The Biology and Ecology of Feral Alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.) and Its Implications for Novel Trait Confinement in North America Academic Article uri icon


  • Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) is an important forage crop worldwide. Apart from cultivated fields, alfalfa is also found along roadsides and in natural and semi-natural habitats. However, little information is available on the establishment capabilities of alfalfa in noncultivated areas and the potential of these founding populations to become feral. Some crop species have not lost all their wild characteristics during the domestication process and with several inherent traits favoring weediness, alfalfa could be one among those that can become feral. There is great interest in the feral potential of alfalfa, particularly due to the concerns that feral plants could act as genetic bridges and facilitate novel trait movement at the landscape level. Alfalfa is the first perennial, insect-pollinated crop to be genetically engineered and approved for unconfined release into the environment. This review investigates and compiles information in the literature that reveals the life history components that can influence ferality in alfalfa. Characteristics that can contribute to ferality in alfalfa include high genetic diversity, perenniality, quick regrowth potential, persistence, symbiotic nitrogen fixation, deep tap root system, drought and cold tolerance, and seed dormancy. With these traits, alfalfa is equipped to invade and dominate unmanaged habitats. Feral alfalfa populations can and will act as bridges for long-distance gene flow and facilitate the adventitious presence of novel traits in the environment. As such, feral populations will become a potential barrier for achieving coexistence of transgenic and nontransgenic alfalfa fields. Implications of ferality, including gene flow and hybridization with compatible wild relatives are also discussed in detail. This review serves as a resource for environmental risk assessment for the release of alfalfa containing novel traits.

published proceedings


author list (cited authors)

  • Bagavathiannan, M. V., & Van Acker, R. C.

citation count

  • 31

complete list of authors

  • Bagavathiannan, Muthukumar V||Van Acker, Rene C

publication date

  • March 2009