Grow Stevia and Stick It to the Man!

Standard

Photo: http://www.splenda.com

I recently saw a very funny television commercial about Splenda Naturals brand Stevia called “The sweetest thing you COULD grow” (see below). I laughed pretty much all the way through. 

Fabulous Splenda commercial! Video: http://www.splenda.com

The premise is that you could grow stevia yourself, but it’s such a bother when you could simply open a pack of Splenda stevia and pour it into your ice tea. One character says about growing stevia, “I mean, if you had time, and you liked gardening, and—you know—you liked kinda doin’ stuff the hard way.”

And it’s sooo true … except that gardeners do like gardening and they do like “kinda doin’ stuff the hard way.” Plus, growing stevia really isn’t that hard!

So, the commercial backfired with me. It simply made me want to grow stevia even more, thus thumbing my nose at big business. And besides, I already grow stevia and have for years.

What Is Stevia?

Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana). Photo: goodwitcheshomestead.com

Stevia may be a commercial sweetener these days, but it was originally a plant: Stevia rebaudiana, from the Asteraceae family. You may hear it called sweet leaf, sweet herb, honey leaf or candy leaf. It’s named after Pedro Jaime Esteve (1500–66), a Spanish physician and botanist, while the epithet rebaudiana comes from Dr. Ovid Rebaudi, the 19th-century Paraguayan chemist who first extracted the sweet constituents from the plant.

It hails from South America and has been used for some 1500 years by the Guarani people of Brazil and Paraguay who call it “ka’a he’ ẽ” (“sweet herb”). They use it to sweeten bitter foods and medicines and as a snack. It contains glycosides like stevioside and rebaudioside that repel insects (yes, the plant concocted them as natural insect repellants!), but fresh leaves also have 10 times the sweetness of sugar. (Commercial stevia concentrate can be 300 times sweeter than sugar!) Humans can taste the sweetness, but can’t digest the glycosides. And that means stevia is a natural sweetener with essentially no calories, which is why stevia is so often of interest to people wishing to reduce their caloric consumption.

The flowers are not very impressive. Photo: Forest and Kim Starr, Wikimedia Commons

The plant is a small shrub about 30 to 80 cm (1 to 2.5 feet) in height with oblong, mid-green, slightly hairy opposite leaves with prominent veins, a lightly toothed margin and a very short, sometimes absent petiole. It grows upright at first, but older stems, green at first, eventually turning woody, bend and wander if you don’t cut them back. Clusters of tiny white flowers are produced in the late fall or winter, as it is a short-day plant. They aren’t particularly attractive and it’s probably best to remove them.

Growing Stevia

Despite its subtropical origin, stevia is easily grown in temperate climates as an annual. Or indoors as an edible houseplant. And it basically needs only the same care you’d offer to just about anything else you’d grow.

Outdoors

Stevia does wonderfully outdoors in the summer garden. Photo: http://www.westcoastseeds.com

Plant stevia plants outside in late spring when both the soil and the air have warmed up… about the same season you would plant out tomato or peppers. Place them in full sun to very light shade in good garden soil: well drained, evenly moist, with a pH ranging from acidic to alkaline (5 to 8), although a range of 6.7 to 7.2 is best. In other words, your vegetable or flower garden would probably be perfect, as would any potting soil. 

Space the plants about 20 to 25 cm (8 to 10 inches) apart and keep them evenly moist. Mulching can help with that and you’ll likely need to water during times of drought. Container plants dry out faster than garden plants, so keep a special eye on them.

Whatever fertilizer or compost you apply to your other garden plants will suit stevia just fine. There is no need to fertilize abundantly: as with most herbs, the taste is more concentrated when the plant is a bit underfertilized.

Stevia is not frost hardy and will not survive outdoors in temperate climates. It will live on in USDA hardiness zones 9 and above, and sometimes even 8, as it will grow back from the base if only the leaves are frosted. Prolonged freezing, though, will kill it.

Indoors

Stevia grows readily indoors provided you offer it quite intense light. A sunny windowsill or a place under fluorescent or LED grow lights will suit it wonderfully. 

