The stevia plant is a member of the Asteracaea family related to the daisy and ragwood. Several species called “candyleaf” are native to New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. The popular species, Stevia rebaudiana, comes from Brazil and Paraguay, where it has been used for centuries to sweeten food.
Stevia is a sweetener and sugar substitute extracted from the leaves of the plant Stevia rebaudiana. The active compounds of stevia are steviol glycosides which have up to 200 times the sweetness of sugar.
These compounds do not affect blood glucose levels in humans, making stevia attractive to people on low carb diets. Stevia is a unique, amazing food ingredient because it does not add calories and is derived from a plant.
The taste of stevia has a slower onset and lasts longer than the taste of sugar.
Medicinally, stevia can help with symptoms and treatment of stomach problems, colic, burns and thought to be a natural contraceptive. Not too sure how that works though.
Insects are reluctant to feast on stevia leaves. It is not a particularly showy plant in the garden or as a houseplant. It’s sweet taste is the most notable feature.
Plants can be started from cuttings and seeds. Propagation by cuttings might tend to produce plants with smaller leaves and production from seeds takes time and can be a bit tricky. I purchase plants in 4” pots and pop them in the ground after any threat of frost, towards the end of February here in Poway.
Stevia blossoms resemble little clouds with tiny, white numerous blooms. Like most herbs grown for flavor in our gardens, we strive to harvest as many fresh leaves as possible, prior to bloom time, for maximum flavor. Then you can enjoy the pollinator activity during the blooming period and add some beauty to your edible garden. It is a “short day” plant that blooms as the days get shorter in late summer and fall.
Stevia is a tender perennial, able to survive mild winters such as we have in Poway, California, but I grow it as an annual and replace plants after our last threat of frost.
Stevia is easy to grow and the keys are planting in soils rich with organic matter/compost and consistent maintenance of soil moisture. The plant prefers a sandy loam or loam soil so if clay soil prevails in your garden, try growing it in raised beds or even containers.
As far as fertilization, stevia is not a heavy feeder and the use of a rich quality compost is probably all that is needed. If you wish to fertilize your plants, a balanced fertilizer is the way to go.
Stevia prefers full or partial sun exposure. In places where summers are very hot, afternoon shade can be very beneficial. Covering your plants with a shade cloth can also be a good strategy when it is very hot.
Watering by hand is not recommended, but if you do, try not to water the entire plant but just around the base of the plant. Soaker hoses or drip irrigation are the preferred ways to water.
To promote branching thus leading to more leaf production, pruning the tips of the stems will help tremendously. Stevia stems are brittle and tend to break in windy conditions. When the plants are a foot tall, simply pinch or cut off about 3-4 inches from the growing tips. This will force the side branches to send out new sprouts. These pruned tips are very tasty and can be used immediately in combination with mint leaves from the garden. These leaves can be dried as well as used fresh to make an herbal tea.
I have never experienced any insect or disease pressures while growing stevia. Just avoid waterlogged soils or soaking the leaves when irrigating.
Leaves can be harvested and stored anytime through the growing season, but you will get more leaves just as the plant starts to bloom in late summer and fall. I cut whole stems with a set of clean pruners and tie them into bundles with string or rubber bands. I hang the bundles upside down in the garage, out of direct sunlight in a well ventilated area. In a few days the leaves will become crisp and when completely dry, I strip the leaves from the stems. The dried stevia leaves can be stored at room temperature in an airtight jar or in a storage bag out of direct light in a cool area. They will keep for years and can be used in a variety of ways.
Whole dried stevia leaves can be used to make herbal teas alone or in combination with other herbs such as mint and chamomile or even used with green tea bags.
Here at Sunshine Care, A Community of Assisted Living Homes in Poway California, we make a Stevia Leaf Water Extract. Our residents enjoy using this extract in cool refreshing drinks as a sweetener.
To make this water extract is simple. We grind up ½ cup of Dried Stevia Leaves, packed in a measuring cup. Bring 1 cup of water to a simmer in a saucepan. When bubbles start to come up to the surface, we stir in the dried stevia leaves, cover the pan, pull from the heat and let it steep for about 45 minutes. Let it cool down and store in the refrigerator with a lid. It will store for up to two weeks in this fashion. It can be used to sweeten teas and coffee or added to sparking water with citrus and mint added.
To make a Hot Green Tea, heat up a cup of water, stir in the dried stevia leaves and add a green tea bag. Cover and steep for 5 minutes, strain and serve. Try it with black tea as well.
There are many ways to use dried stevia leaves in other forms of baking and cooking. Oatmeal, granola, meatballs, pies, muffins, frozen desserts, smoothies and stews are all in the realm of use of this diverse ingredient.
A great book, Growing and Using Stevia, contains 35 recipes to bring this sweet leaf from your garden to the table. The authors are Jeffrey Goettemoeller and Karen Lucke. I’m sure you can get a copy on line or direct from Prairie Oak Publishing in Maryville, Missouri.
So enjoy the healthy flavor and the non-sugar sweetness attributes of stevia in your diet today.
As a reminder, Sunshine Care offers a free monthly garden lecture on the third Saturday of the month at 10:30 am. Each lecture features great local horticultural experts discussing a variety of timely topics as well as door prizes, refreshments and tours of our greenhouse and gardens. Check out our website www.sunshinecare.com for information on our gatherings and how to RSVP.
Hope to see you soon and – – –
Horticulture Manager at Sunshine Care,
A Community of Assisted Living Homes
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