Sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia) is often seen on chalk and limestone grassland in southern England, although it is almost certainly not a native plant, having been introduced from central Europe where it was traditionally used as fodder for cattle. The name comes from French – “sain” meaning “wholesome” and “foin” meaning “hay”. It has also been thought that a mythical Saint Foyne might have been responsible for the name.
Sainfoin was mentioned by Nicholas Culpeper, the 17th-century herbalist, as an aid for nursing mothers, based on the plant’s supposed effect on increasing the milk yield of cows.
Another former medical use for sainfoin was to treat “stranguary” – a painful bladder disease. The leaves were sometimes used as a poultice for reducing boils or they could induce sweating if pulped and mixed with oil.
Sainfoin is an upright, often branched, plant, growing to a height of up to 32 inches (80 cms). The leaves consist of 6-14 pairs of leaflets with a terminal leaflet.
The flowers appear from June to August. They are bright pink or red, often with purplish veins, carried in conical spikes. Sainfoin is sometimes called “cock’s comb” or “cock’s head”, which refers to the plant’s spiny toothed seed pods. Each pod contains a single seed and it does not split open.