Stevia can be bit etiolated and floppy in the winter, but it still survives. Photo: countrylivinginacariboovalley.com

In natural light, it will probably etiolate somewhat during the short, gray days of winter, but you can then simply prune it back. It will start to look better when a burgeoning spring brings more sun. 

Watering is as for almost any houseplant: when the potting mix is dry to the touch, water thoroughly with tepid water. How often you need to water will depend on your growing conditions as well as the size of the pot (large plants in small pots will need more frequent watering). 

Stevia wilts rapidly when its soil is dry, but will recuperate if you catch it before it goes too far. Still, letting it dry out with any frequency is not a good idea, as each drought session weakens the plant. In fact, underwatering is second-biggest cause (after lack of light) for failure with this plant.

It seems to be very resistant to insects and diseases, so no worries there.

Normal home temperatures are fine. Stevia prefers a fairly humid atmosphere, but will survive dry indoor air. Just about any fertilizer will do: apply it during the spring and summer months.

Repot annually, as the plant does spread through offsets and will eventually fill its pot. When you find yourself needing to water more than once a week, you can be sure your plant needs more root room.

Propagation

Stevia is not a long-lived plant and diminishes in quality after two or three years, after which time it’s best to start new ones.

Rooting stem cuttings is the easiest way of multiplying stevia. Photo: Stephen Nellas

And taking stem cuttings is probably the best way to go. This can be done at any season, but most gardeners will probably root stems from garden plants in early fall in order to bring young plants indoors for the winter. Apply a touch of rooting hormone to the cut stem and root the cuttings in ordinary potting mix kept slightly moist under clear plastic dome or inside a clear plastic bag. You can also root stevia in water, but then its long-term success rate is much lower.

Alternatively, you can also divide mature plants and pot up the divisions.

As for growing it from seed, well…

Stevia seeds can be hard to find and are definitely a challenge to germinate. Photo: http://www.exportersindia.com

First, you probably won’t be able to grow stevia from seed you harvested yourself. Cross-pollination is necessary for the flowers to produce seeds, so you’d need two different clones … and most nurseries sell cutting-grown plants that are all identical. Also, in most climates, your plants will be indoors at blooming time (October through December in the Northern Hemisphere), so pollinating insects won’t reach them. Thus, seed production isn’t too likely.

Secondly, commercially produced seed, while sometimes available, is very hard to germinate. Stevia is probably in fact among the most difficult herbs to grow from seed. Try sowing the seeds on the surface of a damp, sterile seed mix. Press lightly, but don’t cover with mix. Do cover the tray with a clear plastic dome. Bottom heat is essential: use a heat mat. And expose the tray to light, also needed for germination. 

Even under those conditions, expect only a minority of seeds to sprout.

So… I suggest reconsidering starting plants from seed: cuttings or division really are the ways to go.

Harvest

Harvesting stevia. Photo: http://www.healthyfoodhouse.com

You can harvest and use leaves at any time for fresh eating, but the taste is most concentrated in autumn, just before the plant blooms. If you are growing stevia with the intention of drying it (which concentrates the sweetness even more and makes it possible to store it), fall would be the logical season to do so.

The easiest way to harvest stevia is to cut off a few stems, leaving about 10 cm (4 inches) at the base so it can grow back, then strip off the leaves. The soft stem tip is also edible. 

Using Stevia

Stevia can be used in almost any recipe that needs a touch of sugar. Photo: Lilgrandma likes, pinterest.ca

I’m more a gardener than a cook, so make only a limited use of stevia leaves. Most often, I eat it fresh, as a snack, often with my grandkids. I’ve told them it’s called “sweet leaf” and they really bought into that. I haven’t yet convinced them that it replaces dessert, but I’m working on it.

Of course, stevia can be used much more widely than that. It’s popular as a replacement for sugar in tea, coffee, lemonade and other drinks, you can sprinkle it on hot and cold cereals or add it to smoothies and yoghurt. It’s also used in baking of all kinds: 1 teaspoon of dried crushed Stevia leaves equals about 1 cup of sugar. However, you’ll have to seriously modify any favorite recipes, as stevia may replace sugar’s sweetness, but it can’t replace its volume and texture.

