Comprehensive DescriptionRead full entry
General: Fabaceae (Legume family). Sainfoin is a deep-rooted perennial legume arising from a branching root crown. Flowers are showy and pink, white or purple and tightly arranged in a compact raceme with 20 to 50 flowers per head (figure 1). Leaves are odd-pinnately compound with 11 to 21 leaflets. Sainfoin typically grows taller than alfalfa reaching 8 to 36 inches tall. The seeding unit is a single-seeded pod (figure 2). Seeds are large with only 18,500 (pre-husked) seeds per pound (USDA 2008). 2n=28 (Welsh et al 2003).
Distribution: Sainfoin has been used as a forage legume for hundreds of years in Europe and Asia and was introduced to North America around 1900. It has since been widely used in the Intermountain and Rocky Mountain regions in hay plantings and reclamation plantings (Welsh et al 2003).
For current distribution, consult the Plant Profile page for this species on the PLANTS Web site.
Figure 2. Sainfoin fruit (pod) each contains a single seed. Picture courtesy of Tracey Slotta @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database (USDA 2008).
Habitat: Sainfoin can be found in western rangeland sites in 14 inch and greater precipitation areas. It is often associated with big sagebrush and mountain shrub communities in well-drained calcareous soils.
Adaptation: Early varieties from Western Europe did not perform well in the western United States. The plants were poorly adapted and had low forage yields. Newer varieties from Russia and Turkey however are better suited to western climates and perform similarly to alfalfa. (Baldridge and Lohmiller 1990).
Sainfoin is best adapted to soils at least 18 inches deep with a pH of 6.6 to 8.0 (USDA 2008). It is best adapted to sites receiving at least 14 inches mean annual precipitation (MAP). Rangeland plantings have been successful in sagebrush, pinyon-juniper and mountain shrub areas in deep, calcium based soils (Stevens and Monsen 2004). Sainfoin has low salt tolerance.
Sainfoin does not do well in sites with high water tables or wet soils.