Wouldn’t it be wonderful to grow a calorie-free, natural sweetener? That’s where stevia comes in. It is easy to grow in the herb garden, has no serious side effects, and provides that wonderful sweetness we crave.
Growing In Your Garden
Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni) comes from Paraguay. This tender perennial herb grows well in Zone 8-11. It is sensitive to freezes so gardeners in cooler regions should treat it as an annual. Stevia forms a dense cluster of stout branches to about two feet high and about as wide. The medium green leaves are slightly scalloped. Their thick texture reminds me of succulents.
Stevia can be grown in the ground or a container. Experts say it prefers sandy loam but I’ve found it will grow reliably in clay soils as well. This herb is happy in full sun with moderate water. If your garden has poor drainage or frequent rains, plant stevia in a raised bed or container to avoid root rot.
Stevia is definitely a dry climate herb. In regions with high humidity, watch for powdery mildew. Clip off any infected stems and move the plant to an area more exposed to sun and breezes.
In my Texas garden it has survived some of the hot summers of recent years without any trouble. It requires virtually no maintenance during the growing season. In late fall clip the stems down to the ground and give the base a light mulch. With protection it will survive light freezes in winter and return in spring without a problem.
The sweet leaves of stevia can be harvested as soon as the branches reach about a foot high. The leaves can be used fresh or dried for later use. To dry stevia, tie the branches together and hang them upside down in a warm, dry location. Or you can spread the stems in a single layer on a screen. Once the leaves are dry and crackly, remove them by running you finger tips down the stems from top to bottom. Store the whole leaves in an airtight container for later use.
Stevia in the Kitchen
The raw leaves of stevia are intensely sweet, roughly ten times sweeter than sugar. About half a teaspoon of dried chopped stevia leaf is equivalent in sweetening power to 8 ounces of sugar. The easiest way to use this herb is to sweeten beverages. Just swish a fresh stem of stevia in iced tea and you’ll see what I mean. In hot tea the leaves can be added with tea or herb leaves.
If you feel adventurous, you can make your own extract of stevia. Add one half cup of slightly crushed dried leaves for every cup of boiling hot water and allow it to steep for about an hour. Use a coffee filter to remove the remains of the leaves. A quarter cup of this is equivalent in sweetness to a cup of sugar.
People sometimes ask me about how to bake with stevia. Alas, you can’t directly substitute stevia leaves (fresh or dried) for white sugar in recipes. Sugar does more than sweeten. It reacts with other ingredients to provide texture, promote browning, and feed yeast in breads. Stevia does none of these. In order for the extract of stevia (called stevioside) to substitute for sugar it must go through a series of refining processes to create the chemical compound sold in stores. Is the resulting white powder a natural product? I’ll let you decide.