The herb stevia is one of my favorite options for an occasional sweetener. It's a safe, natural plant that has been around for more than 1,500 years. Stevia is up to 200 times sweeter than sugar and does not spike your blood sugar, making it an ideal substitute for diabetics and dieters alike. Stevia is often a better choice than honey, maple syrup and molasses. Particularly if you’ve been using artificial sweeteners, you will want to give stevia a try.
If you are trying to lose weight or simply reduce your consumption of sugary sweets, stevia can be an appealing alternative to sugar. If you buy stevia from the store, take care to read the ingredient labels. Some brands actually contain sugar! Inexpensive stevia generally contains one or more additives that are potentially harmful to your health, such as erythritol and maltodextrin. If you want access to stevia that is safe and healthy, your best bet is to grow your own.
The History of Stevia: Used for Hundreds of Years in South America
Stevia is a perennial herb found within the Asteraceae family, which means it’s related to daisies, marigolds, ragweed and sunflowers. Several species of stevia called candyleaf are native to Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.1 The prized species, Stevia rebaudiana, grows in Brazil and Paraguay, where its leaves have been used for hundreds of years to sweeten food and drink.
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) initially withheld approval of stevia in 1991, they approved the use of rebaudioside compounds derived from the stevia plant in 2008.2 At the time, Coca-Cola introduced its zero-calorie, stevia-based sweetener called Truvia, while PepsiCo rolled out PureVia — both products used rebiana, a stevia extract.3
A mature stevia plant can grow to about 2 feet tall and has small, moderately broad, green leaves. Stevia has a distinctive aftertaste characterized as slightly bitter and licorice-flavored. It is well-suited for sweetening creamy desserts, drinks, fruit, salad dressings and yogurt. You can sweeten hot beverages, such as tea, simply by placing stevia leaves directly into the liquid.
Cold beverages are best sweetened using dried or liquid stevia. Those forms are also best for baking and cooking. No matter which type you use, you may need to experiment a bit to arrive at the right balance of stevia and other ingredients, particularly with respect to the flavor and taste of baked items.
Planting Stevia: Keep in Mind It Is a Poor Germinator
Stevia is not your typical herb, and it is not as easy to grow as most culinary herbs. With patience, however, it can be grown successfully in U.S. Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness Zones 11 and up. Stevia thrives in semi-humid locations with acidic soil, and does best when started indoors. Take note that stevia is very poor germinator, and a germination rate of less than 10 percent is common. When planting stevia, be sure to:4,5,6,7
Start seeds indoors about 12 weeks prior to the last frost
Plan for well-draining soil with a pH ranging from 6.7 to 7.2
Anticipate a very low germination rate by placing at least three seeds in each planting cell; some suggest darker (mature) seeds are more likely to sprout than those of lighter colors
Use a germination mat or overhead “grow” lights
When stevia plants have achieved six to eight weeks of growth, you can transplant them in your garden, assuming nighttime temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees F. If not, move your young plants to 3-inch pots and maintain them indoors until the weather warms up.
When transplanting to your garden, space plants 8 to 10 inches apart, and maintain rows 2 feet apart. Stevia grows best in full sun to partial shade. Plants will thrive in compost-rich, light sandy or loamy soils that are well-drained, but cannot handle wet soils. Applying a light mulch around your plants will help maintain moisture to the roots.
Stevia grown in warm climates will grow as much as 24 inches tall, whereas plants grown in cooler areas will top off around 16 inches. To get a year’s supply of dried leaves, you should plan to grow at least three plants. Some growers start stevia from cuttings, which is easier than trying to sprout seeds, especially given the poor germination rate.
Particularly if you are in a warm weather area and intend to grow stevia as a perennial, you may want to consider growing it from cuttings. Look for stevia in the herb section at your local nursery, and keep in mind the sweetness of the leaves varies from type to type.
Pruning is important for stevia’s characteristic lanky and upright plants.8 To maximize leaf production, you will want to trim back your plants several times to encourage branching. Perform the first pruning when plants are about 8 inches tall. Prune again in early summer. You have two options for using the pinch-backed stems: Harvest the leaves from them, or root them in moist potting soil to cultivate additional stevia plants for yourself or a friend.