to be popular.
Records show that alfalfa was brought into Greece from Persia in 480 B. C. It reached Italy during the first century, and slowly spread over Europe. From Spain it was carried to Mexico and thence spread north and south during the six teenth century. New England got seed from Eng land about the same time. But the plants died out the second season, and culture of the new plant was generally ignored by farmers. Only recently has it been restored to a place among agricultural crops in the East by the discovery that soil inocu lation establishes the plant, and it becomes one of the best crops for forage, and for building up depleted farm land.
In the West, alfalfa is the great forage crop, as it is in southern Europe. Drought-resistant vari eties brought from Turkestan are grown in the semi-arid regions of the Great Plains, and the desert places become gardens. Hardier varieties have extended the range of the plant farther north.
Sand lucern is proving just the thing for light, sandy soil in the north central states.
The growing popularity of alfalfa in Kansas is shown by the fact that in 1891 the crop measured 34,000 acres. In 1907 it was 743,000 acres. The prejudice of farmers is strong against a "new thing." But even prejudice must surrender when the new plant multiplies the farm income, and at the same time improves the land.