Besides being very sweet, stevia leaves do have a slight aftertaste, rather like licorice, a flavor that has been removed from commercial concentrates. Some cultivars with a reduced aftertaste, like ‘Sweetie Star’, are available. Check with a local herb grower for their recommendation.


As Splenda suggests, stevia is certainly “the sweetest thing you COULD grow,” but I disagree with the company in one regard: I think you SHOULD grow it. But still, thanks so much to Splenda for the amusing commercial! 

Edible Houseplants

Standard

 

Coffee fruit - Coffea arabica

A coffee plant (Coffea arabica) will produce it’s colorful “cherries” indoors.

Question: Are there any houseplants that are both edible and attractive?

Clecio Turgeon

Answer: There are many tropical plants that are both easy to grow indoors and give us something to nibble on or to add to our recipes… but you won’t find many among the most common houseplants we grow. Most “everyday houseplants” are either not considered edible or are even poisonous. The latter group includes such popular plants as philodendrons, dieffenbachias, oleanders and most euphorbias. You don’t want to eat those!

What follows is a description of some the more interesting edible houseplants.

 

A Growing microgreens on plastic white cup

Micro-greens aren’t really houseplants.

Plants Dropped From the List

I eliminated from the get-go certain plants that I just don’t consider to be houseplants. For example, I didn’t include most of the herbs brought indoors in the fall to grow over the winter, as in my opinion they are not really houseplants and in fact really struggle to survive indoors. You really couldn’t grow them indoors all year.

Nor did I include herbs and vegetables that are sown indoors with a view towards a quick harvest of fresh foliage: sprouts, micro-greens and baby vegetables, for example. Again, in my book, they may be indoor edibles, but they’re not really houseplants. Likewise rooted carrot tops, sprouted sweet potatoes or celery bases sitting in water. They just aren’t houseplants to me.

There are also a few poisonous plants that are edible only after they’re given some kind of special treatment, like cooking, soaking, pounding or being reduced into powder, such as taro (Calocasia esculenta) and variegated manioc (Manihot esculenta ‘Variegata’). I didn’t think it was a good idea to include potentially dangerous plants in a list of edible houseplants, as some readers might skip the “fine print”.


Everyday Houseplants That Are Edible

Here are the few common houseplants, ones readily found in almost any garden center, that just happen to be edible.

20170115g

Calamondin orange (X Citrofortunella microcarpa)

Calamondin Orange (X Citrofortunella microcarpa, syn. X C. mitis)
This is the only citrus commonly offered as a houseplant. It is inevitably already in fruit when you buy it and you just need to give it good conditions (especially, strong light) for it to continue it bloom and produce abundantly. The fruits are very bitter, but they can be used in cooking, especially in the preparation of marmalades. For suggestions of other less widely available indoor citruses, see Indoor Fruits below.

Chinese Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis)
The flowers are edible and often used in herbal tea. Here’s an article about this plant: The Secrets to Growing a Hibiscus Indoors.

Coffee (Coffea arabica)
Young coffee plants, usually scarcely more than seedlings, can easily be found on the market, but may be 2 or 3 years from blooming… and 5 to 6 years before producing enough beans to make a cup of coffee. Occasionally you find more mature plants already producing their highly perfumed white flowers.

You can actually eat the sweet flesh of the coffee “cherries” that follow or simply clean, roast and grind up the “beans” (seeds) to make a delicious drink.

20170127f

False shamrock (Oxalis triangularis)

False Shamrock (Oxalis triangularis, syn. O. regnellii)
The leaves of this popular houseplant can be purple or green, with or without a silvery or pink marking… and they are quite edible, with a sweet/sour taste. This comes from the oxalic acid they contain. However, oxalic acid becomes toxic if eaten raw in large quantities, so moderate your use. Or cook the leaves before use. Just to reassure you, remember that spinach, which we routinely eat, also contains oxalic acid and is also toxic if eaten raw in excessive quantities. As they say, the poison is in the dose: eating a few leaves will not harm you.

