Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) is a plant that has become well-known for its sweetness. It is now grown commercially and the sweetness is refined and sold as a sugar substitute. Right now, most of the stevia extract comes from China. The good news for gardeners is that it isn’t hard to grow and it will even flourish in a big pot.
General stevia information
The plant is native to South America. It is a perennial, but isn’t tolerant of bitter cold temperatures. Gardeners in the north are advised to either grow it in pots or dig it up and put it in a pot when the temperatures get very low.
The sweetness comes from compounds known as steviol glycosides. The two most important are rebaudioside and stevioside. For a time, stevia was banned in the US because of health concerns, but the FDA lifted the ban in 2008, with Europe following suit three years later.
The plant has actually been used by tribal people in South America for well over 1,500 years now. There is a good reason for this. Pure stevioside is 100 to 200 times sweeter than sugar, varying a little depending on growth factors. Using the leaves without refining doesn’t result in this level of sweetness, however they are still sweeter than sugar, even unrefined.
Stevia needs rich soil that drains well. It also likes to have plenty of space, so they should be placed a foot and a half away from other plants in all directions. If they are grown in a pot, the pot should have a diameter of at least a foot and should be at least one to two feet in depth.
Good quality potting soil can be used in pots. In the garden, plant in good garden soil and dig in plenty of finished compost prior to planting. The plant also does well with a periodic side dressing of compost. Stevia enjoys having a good amount of calcium, so compost that has fragments of egg shells can help the plant. Once a month or so, it can also be fed very diluted milk-water. If you buy milk in jugs, simply add a cup of water to the dregs in the jug when it is emptied, swishing it around, and feed this to the stevia.
This is a sun loving plant, so it should be put where it gets at least six to eight hours of sunshine per day. Planting it in pots gives far more latitude, since the pots can be moved to give the stevia all the sun it needs.
One of the biggest problems people are likely to face when they grow stevia is overwatering. The plant can become weak and can die if the roots are allowed to be saturated for long periods. This is why the soil should drain well. After watering deeply, the plant shouldn’t be watered again until the top inch of dirt or so feels dry to the touch.
The tops of the plant will often begin to droop when it is thirsty. However, if the plant begins to sag when the soil looks and feels moist, it is likely that it is getting overwatered.
Stevia can grow as much as three feet tall. To harvest it, snip off stems and hang them to dry. When the stem is totally dry, the leaves can the be easily removed from the stems and can be crushed for storage in air-tight containers in a dark place.
Harvesting can be done almost the whole length of the growing season. However, the leaves are usually sweetest in the fall, especially after the temperatures have cooled down, but before the plant blooms, which normally also happens in the fall. To keep the plant producing leaves, clip off the flowers as they form.
In tropical and subtropical regions, stevia may grow throughout the year. In colder areas, it usually dies back when temperatures reach freezing.
If you think that the above sounds a lot like growing tomatoes, you’d be correct. Tomatoes and stevia do well in the same growing conditions.
Stevia isn’t hard to grow and if you are trying to limit your intake of refined sugar, this is one way to do it. It is also a lot less expensive the purchasing the stevia at the store. It is a plant worth growing.
Posted in food and plants and tagged container, growing, herb, plant, stevia, sweetness by rextrulove with 10 comments.