Stevia: How sweet it is

In the Garden with Mr. Bee

May 26, 2011|By Lou Boulmetishippodromehatter@aol.com

My wife nearly purchased a stevia plant (Stevia rebaudiana). Also known as "sweetleaf" and "sugarleaf," it's the same plant from which natural sweeteners such as OnlySweet, PureVia and Truvia are made. She didn't get the plant, though, because she wasn't certain that I knew how to grow it.

Used for centuries to sweeten foods and medicines, this member of the sunflower family is a frost-tender herb native to tropical and subtropical areas of the Americas. It was first discovered growing wild in Paraguay during 1903.

Since stevia is 300 times sweeter than sugar, the sugar industry considered stevia to be a serious business threat but succeeded in keeping it out of the marketplace.

The marketplace is different today, and folks are clamoring for natural sweeteners that are calorie-free and low in carbohydrates, such as stevia-based products.

Home-growing stevia

Stevia leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, and similar to other herbs, dry stevia leaves can be stored in airtight jars. Although stevia leaves can be harvested anytime before the fall, or before flower buds form, I'll cut the plants to the ground and slowly dry their leaves.

Waiting for flowers to form before harvesting stevia causes the leaves to be less sweet. Drying the leaves quickly also causes them to loose sweetness.

I'll grow stevia from store-bought plants placed 18 inches apart in full sun and in soil that drains freely. I'll apply 2 inches of mulch — such as grass clippings — to keep the roots cool and moist throughout the summer.

By summer's end, the plants should get 20 inches tall and 18 inches wide.

My wife was right, by the way. At first I didn't know how to grow this pest-free plant. Now I do, and so do you.

This week in the garden

Frost has been out of the forecast for a while, so I recently sowed seeds of beans, cucumbers and squash. But I also purchased sufficient seeds to sow a second crop, a month from now, to produce additional crops or replacement crops, just in case Jack Frost shows his face.

Even so, I'm waiting until early June to transplant our tomato seedlings, because tomato plants grow bigger and become more productive if they aren't subjected to 40-degree temperatures overnight.

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