Ornamental Pepper (Capiscum annuum and others)
All peppers are edible, even the ones sold as ornamental plants. Be forewarned though that ornamental peppers are hot peppers, indeed, very hot peppers, generally stronger then jalapeños.

You may sometimes see them bearing the label “unfit for human consumption”, though. Why is that? It’s not because the fruit itself is poisonous, but because it was treated with an insecticide that is potentially harmful to humans. Organic gardeners will consider the fruits spoiled for life; others can wait a few weeks, then rinse the fruits before eating them. Both can harvest the seeds and grow them to produce fruits totally safe to eat in the second generation.

20170127c

Ornamental pineapple (Ananas comosus cv)

Pineapple (Ananas comosus)
There are several varieties of ornamental pineapple, for example with reddish foliage, variegated leaves, colored fruit, etc. And all produce fruits which, although they’re often smaller than commercially grown pineapples, are still edible.

Besides ornamental varieties of pineapple, you can also buy a fresh pineapple and root its crown. And yes, it will eventually produce an edible fruit.

20170127d

Lemony rose scented geranium (Pelargonium graveolens ‘Lady Plymouth’)

Scented Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens and others)
There are a multitude of varieties of scented geranium with an incredible array of scents: lemon, rose, coconut, apple. peach, strawberry, cloves, etc. In addition to rubbing the foliage to release their scent, you can use their leaves in cooking to impart a delicious aroma to your meal. Richters (Canada) offers an especially wide choice: more than 70 varieties of these highly perfumed plants!

20170127e

Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa)

Swiss Cheese Plant or Monstera (Monstera deliciosa)
Often mistaken for a philodendron (which is a close relative), the monstera, with its huge, deeply-cut leaves, certainly makes an impressive houseplant. When it reaches maturity, which can take many years, it will flower indoors, producing a white inflorescence recalling a calla lily. And the flower is followed by a sweet-tasting fruit, which is the reason for the botanical epithet deliciosa. The fruit can take 11 to 12 months to mature, and doesn’t change color too visibly at maturity. So how do you know it’s ripe? When the green scales that cover it begin to drop off, it’s ready to eat.

Note that the entire plant, from its roots to its leaves to its immature fruits, is toxic. Only the mature fruit is edible.

Tea Plant (Camellia sinensis)
Yes, tea plants. although not yet as common as the other everyday houseplants presented here, are found more and more often in garden centers. Here is an article about how to grow one: Homegrown Tea in Your Teapot.


Indoor Fruits

There are hundreds of different tropical fruit trees, all of which could theoretically be grown indoors, but most won’t produce for decades, will become too large to make good houseplants or require really extreme growing conditions. Since they are unlikely to ever produce fruit in your home, I excluded them from my list.

In this group of “forbidden fruits”, you’ll find most of the tropical fruits that can be grown from seeds or pits harvested from the fruits you buy, such as avocados (Persea americana), mangos (Mangifera indica), and papayas (Papaya carica). Of course, if you look hard enough, you may be able to find dwarf varieties of these plants that will produce fruits indoors, but otherwise its best to consider most tropical fruits you grow from seed simply as foliage plants!

What follows are a few fruiting plants that are more suitable for growing in our homes and that really do make good edible houseplants.

20170127g

Barbados cherry (Malphigia glabra)

Barbados Cherry (Malpighia glabra)
Pretty pink flowers, bright red cherrylike fruits on a small shrub that fits neatly into most home decors. What’s not to like?

Cacao Tree (Theobroma cacao)

A challenge to grow and not readily found on the market, a cacao tree can still produce cacao beans at home… if you turn your home into a hot and humid jungle year round.

20170127h

Key lime (Citrusaurantiifolia) makes an easy-to-grow indoor citrus.

Citrus (Citrus spp., Microcitrus australasica and Fortunella spp.)
As mentioned in the article A Lemon or Orange Tree From Seed?, real lemon trees, orange trees, grapefruit trees, etc. are simply too large and too slow to produce to make good indoor fruit trees, unless you can find grafted dwarf varieties.

