By: Liz Baessler
Stevia is a buzzword these days, and this is probably not the first place you’ve read about it. A natural sweetener with essentially no calories, it’s popular with people interested in both weight loss and natural eating. But exactly what is stevia? Keep reading for stevia plant information.
Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) is a nondescript looking leafy plant reaching 2-3 feet (.6-.9 m.) in height. It is native to Paraguay, where it’s been used for centuries, possibly millennia, as a sweetener.
Stevia leaves contain molecules called glycosides, essentially molecules with sugar attached to them, making the leaves taste sweet. The human body, however, cannot break apart the glycosides, meaning they have no calories when consumed by humans.
It is used as a food additive in many countries, accounting for 40 percent of Japan’s sweetening additives. It was banned as an additive in the United States for over a decade due to possible health risks, however, and only in 2008 was allowed again.
Stevia has been declared safe by the FDA and has been used continuously internationally, so there’s no reason not to grow your own plant as a home sweetener and great conversation piece. Stevia is a perennial in USDA growing zones 9 and warmer.
The roots may survive in zone 8 with protection, but in colder areas it will grow very well in a container brought indoors for the winter. It can also be treated as an annual outdoors.
Stevia plant care is not too intensive — place it in loose, well-drained soil in full sun and water frequently but shallowly.
You can harvest your stevia plant to use as your own natural sweetener. While you can harvest the leaves and use them throughout the summer, they’re at their sweetest in autumn, just as they’re getting ready to flower.
Pick the leaves (all of them if you’re treating it as an annual) and dry them by placing them on a clean cloth in the sun for an afternoon. Save the leaves whole or crush them into a powder in the food processor and store them in an airtight container.
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Stevia may be grown from seed sown early indoors and transplanted outside after frost, or sown directly in the garden, or planted as a potted plant.
Stevia is a perennial, which means it will come back year after year. However, the leaves stop producing quite as much after year two. This is why many recommend that you replant every two years.
Stevia doesn’t have lots of different varieties, like some plants. Some nurseries sell stevia simply as Stevia rebaudiana. Other places will sell it as Candy Stevia, Sugar Leaf Stevia, and Stevia Sweet Leaf.
Either way, it is all the same plant and is said to be 20-30 times sweeter than regular table sugar.
Stevia is not as easy to grow as most culinary herbs, but it has been successfully grown in climates ranging from southern Canada to the American South. Stevia is hardy in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 11 and up, and does best in semi-humid locations with acidic, well-draining soil. Space plantings 8 to 10 inches apart in a location where they will receive full sun. Stevia grows best when soil pH ranges from 6.7 to 7.2.
You can often find stevia in your local nursery’s herb section. The majority of stevia plants are sold as cuttings.
Stevia is a sweet plant that used from the 16 th century to sweetened beverages and tea. Stevia has numerous uses and benefits for health.
You can make use of some of the health benefits of stevia by making fresh stevia tea.
As previously mentioned, stevia can have health benefits relating to blood sugar and blood pressure.
It may also have antioxidant, anti-septic, anti-microbial, and antibacterial properties as well, making it good for healthy skin, healthy teeth, and good digestion.
To make stevia tea, simply pour boiling water over a few fresh stevia and mint leaves and allow it to steep for several minutes. This makes for a healthy, refreshing tea.
Even fresh stevia is much sweeter than sugar, so you may need to experiment to find the level of sweetness that tastes good to you.
Stevia is much sweeter than sugar, so you will need very little stevia in comparison to the amount of sugar you would place in a recipe.
Generally, a cup of sugar is equal to the sweetness in a teaspoon of powder or stevia extract.
You can use stevia extracts and powder to sweeten drinks, oatmeal, and many desserts. Be careful when baking with stevia extracts and powders, because the amount of stevia required is so small.
The texture of your desert may end up being somewhat different due to the difference between sugar and stevia.
Amanda is a homesteader and a Jesus-loving, mother of 6 toddlers. She’s raising lots of fancy chickens and goats on her small homestead (among other things).