Stevia is well known today as a nonnutritive sweetener, a sugar substitute. You can buy powdered stevia products to add sweetness to foods and drinks without adding calories. These products contain rebaudioside A, an extract made from stevia leaves. A more natural way to sweeten foods without calories is to use the whole leaves of stevia.
Native to South America, this plant grows well in USDA zones 10 and 11. In other regions, grow it indoors year-round or outdoors in summer. Stevia, part of the Asteraceae family, is an herbaceous perennial that grows up to two feet tall and wide. There is little ornamental value, but stevia does produce small white flowers in late summer.
The primary use of stevia is as a nonnutritive sweetener. The native people of Brazil and Paraguay have used it for thousands of years to sweeten drinks and make medicines more palatable. Many known health benefits of stevia are related to calorie intake and weight loss or maintenance.
Studies have found that using stevia can help people with diabetes manage blood sugar levels. One study also found that stevia can reduce “bad” cholesterol levels. If the use of stevia reduces your sugar intake, it can help you lose or maintain weight. A few studies have found that stevia may have anti-cancer properties as well.
Starting stevia plants
Because it is a tropical plant, it’s best to start stevia seeds indoors eight to ten weeks before the last frost. Sow seeds to a depth of one-quarter inch and look for seedlings to emerge in two to three weeks. Keep the starting soil lightly moist and give the seedlings plenty of sun or artificial light.
Grow transplants outdoors in a spot with full sun and average soil. If you do not live in a warm, tropical climate, you may want to grow stevia in containers. You can keep the plants outside in the summer and bring them in again for the winter. Pinch off the tips of the plants every few weeks to give them a fuller growth shape. Water regularly, but don’t let the soil get soggy. You can use a standard plant fertilizer throughout the growing season.
Harvest at the right time
You can harvest stevia leaves as you need them. They have the best flavor before flowering, so pinch off flowers as they begin to appear. Alternatively, you can harvest the entire plant by pulling it up just before flowering.
Use stevia leaves fresh in teas and other beverages. You can store the fresh leaves in the refrigerator for a few days or in a glass of water. To keep the leaves for later use, dry them. Hang stems or lay leaves out on a drying screen and store in an airtight container.
Homemade stevia syrup
Add this stevia syrup to your favorite drinks. Simply pulverize dried stevia leaves until nearly a powder with a mortar and pestle or blender. Add one teaspoon to two cups of boiling water. Simmer until it achieves a thick, syrup-like consistency. Strain out the stevia and store the syrup in the refrigerator.
iSusan Patterson, CBHC and Master Gardener