Other lesser-known citrus fruits, faster in growth and of a naturally smaller size, make much better indoor plants. This is particularly the case for the Meyer lemon (Citrus x meyeri) which, despite its name, is not a real lemon, the Key lime (C. x aurantiifolia) and the Australian finger lime (Microcitrus australasica). You can sow any one of these and have fruit 2 years later!

Kumquats (Fortunella spp.) too make excellent indoor fruit trees.

Common Fig (Ficus carica)
It prefers to pass its summer outdoors… and has the bad habit of losing most of its leaves during the winter, leading to a rather stark appearance, but the fig tree still quite readily produces figs indoors. Moreover, its foliage is edible too.

20170127i

Dwarf banana

Dwarf Banana (Musa spp.)
Even a dwarf banana tree takes up a lot of space indoors (among the smallest cultivars are ‘Super Dwarf Cavendish’ and ‘Truly Tiny’) and also require a lot of heat, humidity and sun to produce fruit. Plus they may take years to produce bananas, but still, most will eventually do so if your conditions are right.

The pink banana (Musa velutina), with pink flowers and fruits, is another small-size edible banana you might like to try, but you’ll have to eat around its large seeds.

20170127j

Dwarf pomegranate (Punica granatum ‘Nana’)

Dwarf Pomegranate (Punica granatum ‘Nana’)
This is a miniature version of the rather large pomegranate tree whose fruits are found in the supermarket. It forms a small to medium-sized shrub with orange flowers that will readily produce small but nevertheless edible fruits indoors. Even if you grow it from seed (it comes true to type), it will bear blooms and fruits in only a few years.

Natal Plum (Carissa macrocarpa)

This small thorny shrub with shiny leaves makes a good houseplant and readily produces white flowers and edible red fruits. It is sometimes used as bonsai. Both the stem and leaves, and even the sap, are poisonous. Only the ripe fruit is edible.

20170127k

Passionfruit (Passiflora edulis)

Passionfruit (Passiflora edulis)
This vigorous climber will need a good trellis, but can produce its white flowers with a purple halo and its purple or yellow fruits (the color depends on the cultivar chosen) in a sunny spot indoors. There are plenty of other species of passionfruit that do well indoors, but only a few produce edible fruit.

Pitahaya or Dragon Fruit (Hylocereus undatus, H. polyrhizus, H. megalanthus and others)
These climbing cacti take up a lot of space, but bloom fairly easily when they reach maturity (after 5 or 6 years), producing enormous white fragrant nocturnal flowers followed by large red or yellow fruits with white flesh that is dotted with tiny black seeds. This is a good example of a plant you can grow to fruiting size from seeds harvested from fruit purchased in the supermarket. You just have to be patient!

20170127l

Fishbone cactus (Epiphyllum anguliger)

I grow a smaller and closely related cactus, the fishbone cactus (Epiphyllum anguliger), with hanging flattened zigzag stems whose very fragrant nocturnal white flowers often give small edible green fruits… but it’s difficult to judge when they are ripe. It too takes years to begin to bloom, but once it starts, it will faithfully continue to do so.

Pixie Grape (Vitis x Pixie® Pinot Meunier)

A dwarf mutation of the Pinot Meunier grape vine which produces fruit all year on a small plant… and its leaves are edible too. It can be grown as a houseplant, but is also hardy outdoors.

20170127m

Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa)

Roselle (Hibiscus sabadariffa)
This shrub with small yellow hibiscus flowers grows quickly from seed. In fact, you can treat is an annual if you wish. It produces red fruits often used in drinks and jellies.


Indoor Herbs and Spices

Herbs and spices flavor our meals and often have medicinal uses as well. I limited the choice here to varieties that really make decent houseplants.

Bayleaf (Laurus nobilis)
In my opinion, this is the only “classic” herb that grows well enough indoors to make a good houseplant. It will grow indoors for years, eventually forming a tall shrub if you don’t prune it. The leaves can simply be plucked and used fresh as needed.

Black Pepper (Piper nigrum)
This climbing plant produces smooth shiny leaves and long spikes of green berries that turn red at maturity and is not difficult to grow indoors if you can offer good humidity. The berries give black, white or red pepper, depending on the treatment you give them.

