Stevia, or sweetleaf, has become a media darling. You can scarcely pick up a lifestyle or health magazine that doesn’t praise its capacity to give meals a sugary taste without contributing to obesity. It is said to be 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar while containing no calories. Stevia products (powders, tablets, liquids, etc.) are now everywhere, from farmers markets to health food stores. And of course, it’s all natural… well, at least it is when you get it straight from the plant.
And that’s my point here: before being converted into powders and tablets and whatnot, stevia was and still is a plant (Stevia rebaudiana), one you can grow quite easily, even on a windowsill. Why pay for stevia products when you can grow your own stevia?
And even if the medias tout stevia as something totally new, stevia has in fact been around for a long time. Paraguayan natives have been using this plant for millennia and it’s been known to botanists for over 300 years. I’ve been growing it myself as an indoor/outdoor plant for nearly 20 years. The big difference I notice now is that more people know what stevia is than when I first started growing it.
How to Grow It
Stevia is not at all difficult to grow… once you understand that it is a tropical plant that likes a lot of sun.
It’s easiest to grow outside during the summer, either in a pot (don’t let it dry out!) or in the ground. Just start with a plant (seeds are available, but their germination is unreliable), one you can find in almost any garden center, often even in supermarkets. Then once you have a first plant, you can produce as many more as you want by taking cuttings.
It requires a fairly rich, uniformly moist soil and certainly doesn’t like drought: water as needed to keep it from drying out. It does best in full sun, but will tolerate partial shade. Since it doesn’t like the cold, wait until there is no risk of frost before acclimating the plant to outdoor conditions.
Fertilize lightly with a slow-release organic fertilizer during the summer, avoiding nitrogen-rich fertilizers as they can weaken its taste. Pinching the stem tips every three or four weeks will help stimulate better branching.
Stevia is hardy in zones 9 to 11, possibly in well-protected spots in zone 8, but won’t survive the winter outdoors in colder regions. So bring it indoors for the winter, preferably in early September before evenings become cool. It is one of the few culinary herbs that performs fairly well indoors. You can bring the entire plant indoors or take cuttings.
For best results, grow it in front of a sunny window or under fluorescent lights. When spring comes around, put it back outside (it really appreciates a summer outdoors).
Don’t be surprised if the plant etiolates somewhat while indoors for the winter. That is, it produces long, weak, pale green stems. That’s due to poor light: it’s hard to supply the intense light the plant prefers during the short gray days of a temperate-climate winter. Don’t hesitate to cut the weak stems back to about 4 inches (10 cm): that will slow the plant down a bit and, hopefully, when it starts to grow again, that will be under the longer, brighter days of spring.
If you don’t pinch stevia, you’ll probably see it bloom in fall. It does so under the influence of short days, usually once it is indoors for winter, producing inflorescences of tiny white flowers in the form of a badminton shuttlecock. They aren’t very attractive and in addition, blooming plants don’t taste as sugary as non-blooming ones, so don’t hesitate to remove them.
Stevia seems quite resistant to insects and diseases and puts up with a wide range of growing conditions. But it won’t tolerate drought.
If you find your plant wilted and its soil is bone dry, water abundantly and it should recuperate. If it doesn’t, though, all hope is not lost. Prune it back practically to the ground and, even if the plant looks completely dead, keep the soil slightly moist and wait patiently. Very often it will sprout from the base a few months later.
The easiest way to use stevia is simply to harvest the leaves fresh, using them as needed. If you grow the plant indoors in the winter and outdoors in the summer, its sweet taste will be available in all seasons. However, you can also harvest and dry the leaves for later use. It’s certainly simple enough to do: just cut a few stems and hang them upside down in a dry, warm, well-ventilated spot. When the leaves are dry to the touch, remove them, reduce them to powder and store them in a container until you need a sugar substitute.
What About that Aftertaste?
Stevia would probably be much more popular if it weren’t for its aftertaste. Sure, it’s very sweet, but it also has a sort of anislike bitter overtone. It’s not that the aftertaste is that strong or unpleasant, but it’s still something you notice… and that has been enough to delay the plant’s wider adoption by the general public.
There are now, however, cultivars with no aftertaste, such as ‘Sweetie Star’. It simply tastes like sugar, period. Richters Herbs offers ‘Sweetie Star’ and other cultivars and ships orders throughout Canada and the United States.
Cooking with Stevia
There you have me: I won’t even pretend to be a cook and have no original home-tested recipe to propose. Instead, I encourage you to experiment or to search for recipes on the Internet.
When cooking with stevia, it’s important to understand that it is much, much sweeter than sugar. In most cases, all you’ll need to sweeten one portion is one stevia leaf or a pinch of dried stevia.
Good success with your stevia… and with your low-cal diet!