Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sainfoin /Esparsette

Onobrychis viciifolia

Høvblege, Møn , at calcareous soil.

Sainfoin is a very attractive wild flower with pinnate leaves and dense spikes of pretty pink flowers with darker veins. Onobrychis means "devoured by donkeys" from Ancient Greek ónos (donkey) and brýkein ("to eat greedily"), referring to sainfoin's good properties as a forage plant for large mammalian herbivores. Sainfoin is derived from Old French sain foin = healthy hay.

In northern European languages that have been less influenced by French the plants' name usually derives from esparceto, the Provencal term for the similar-looking and closely related sweetvetches (Hedysarum). Examples: Danish esparsette, Dutch esparcette, German sparsette, Russian espartset (Эспарцет) and Swedish esparsett.

Sainfoins are Eurasian perennial herbs of the legume family. About 150 species of sainfoins are presently known. The flora Europaea lists 23 species of Onobrychis; the main centre of diversity extends from Central Asia to Iran. Onobrychis viciifolia is naturalized throughout many countries in Europe and North american grasslands on calcareous soils. Sanfoins are mostly subtropical plants, but their range extends throughout Europe as far north as southern Sweden.These plants grow on grassland, agricultural land and wasteland.

These highly nutritious plants were an important forage for heavy working horses in agriculture, and are still an excellent source of nectar for honey production as well as pollen for bee food. Onobrychis species are used as food plants by the caterpillars of some Lepidoptera species.

Høvblege, Møn, a hillside with lots and lots of various flowers.

Sainfoin was probably from the middle of the 1700s cultivated in Denmark but it never had a large distribution. It was said that sainfoin when used as a fodder for the cattle increased the milk yield and made oxen fat, but horses must have it mixed with other fodder "or else they will grow too fat". It was tested as a fodder in several places with unsatisfying results - but then it was cultivated as an ornamental plant. Not until 1875 the sainfoin became popular and considered a good fodder for cattle in general, since it had a larger nutritional value than clover and lucerne. The milk gets bluish if the cows eat sainfoin.

The birth of Jesus in a humble stable has given ample opportunity for several legends. While the tired parents slept, Jesus was placed in a manger filled with sainfoin. When they awoke they were astonished to find that the dry hay had blossomed, and the baby was surrounded by its beautiful red flowers. Ever since sainfoin has been known as Holy Hay.

In George Orwell's "Coming Up for Air", travelling salesman George Bowling regularly reminisces about the smell of sainfoin in his father's seed shop in Lower Binfield.

Høvblege, Møn June 2007: grethe bachmannn.

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