20170127n

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
You can readily grow ginger from rhizomes purchased locally. Beware though that the rhizomes offered in many supermarkets were treated chemically or irradiated in order prevent them from sprouting. There is no use planting those! You need live rhizomes, with buds indicating they are ready to sprout. An Asian supermarket should have some.

Just push a section of rhizome into a pot of growing mix and water: a green rather bamboolike plant will soon start to sprout. Over time, the rhizome will spread and you can then harvest and eat any surplus. Don’t expect this plant to flower indoors, though: it almost never does.

Other spices in the ginger family also produce edible rhizomes and likewise make excellent houseplants: galanga (Alpinia galanga), turmeric (Cucurma longa) and cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) are only a few examples.

20170127p

Society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea)

Society Garlic (Tulbaghia violacea)
This is a bulbous plant with grasslike leaves and small pink trumpet flowers. The whole plant smells like garlic. If you use the edible leaves and flowers in your cooking, they’ll give the meal a garlicky scent, but without the bad breath that follows eating real garlic. The name society garlic come from the idea that you could safely eat it before attending polite society functions.

20170127o

The variegated forme of Spanish thyme (Plectranthus amboinicus ‘Variegatus’) is probably more popular than the species.

Spanish Thyme or Cuban oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus)
This plant is neither a thyme (Thymus spp.) nor an oregano (Origanum spp.), but rather a tropical plant closely related to the coleus (Plectranthus scutellaroides, syn Solenostemon scutellarioides and Coleus blumei). It’s a very popular herb in tropical countries where its thick leaves lend taste of oregano to cooked dishes. It’s very easy to grow.

Stevia or Sweetleaf (Stevia rebaudiana)
Increasingly popular for its sweet leaves that give dishes a sugary flavor without adding calories… and it makes a decent houseplant.


Indoor Vegetables

There aren’t many plants you could call vegetables that also make good houseplants. I could only think of the following two:

20170127q

Malabar spinach (Basel alba ‘Rubra’)

Malabar Spinach (Basella alba)
An ornamental climber with mucilaginous leaves used to replace spinach, Malabar spinach is often grown in hot climates where real spinach doesn’t grow well. The species itself produces green stems and white flowers, but B. alba ‘Rubra’, perhaps even more commonly grown, has reddish stems and pink flowers. Both are very easy to grow.

20170127r

Spineless nopal (Opuntia ficus-indica ‘Burbank Spineless’)

Nopal or Barbary Fig (Opuntia ficus-indica and others)
Many different opuntias are used as nopals, but Barbary fig is the most common one. This cactus with flattened pads does produce edible fruits called Barbary figs when grown outdoors in a hot, dry climate, but indoors it rarely blooms, let alone produces fruit. It made it onto my “edible houseplant list” by virtue of its edible pads.

Nopal is the name commonly used in Mexico for the pads treated as a vegetable. You’ll probably need several plants if you want to start harvest nopals, as the plant is very slow growing. You have to singe off the spines before you eat the pads… or use spineless (or nearly spineless) cultivars like ‘Burbank Spineless’.

This plant will need full sun to do well indoors. And yes, you can root a pad from the grocery store to start a new plant.

Where to Find Edible Houseplants?

Many of the plants above are not found in just any garden center, so here are few places where you might want to look for them on the Web.

For herbs and species, try Richters, a Canadian company that ships to the US and probably offers more choices of herbs than any other.

For unusual fruits and vegetables, try Flora Exotica, also a Canadian company that ships to the US, while Top Tropicals is an American company that ships to Canada and many other countries worldwide. Logee’s, in the US, is a good source for American readers, but no longer ships to Canada.

For European readers, try AlsaPlants. If you know of any other good mail-order sources of indoor edibles in Europe, let me know and I’ll add them to this text.

Bon appétit!

Grow Stevia for Sweet Results!

Standard

20161122a

Stevia or sweetleaf (Stevia rebaudiana).

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

20161122b

Stevia grown in a pot.

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.

20161122c

Stevia flowers.

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.

Problems?

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.

Sweet Harvest

20161122d

Dried stevia leaves.

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!20161122a